Deforestation: ‘We cannot continue to just demonstrate, we’ve got to act’

16 Sep 2019

Marie-Noëlle Keijzer. Image: WeForest

In the face of worsening deforestation across the world, WeForest CEO Marie-Noëlle Keijzer is calling for urgent action from people and governments.

At the 2014 UN Climate Summit, the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) aimed to halve deforestation by 2020 and halt it by 2030. Mere months away from that first deadline and a report issued this week finds that the pledge has failed the world’s forests.

Charlotte Streck, co-founder and director of Climate Focus, which co-ordinated the publication of the report, said that, since the NYDF: “Deforestation has not only continued – it has actually accelerated.”

‘People are not in denial anymore. They just know now. So they’re looking for solutions’

The NYDF is a voluntary agreement endorsed by almost 200 entities, including governments, large multinational companies and NGOs. Though legally non-binding, the agreement to halt global deforestation is critical in mitigating the climate crisis.

“Halting deforestation and restoring tropical forests, for example, could provide up to 30pc of the mitigation required to help meet the Paris Agreement,” forestry technical adviser Eszter Wainwright-Deri explained to the BBC.

From Amazon reaction to action

WWF has dubbed the Amazon the “biggest deforestation front in the world” and the crisis there has been exasperated by a spike in forest fires raging through the region this year.

The shock and terror of seeing one of the planet’s most valuable carbon sinks up in flames was a wake-up call heard around the world. WeForest, an international non-profit dedicated to reforestation, saw how this reaction turned into action and support for its cause.

When I spoke to WeForest CEO Marie-Noëlle Keijzer last week, she had already checked in with colleagues at other NGOs to see if they are seeing the same trend of surging interest in donations and investments, and it is indeed happening across many projects. “It’s quite amazing, what’s happening,” she said.

“There’s a few triggers, like the climate crisis is getting so bad – the droughts that we have in continental Europe, the extreme summers that we have, the heatwaves that we’ve had – all of this adds up to people who are not in denial anymore. They just know now. So they’re looking for solutions,” she explained.

‘The trees that are burning that we’re losing are worth so much more than the new ones we can plant’

Once a high-profile director at an automation technology company, coordinating logistics in 27 countries, Keijzer left this life behind to found WeForest along with Australian entrepreneur Bill Liao. As well as bringing decades of experience in supply chain, CSR and business transformation to her role as CEO, Keijzer has a master’s degree in environmental science and is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Since 2009, WeForest has mobilised companies ranging from start-ups to large multinationals to engage in restoring the world’s forests. Building on these corporate and scientific partnerships, the organisation helps communities find sustainable, scalable and lasting solutions to restore forest landscapes.

WeForest currently has eight active projects around the world and, guided by the outpouring of donations and requests to help, the NGO also set up an emergency fund for the Amazon fires. Presently, this fund is supporting firefighters, renting trucks and providing training, and Keijzer said it could be next year before restoration work begins.

“It’s absurd to just talk about reforestation if you’re not stopping the current fires. The trees that are burning that we’re losing are worth so much more than the new ones we can plant, for which we’ll have to wait 10 or 20 years or more to have any real value because it takes time,” she said.

Ethiopia’s green strategy

As well as spurring support for environmental NGOs, the Amazon fires also prompted criticism of the Brazilian government for its handling of the situation. The behaviour of president Jair Bolsonaro in the face of an environmental crisis ravaging his country is in direct contrast to those Keijzer said have been instrumental in effecting change elsewhere.

In Ethiopia, for example, a record-breaking initiative to plant 350m trees in one day was just one part of a broader campaign led by prime minister Abiy Ahmed, and government employees were among the busy planters.

WeForest was one of a number of NGOs helping to achieve this ambitious goal and has a number of active projects in Ethiopia – a country that, from 2001 to 2018, lost 384 kilohectares of tree cover.

Political action was also highlighted by the NYDF progress report as a significant contributing factor to forest recovery and Keijzer said it is “super important”.

“It’s absolutely key because not only do we want them to restore forest and plant trees, almost as important for us is a policy where they would have very strict rules and clear ownership of land,” she explained.

“The policy in Ethiopia is very strict. If you cut the trees in a national forest or in a protected area, then you’re in trouble, which is good. That’s what we need. Because otherwise you’re doing all that work for nothing and we’re going back to square one.”

Not only does reforestation address climate concerns, it also has a huge social impact.

“It’s the long term that we care for,” said Keijzer. “It doesn’t make any difference if you plant trees because if it’s cut in one or two years then you’re wasting your time and money. So what we need is to grow the trees and to grow the forest so that they can absorb carbon over time and cool the planet. And so that they can restore the water cycle so that we can cool the planet. And so that they can regenerate soils, enrich biodiversity and help people have a good living.”

What WeForest is doing in Ethiopia, and through other projects, is much more than planting trees. They are providing jobs to local people, giving them a way to make a living, creating new economies. “Besides the planting and caring for the trees, we’re developing a whole set of livelihood activities in order to make sure they don’t need, in the future, to cut the trees to have firewood or to cut the trees to sell and have some money,” said Keijzer.

This involves employing people to protect and care for trees but also providing alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping to communities. To ensure these solutions are sustainable, WeForest must fit them to the culture and environment they are working with. “It’s not just good enough to feed people, you need to bring them dignity. You need to bring them hope.”

No time to waste

I wonder, then, in the face of a deepening climate crisis, if Keijzer herself has hope and the ability to remain optimistic.

“I think, while you are in action, when you do things, you can only be hopeful,” she said. “When you see how thankful the people are, how big a difference it makes in their lives, then you are thankful.”

While seeing the direct impact of their work gives the WeForest team the energy to persevere, Keijzer warned that there is no time to waste when it comes to climate action.

“We cannot continue to just demonstrate, we’ve got to act,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful everybody demonstrating and striking and whatever, but it doesn’t bring the solutions.”

These solutions include, of course, reforestation, but also reducing our carbon footprint. “Everybody needs to be responsible for that,” Keijzer said.

While she is encouraged by actions being taken worldwide, she stressed the urgency. “We need it much faster. And the problem is we need the governments’ help in order to access that and get the policy, as we discussed before, because we cannot do that alone,” she said.

“NGOs do a lot of work, but we can’t resolve everything.”

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Disclosure: Bill Liao is a venture partner with SOSV, which is an investor in Silicon Republic.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.