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Views from the Center


GorillaMy friend Nathalie Johnson is one of my personal heroes. For the better part of two decades, she has worked tirelessly at the World Bank to conserve biodiversity while promoting sustainable livelihoods for the rural people of Africa. Fiercely proud of being a field biologist in an institution dominated by economists, Nathalie has turned out to be one of the finest applied economists I know. In the early 1990s, she joined a quest to engage the people of southwestern Uganda in a collaborative effort to save the mountain gorillas. Her passion, determination and, not least, common-sense application of economic principles contributed mightily to the development and successful implementation of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Conservation Project, financed by the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, and other donors. In a region where development projects all-too-frequently fail, the Bwindi/Mgahinga Project has been a glowing counter-example. A recent in-depth evaluation concludes that it has halted destruction of the gorillas’ habitat and reversed their slide toward extinction, while promoting local livelihoods. Its lessons are important for biodiversity conservation, and they are also critical for halting the global forest destruction that accounts for over 20% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Nathalie and her colleagues recognized the people of Bwindi/Mgahinga as the de facto proprietors of the gorillas’ habitat, and the project focused on providing positive, sustainable incentives for their participation in conservation. Its critical elements were the specification of a clear objective, conservation of the gorillas’ habitat; scientific monitoring of the habitat; a guaranteed perpetual payment flow to the habitat’s proprietors for verified conservation; and use of the funds for development activities chosen by the people of Bwindi/Mgahinga, not the donors.

The institutional Ugandabarriers to implementation were formidable, because the project bucked conventional thinking. Guaranteeing the payment flow required establishment of a permanent trust fund, rather than financing a one-shot project. Nathalie and her colleagues confronted major resistance to this “innovation” within the Global Environment Facility, but they got it done. They encountered further resistance to the idea that the funds would not be earmarked for environmental purposes, but would promote general development objectives as determined by the people of Bwindi/Mgahinga. With grit and persistence, they overcame that barrier as well.

Now, over a decade later, the program lives on, the gorillas are coming back and – a critical point for the future of the planet – the gorillas’ forest habitat has been conserved. As we move toward the Copenhagen climate change conference this December, Nathalie’s story identifies three critical measures for reducing deforestation and carbon emissions:

  • Identify the effective proprietors of threatened forest land;
  • Guarantee them a perpetual payment flow in return for verified conservation of the forest;
  • Establish a transparent system for verifying conservation.

Recently, the Bwindi/Mgahinga principles have achieved much broader currency because conventional approaches to forest conservation simply haven’t stopped massive land-clearing and carbon emissions. Recognition became explicit during the UN’s Bali conference on climate change in December 2007, with the launch of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) to pay proprietors for forest conservation. Current donors include Australia, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the U.S.

ForestNow we pass to the domain of implementation, where the jury is still out. Recalling the struggle by Nathalie Johnson and her colleagues to overcome conventional institutional reflexes, we should brace for a long bout. One immediate requirement is an independent, sustainable and transparent system for verifying that conservation agreements are actually working.

In response to a request from the Government of Denmark, which will host the Copenhagen conference, our climate change team at CGD has embarked on a crash program to build and demonstrate a pilot monitoring system. Called Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA), it will build on our experience with disclosing global carbon emissions from power plants through CARMA (Carbon Monitoring for Action, Our hope is that FORMA will provide the basis for a constantly-updated, web-based global status report for tropical forests that is zoomable to very small areas and completely open to input from local communities and other stakeholders. We believe that FORMA, or an online tool very much like it, will be critical to building a transparent global monitoring system necessary for the success of the FCPF and similar forest conservation programs.

All this will require determination, persistence and, not least, the courage to endure a long struggle against conventional institutional reflexes. But we know it can be done, because Nathalie, her colleagues and the people of Bwindi/Mgahinga have already shown us how.

So heartfelt thanks, Nathalie, and our best to the people of southwestern Uganda. We really owe you one.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.