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Biodiversity and local communities

The Luangwa Community Forests Project aims to protect the region's threatened biodiversity and the precious natural habitats.

by Hassan Sachedina & Kerry Hancock
07 February 2020
10 min read
byHassan Sachedina & Kerry Hancock
07 February 2020
10 min read

Protecting forests improves the living conditions of communities

The Luangwa Community Forests Project aims to protect the region's threatened biodiversity and the precious natural habitats and migration corridors of animals along the Zambesi, while improving the living conditions of local communities

Forests, through their rich biodiversity, provide benefits to communities whose livelihoods depend on them. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets accept that reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) provides a positive mitigation strategy for climate change. Additionally, conservation and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks create mechanisms for payments to developing countries.

Deforestation and forest degradation account for an estimated 15% of the world´s CO2 emissions and are a significant contributor to climate change. Zambia has the highest level of deforestation by landcover in Africa per year and loses just under 300,000 hectares of trees to unsustainable farming techniques and charcoal production annually. Deforestation in Zambia further exacerbates the loss of already threatened biodiversity and wildlife species. Recent UN reports highlight that one million species of wildlife and one third of tropical African plants face extinction, in large part due to deforestation and climate change.

Founded in 2012, BioCarbon Partners (BCP)´s mission is to make conservation of wildlife habitat valuable to people.  Under the UN REDD+ framework, BCP develops forest carbon offset projects in areas of global biodiversity significance. The business model works with community and government partners to protect forests by investing in communities, forest management and carbon science.  Projects are verified by international standards to produce carbon credits that can be sold to bring livelihood benefits to the local communities by protecting forests, valuable habitat and migration corridors.

Establishing the LCFP

In 2013, BCP started work on the Luangwa Community Forests Project (LCFP) in Zambia’s iconic Lower Zambezi and Luangwa ecosystems. The LCFP was designed to support the Government of Republic of Zambia's (GRZ) REDD+ Strategy by establishing the largest program to date.  Fast forward almost seven years and the LCFP supports forest co-management across 950,000 hectares and deforestation mitigation activities that brings the total to one million hectares, management that benefits 13,000 households over an area of 20,000 sq. km. By protecting close to one million hectares of forest, the 30-year LCFP has been verified as Africa’s largest REDD+ project by hectarage. It also has been validated to CCB (Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards) “triple gold” for exceptional social impacts illustrating that with scale quality does not need to suffer. The LCFP works to address key drivers of deforestation through targeting the SDGs and poverty reduction, sustainable incomes, improving social services and encouraging conservation by protecting critical areas of the Luangwa Valley ecosystem. In total, 80,000 people benefit from the project activities. The LCFP is designed to yield transformational social and environmental returns in an area of global biodiversity value. Without the LCFP and carbon finance, this area would have limited economic prospects.

The Luangwa: One of the last biodiversity strongholds on earth

The LCFP links five national parks and two trans-frontier conservation areas linking Zambia, Zimbabwe Mozambique and Malawi.  This area has significant importance for tourism revenue development as Zambia’s most visited park is South Luangwa. However, the last forests in Eastern Zambia are under siege from a wave of deforestation approaching on both valley sides.  The LCFP protects important buffers and wildlife dispersal areas around the parks in game management areas and is becoming one of the largest biodiversity corridors in Africa.

Community Partnership

The goal of the LCFP was to establish a community-based REDD+ project to improve natural resources management, particularly forests, through joint management, increased capacities, and improved livelihoods for forest dependent communities.

The development of large-scale community based REDD+ projects involves many steps, from identifying potential REDD+ conservation areas with communities and Government, designing Zambia-specific and effective Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) processes that meet the local and international standards for community engagement, developing and negotiating 30-year community agreements that commit each party to their responsibilities and define benefit sharing, developing community organizational capacity to equitably and transparently manage carbon revenues and community development projects, developing community capacity to protect and conserve community forest assets, helping to develop and implement an enabling legal framework in a globally new sector to catalyze the first communities in Zambia to be transferred carbon rights, and finally, establishing audits and verifications by an independent auditor that will lead to the final approval and verification of carbon offsets for sale by VCS to sustain project activities.

