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Involving and remunerating local communities to save the Amazon – Interview with Johan Wittkamper

Jonah Wittkamper is Co-Founder and President of NEXUS and the Global Governance Philanthropy Network as well as Founder of the Healthy Democracy Coalition and the Amazon Investor Coalition.
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This interview is part of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series with key experts in forest governance. It was developed in the context of the NewGo! project which aims to provide scientific knowledge on lessons learned from initiatives related to zero deforestation, forest restoration, and sustainable forest finance. The project sets the ground for the EFI Governance Programme.

Tell us a bit about who you are.

Jonah Wittkamper

I majored in biology at university but have developed a career in building social movements and investor networks.  I am currently conducting a study about philanthropic investments in governance and rule of law strategies in the Amazon region in order to inform the investing of future donors.  See:

I organize philanthropists and investors globally. I am “informed” about forestry but do not classify myself as an expert. Given my responsibilities as a steward of wealth networks, I know that I need to learn more.

The Amazon Investor Coalition (A.I.C), which I founded and launched in 2020 as a partnership platform of the United Nations 75 Global Governance Forum, . is a collaboration between governments, investors, philanthropists, NGOs, and allies that are dedicated to ensuring the forest is more valuable alive and standing than cut and burned. To achieve this vision, we conduct research, development networks, and organize campaigns across four strategies: bioeconomy, entrepreneurship, the rule of law, the carbon market and ecosystem service payment innovation, and investor education.

What is forest governance?

It’s a responsible management of natural resources, flora and fauna, supported by policy and enforcement. 

Why is governance needed?

Without governance we suffer a “tragedy of the commons,” or we risk allowing the law-of-force to replace the force-of-law.

Credit: Nathalia Segato

Research by Elinor Ostrom demonstrates that in the absence of collective accountability mechanisms, natural ecosystems are exploited unsustainably.  Some forest locations are so distant (days by boat up the Amazon river, for example) from the enforcement mechanisms of government, that a culture of lawlessness prevails.  Environmental activists have been assassinated, indigenous communities have been massacred, and in the absence of consequences, a pattern of impunity prevails thus perpetuating cycles of environmental destruction and violence.   

What makes governance “good”?

“Good” governance can be achieved through financing, monitoring, sustainable income generation for local residents. In addition, land rights and enforcement.

How can it achieve the well-being of both the forests concerned and the communities depending upon them?

The priority strategies will be different in every region.  My focus is the Amazon Rainforest and to date most of my experience is with the Brazilian Amazon.  Here are my top 5 recommendations:

  1. All undesignated lands need to be declared as national parks, immediately, to discourage land grabbing.
  2. Law enforcement agencies need to return to the region and resume their duties with more resources than they had previously. Starting in 2019, the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro dismantled forest protection mechanisms such as land demarcations, deforestation-prevention raids by police on illegal loggers, management of satellite monitoring of deforestation, indigenous welfare protection, and more.
  3. Chainsaw alert technologies should be combined with drones to film perpetrators in real time with automatic filings of legal complaints
  4. The culture of impunity must be removed either through traditional law-enforcement or extra-governmental measures such as those outlined in the US Magnitsky act.  The Amazon Commerce Solidarity Network presents a third proposal
  5. Riding on the shoulders of law enforcement, local communities should be enrolled in sustainability strategies, including: 1) Investments in wild-harvesting bio-economy entrepreneurship, 2) Ecosystem service payments to residents, and 3) Agroforestry development in degraded lands.

How should governance function?

The government should lead with strong support from business and civil society. The strategy developed around 2005 by the  administration of the former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (most commonly known as Lula) was one of the most effective at achieving good governance.  Details are provided here

Who needs to be involved?

Local residents, especially indigenous people.  Law enforcement from local, state and federal agencies, and in grave situations, the military.

Credit: Stephanie Morcinek

Where is governance most needed?

Governance is needed most in regions of high deforestation, violent conflict, and regions of environmentalist assassinations.

What are the challenges with governance today in the light of what you said in the previous question?

The federal government of Brazil has failed to protect forests in recent years, so state level governments need to take the lead.

What are the positive changes that you have seen happening in the context of forest governance?

The Leticia Pact of South America is promoting agroforestry. In 2019, the president of Colombia, Iván Duque Márquez, convened with heads of state from the Amazon region to promote greater intergovernmental cooperation on the Amazon.  It helped to pressure some of the neighboring countries to take action.  Here is their declaration.

Via the IADB they are setting up a platform to match investors with projects.

Please provide an example of a success story/case study.

According to our research, 29 of the 31 most popular agroforestry products we researched can earn more, per hectare, than cattle in the Amazon.

Cattle and soy expansion in the Brazilian Amazon has reduced transpiration rates and brought the region to a tipping point that may lead to half the ecosystem transitioning into grassland.  It appears to be more profitable to develop and manage forest gardens (agroforestry) than to run cattle ranches. This difference in finance can motivate many cattle ranchers to convert to more sustainable forms of agriculture that restore forest cover and elevate transpiration rates to the region.

Read the other interviews of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series:

Community participation makes for better forest governance in Ethiopia – interview with Tefera Mengistu

Stakeholder participation in forest governance is key for sustainable forest management – interview with Eva Müller

Curbing forest loss with and for the local communities in Uganda – interview with Rose Kobusinge

Read about NewGo! research on the online debates around the Amazon fires

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