- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2015

Michael Jenkins believes there’s more than one way to hug a tree.

The president of the Washington-based nonprofit Forest Trends is trying to recast the long-running debate between developers and environmentalists over how to preserve and profit from the world’s forests.

This means emphasizing redefining conservation as something that deals with more than just ecology and also with economics and business development.

“What we tried to do when we started Forest Trends was to say, ‘How can we flip that equation?’ ” said Mr. Jenkins in a recent interview. “How can we start to really develop the ways by which all of these additional, what we call ‘eco-system services,’ and functions that forests provide start to be real in terms of economic return.”

The group’s work is getting some attention: The MacArthur Foundation recently recognized Forest Trends as one of nine nonprofit organizations across the country demonstrating “exceptional creativity and effectiveness.” The recognition comes with a $1 million gift to further the organization’s work.

“Forest Trends leverages the real economic value of forests and ecosystems, motivating governments and businesses to make conservation a top priority,” said MacArthur Vice President Elspeth Revere, who leads the awards program, citing the nonprofit’s “creativity and effectiveness.”

“We hope this recognition and investment will help sustain its work and expand its impact,” she added.

The economic implications of a shift in thinking could be vast.

Experts estimated that 90 percent of the world’s poorest populations depend on forests for their livelihood, with one-seventh of the world’s population — more than 1 billion people — living in 19 forest biodiversity “hot spots.”

The MacArthur citation noted that Forest Trends takes a different approach from the traditional environmental preservation model, one that featured direct confrontation between those who wanted to save natural resources and landscapes and those who hoped to make a living from them. A similar shift has been seen in the effort to curb ivory traffic not by strictly banning trade but by giving local populations an economic incentive to help police and protect local elephant herds.

The MacArthur award citation noted that Forest Trends “focuses on the livelihoods of local communities by enabling indigenous people to participate in environmental markets and benefit from preserving the forests they live in and around. These include payment or compensation mechanisms to local communities to maintain watershed protections or forest cover under a carbon market agreement.”

The organization wants to demonstrate that environmental and forest conservation doesn’t have to mean more government regulation and legislation, but instead can be about optimizing natural resources in a way that they can be sustained.

Mr. Jenkins, one of the founding members of Forest Trend, convened in 1996 with other conservationist groups and industry leaders, such as the World Bank and the Rainforest Action Network, to address what they saw as a disconnect between blanket conservationism and the economic values that forest conservation can provide. In 1998 Forest Trends created its organizational model, which brought together governments, industry leaders and international businesses to work together in recognizing the economic value of forest conservation, and was eventually able to expand into a global market with projects in Russia, Brazil, Malaysia and Canada.

“The lowest-hanging fruit in terms of addressing climate change is forests and land use,” said Mr. Jenkins, referring to the vast amounts of carbon absorbed by the world’s forests. This is just one example of benefits that conservation can provide, including small-town farming, agriculture and local economic growth.

Forest Trends is now working in over 30 countries, including leading developing economies such as China and Brazil, spreading the message that responsible environmentalists can also be good business. Multinational corporations such as Cargill and Nestle recognize that their supply lines rely on local markets and production, and producers are finding that consumers have begun to look for items like organic produce and fair trade coffee.

Forest Trends officials say they don’t need to expand into markets all over the world, but instead want to work with business and governments that are already established in those markets.

Although Forest Trends’ plan for the future is to scale up the work that it’s been doing, expanding the size of the organization itself is not necessary, according to Mr. Jenkins. Forest Trends wants to use the MacArthur Foundation’s grant to improve areas like communication, strategic planning and fundraising.

“Growth is not more and more people [who] are Forest Trends employees, growth is more and more impact,” said Mr. Jenkins, saying the goal is to be “small, global and nimble.”

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