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Forest conservation efforts in Peru are failing across the board, study says

  • Forest conservation initiatives in Peru in the past decades have had little to no effect, as deforestation continues to skyrocket in the country, according to a new study by the International Forestry Research Center, CIFOR.
  • Peru has attracted millions of dollars in forest conservation initiatives and has 254 public and private parks and protected areas, yet deforestation has been rising steadily since 2001 by more than 326,000 acres per year. In 2020, forest loss peaked, reaching 502,000 acres of tropical forest, the equivalent of 379 football fields.
  • CIFOR’s research includes a literature review of 17 studies evaluating the impact of conservation initiatives in the country over the years. REDD+ mechanisms consistently performed poorly, having the least effect both on forest cover and community economic situations.
  • Researchers call for strengthening government agencies and creating a better dialogue with academics who are studying and monitoring conservation mechanisms and their impacts.

Peru has attracted millions of dollars in forest conservation projects over the years, has a series of international agreements and targets to protect forests and has 254 public and private parks and protected areas — but these mechanisms have had little to no effect as deforestation skyrockets in the country, says a new study.

Peru, which has the second-biggest share of the Amazon Rainforest after Brazil, has lost an average of more than 326,000 acres of forest per year since 2001. This spiked in 2020 when it lost nearly 502,000 acres — the equivalent of almost 379 football fields. The new study by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) says conservation mechanisms in Peru have had at best a moderate effect on forest loss, but in many cases, haven’t had any effect at all. The impact on the well-being of the communities involved has ranged from positive to negative, according to the research.

Conservation efforts have not managed to halt forest loss across Peru, new research shows. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“Across the region, I would say that given the high pressures to convert forestland into more agricultural land, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could have found the same in similar Amazon Basin countries,” says Manuel Guariguata, one of the study authors and a specialist in tropical forest ecology and forest management who works with CIFOR.

This forest loss accounts for most of the country’s gross and net greenhouse gas emissions, as CO2 is emitted through the cutting of trees. The most recent national inventory report shows that 45% of net GHG emissions correspond to land use change and forestry sectors.

Researchers identify a variety of reasons why conservation projects haven’t been successful. These include flaws in the program designs, failure to deliver on benefits promised to communities that end up deterring locals from participating in conservation, or the location of projects in remote areas facing little risk of deforestation.

Renzo Giudice, a senior researcher at the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, who also co-authored the study, says their motivation for writing the paper wasn’t to dismiss conservation projects altogether, but for policymakers and NGOs that implement these mechanisms to think about what could be improved to be more effective and why it’s important to evaluate these programs before they are implemented.

What works and what doesn’t?

The report set out to analyze the scientific studies that have already been published about conservation initiatives in Peru, specifically in the Amazon Rainforest. A literature search turned up 17 impact studies, which include previous reports by both CIFOR and Giudice, with a focus on three main types of conservation initiatives: disincentive mechanisms, like sanctions for cutting down trees; incentive mechanisms, like REDD+ programs or incentives to local communities; and what the study calls enabling measures, like national parks and protected areas that create a context to enable meeting conservation objectives.

Assessing the success of conservation projects should involve looking at how the risk of deforestation has changed before and after implementing initiatives to protect ecosystems, the study’s authors say. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

There are several successful conservation mechanisms in the country, particularly REDD+ programs, which the government is “working to strengthen,” Ministry of Environment experts tell Mongabay via email.

Since 1999, the state has also developed several naturally protected areas, using expert advice to choose priority regions for conserving biological diversity, ministry experts say. These areas are also monitored by the Ministry of Environment, which reports that to date an average of 96.4% are in good conservation status. The ministry cited the example of the Cordillera Azul National Park in the Amazon biome, where the loss of 64,000 hectares (about 158,000 acres) of Amazon forests has been avoided over the last 10 years, since the creation of the park.

But Guariguata says he is skeptical that conservation should be evaluated based on maintaining high biodiversity areas alone. Rather, it’s important these evaluations include whether the area had a high deforestation risk before the creation of the park or protected area, which, he says, can really help determine whether conservation is successful or not. In the case of the studies they analyzed, many of them were not.

Some studies also evaluated the socioeconomic impacts on local communities in or near the conservation area, as many conservation projects aim to better the lives of local communities either by small payments for forest protection or creating opportunities for the expansion of ecotourism and other infrastructure. But according to CIFOR’s study, there was little or no change in communities’ economic conditions in the conservation projects they analyzed.

Giudice says it’s hard to directly compare studies or conservation mechanisms, as each one measures different variables and outcomes. But at least one study shows positive results that are worth paying attention to, he says. In a 2016 paper by David Solis, researchers evaluated whether regular monitoring of timber concessions by Peru’s forestry and wildlife supervision agency, OSINFOR, would impact illegal logging activity. According to OSINFOR, a common scam with forestry concessionaires is to inflate the amount of legal timber in their logging registries in order to gain access to transportation, which is then used to transport illegal timber taken from unauthorized areas, such as protected areas, the study shows.