The LCFP partners with 12 chiefdoms through whom Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) to establish REDD+ areas on their land required extensive engagement with communities and other stakeholders is an ongoing process.  Eastern Zambia has one of the highest prevalence of rural poverty in Zambia.  In these food-insecure communities prone to various shocks that could further entrench and institutionalize poverty, the development of these co-management agreements with communities is a major milestone.  To date, approximately USD 4 million has been invested in community empowerment projects and the social impact pillar of BCP’s work is fundamental to its approach.  For example, BCP became B Corp certified in 2017 and is the 5th highest scoring B Corp on earth for its social, environmental and staff benefit model.

The LCFP addresses 16 of 17 SDGs, and household incomes have been independently shown to increase 400% in communities where BCP has worked for 5 years.

Key to forest carbon project development is verification.  BCP verifies to the the Verified Carbon Standard (verra.org), considered the globally leading and most rigorous standard for the validation and verification of voluntary carbon emission reductions. A yearly VCS verification of a REDD+ project certifies that it  meets certain international standards in terms of ensuring quantifiable carbon emissions reductions and tangible community and biodiversity benefits. BCP’s first project, the Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project, was the first REDD+ project in the world to pass six successful VCS verifications and was the first project in Africa to achieve CCB triple gold validation.  LCFP, while much larger in size, is also establishing a base for exceptional climate, community and biodiversity benefits and the ability to deliver transformational land and community benefits alongside offset generation. The sustainability of these projects is dependent on the price of carbon and the sale of VCUs on the voluntary carbon market—which in turn is dependent on how the world approaches the issue of climate change over the pivotal next ten years.

Innovation

LCFP has evolved into Africa's largest REDD+ project and operates in areas with limited road networks and major river barriers. "Flying FPIC" activities, a BCP innovation, allows representatives from the 12 chiefdoms and local communities to fly over their forest resources to confirm boundaries and prevent conflicts. Flying facilitated an effective land use planning approach for a project of this scale.

As deforestation is a leading contributor to the disappearance of valuable wildlife habitat, in partnership with Oxford University affiliated NGO Lion Landscapes, LCFP is piloting a community-based biodiversity monitoring system. The area is one of Africa´s ten last lion strongholds and it also is home to leopards, hippos, wild dogs, various rare species of antelope and a population of around 16,000 elephants. The results of these surveys show that a significant wildlife recovery is underway in some areas since BCP’s work began, with an up to 300%  increase in high conservation value species within 5 years and the re-establishment of important carnivore species.

Lessons Learned

Seven years of implementation of the LCFP has led to multiple lessons. The project was technically challenging in that REDD+ is a new sector and approach to conservation finance in a country that has had little experience with climate change mitigation. Complicating this was the scale: close to one million hectares of forest, in a total footprint of two million hectares including community project zones.

Local capacity needed direct support to develop different management / support models to find one that can ensure conservation, livelihoods and governance impacts at a local level. The CFP had to invest directly in community capacity development and provide direct mentoring to help manage conservation fees.  Supporting communities to use conservation fees to implement community development projects was key. When budgets are announced, communities become focused on spending the entire budget. Balancing transparency on financial amounts available against the desire to avoid distractions based on the amount of funding available, and the need to focus on the delivery of critical community development needs, are critical for community-led decision-making and delivery of community projects.

The author: Hassan Sachedina

Hassan Sachedina is Founder and CEO of BioCarbon Partners, he is a career conservationist with 20 years plus experience. Prior to founding BCP, he was Vice President of Wildlife Works, and Partner in Conservation Capital, which catalyzed $210 million of conservation business investments globally. His scientific work has been published in Ecosystem Services, Oryx, Conservation Biology and Current Conservation.