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Market-based strategies fall short on forest conservation

Recent findings from a global scientific review have cast a shadow over the effectiveness of market-based approaches to forest conservation.

Initiatives such as carbon offsets and deforestation-free certification schemes, while popular, appear to have made only limited progress in protecting forests and alleviating poverty. In some cases, these strategies have even exacerbated economic inequalities.

Comprehensive forest conservation study

The review, conducted by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), represents the most comprehensive examination of its kind in conservation.

The study draws on extensive academic research and fieldwork, encompassing the insights of 15,000 scientists across 120 countries.

The findings, presented at a high-level UN forum, underscore the urgent need for a reassessment of current conservation policies.

Maria Brockhaus, a contributing author from the University of Helsinki, emphasized the inadequacy of these market mechanisms.

“The evidence does not support the claim of win-wins or triple wins for environment, economy, and people,” said Brockhaus. She noted that in regions where market-based policies have been prevalent for decades, poverty and forest loss remain persistent challenges.

Challenges in market-based conservation

The report underscores a concerning trend of complex and overlapping market schemes where financial actors and shareholders prioritize short-term profits over sustainable forest governance.

Constance McDermott, the lead author from the University of Oxford, pointed out the generally disappointing success rate.

Specific cases, such as a $120 million project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, benefited entrenched interests without addressing significant issues like logging by powerful businesses.

Similarly, in Malaysia, indigenous groups saw no benefits from a plantation venture promised to improve their livelihoods.

Unintended consequences and global policies

The study also critiques green trade policies from affluent nations, such as the EU’s ban on imports linked to deforestation, intended as conservation measures.

While these policies may appear beneficial from a distance, they often fail to consider the adverse effects on local communities.

McDermott illustrated this by discussing the plight of farmers in Ghana, where – despite numerous sustainable and conservation initiatives – deforestation rates have increased, and farmers‘ earnings have decreased.

The future of carbon markets

Despite the turbulence in current strategies, carbon markets are poised to expand into a multi-billion-dollar industry as corporations aim to meet net-zero climate targets through purchasing credits.

These credits often originate from projects in developing countries aimed at reducing emissions. However, there is growing concern about the actual benefits reaching the poor communities involved.

Kenya’s President William Ruto has even touted Africa’s carbon sinks as an “unparalleled economic goldmine,” though the distribution of these potential billions remains uncertain.

Radical rethink of market-based conservation

The review from IUFRO and the insights of scientists like Brockhaus and McDermott call for a “radical rethink” of how market-based approaches are employed.

Without addressing the broader economic and governance challenges associated with forest management, these market mechanisms alone cannot solve the intricate problems of deforestation and poverty.

As the evidence mounts, the global community may need to pivot towards more integrated and holistic approaches to conservation and economic development.

Market-based approaches to forest conservation 

Market-based approaches to forest conservation involve economic strategies that incentivize the protection and sustainable management of forests.

These methods aim to align financial incentives with conservation goals, making it economically advantageous for stakeholders to preserve forest ecosystems rather than deplete them.

Carbon credits

One common approach is carbon credits, where companies or governments pay for projects that reduce carbon emissions, such as reforestation or forest preservation, effectively turning carbon storage into a commodity. 

This not only provides financial support for conservation efforts but also helps combat climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide.

Ecosystem services 

Another method is payment for ecosystem services, which compensates landowners for managing their land in ways that maintain its ecological benefits. These services might include clean water, biodiversity, and carbon storage. 

This approach gives economic value to the ecological functions of forests, encouraging landowners to maintain these landscapes rather than convert them for more destructive uses like agriculture or logging.


Eco-tourism is also a significant market-driven conservation strategy, where revenue is generated by people visiting natural areas.

This revenue can provide a sustainable source of income for local communities and fund conservation efforts, making it financially viable for communities to keep forests intact rather than clear them for other types of development.

Certified forest products 

Trade in certified timber and non-timber forest products is another avenue. Certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council promote the responsible management of forests.

Products from certified forests are sold at premium prices, which can drive more sustainable practices in the forestry sector.


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