But according to Solís’ findings, in areas where OSINFOR regularly conducted field supervisions in concession areas, illegal logging decreased on average between 1,574 and 1,885 cubic meters (about 55,585 and 66,570 cubic feet).

Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“We have this paper which found that this was working. We should encourage this to be done more rigorously, and professionally, more often,” says Giudice.

“We need more of this research, constantly monitoring what’s going on,” he adds.

Controversy over REDD+ continues

Among all the case studies that CIFOR analyzed, REDD+ mechanisms consistently performed poorly, having the least effect both on forest cover and community economic situations, say the researchers. REDD+, a global carbon offset program initiated by the United Nations, has promised to decrease human impact on and increase forest cover in developing countries. But the program has long been controversial, with many conservationists saying it has not accomplished what it promises.

The CIFOR study analyzes several reports that evaluated REDD+ programs and add to this criticism. One study looks at a REDD+ project implemented in Brazil nut concessions in Madre de Dios in Peru’s southeastern Amazon. Using remote sensing and household surveys of 197 concessionaires, they found the REDD+ program had insignificant effects on deforestation and forest degradation between 2012 and 2018. Most REDD+ participants also reported that their well-being was actually reduced, as they reported consistent delays in cash incentive payments and other benefits not being aligned with their needs, says the study.

“Definitely the REDD+ projects are clearly not achieving what they are claiming that they have been claiming, and that’s something to look into in more detail,” says Giudice.

Roberto Espinoza, sociologist and consultant with Peru’s Indigenous Amazonian association AIDESEP, says REDD+ programs have long had mixed impacts on Indigenous communities in the rainforest. Espinoza, who has been working with Indigenous communities in Peru’s Amazon for more than 35 years, says there have been many reports of REDD+ compensation not arriving on time or communities not being paid adequately for their conservation work that often involves risking their lives to confront narcotraffickers or illegal miners. Often NGOs that facilitate the implementation of the REDD+ programs keep a large portion of the REDD+ funds for their own operating costs and are not transparent with local communities, he says.

But Espinoza adds that not all incentive programs have had a negative impact on Indigenous communities. The CIFOR study, he says, was overly critical of government incentive programs like conditional direct transfers (TDCs by its Spanish acronym), which were implemented by the Peruvian government in 2011 to directly pay communities for conserving forests. The CIFOR study finds that — similarly to the REDD+ programs — TDCs have not met their overall objectives of reducing poverty or protecting forest cover.

Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Though the TDC program may not be perfect, its importance shouldn’t be overlooked, says Espinoza. This is the first time the state is paying Indigenous communities directly, without third party intermediaries, like NGOs, controlling finances. It’s also the first time the Peruvian state is giving incentives to conserve, rather than merely extract, resources from the rainforest for financial gain, he says.

“The CIFOR text minimizes [TDCs] a little bit, it reduces the impact and I think that is a mistake. But also, another error is to exaggerate it,” says Espinoza, “But we have to continue with the process because it is the first time that the state, from its own public budget not from international cooperation, has done it [paid communities for conservation].”

Where to go from here?

Francisco Román-Dañobeytia, ecologist and research manager with the climate tech company Viridis Terra, says he completely agrees that forest conservation programs in Peru have largely failed.

Román-Dañobeytia has been working in conservation in Peru’s Amazon for more than 15 years, including with various NGOs, and says the current model of conservation — usually implemented by governments and NGO’s using global funds — is not sustainable. In many cases, this money is lost in administrative duties, never reaching the work in the field. The only way forward, he says, is to integrate conservation initiatives in the market, which could include directly paying for conservation services or forest products from conserved or reforested areas in prices dictated by the market, not incentive mechanisms.

“The loss of forests continues to increase, so something is not right. … For me it’s the approach,” Román-Dañobeytia tells Mongabay via telephone from Peru, adding that market forces could be more open and transparent. Guariguata says there are many “chronic problems” with the dynamics of conservation that need to be addressed for these programs to be more successful. These include weak government forest monitoring systems and lack of communication between the academics who research and evaluate conservation programs and the government agencies implementing them. But for him, the solution lies in strengthening government agencies and inserting well-trained researchers into these positions.

Peru’s Ministry of Environment says deforestation is a complex and multicausal problem with environmental, but also social and economic, implications for the country. The problem requires a “multi-sectoral, multi-level and multi-stakeholder approach, given that deforestation is not a problem that can be solved by a single sector or level of government,” they say via email.

“I think that the overall intention of maintaining forests, it’s there. What we need is to really be more critical and reflect on … what has worked and what has not and why,” says Guariguata.

Giudice, R , & Guariguata, MR. (2023) Las iniciativas de conservación de bosques en el Perú: Un análisis retrospectivo de su efectividad y una mirada al futuro. Documentos Ocasionales 240. Bogor, Indonesia: CIFOR.

Montoya-Zumaeta, J. G., Wunder, S., Rojas, E., & Duchelle, A. E. (2022). Does REDD+ complement law enforcement? Evaluating impacts of an incipient initiative in Madre de Dios, Peru. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 5. doi:10.3389/ffgc.2022.870450

Banner image: Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler

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