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Cities Can Reduce Commodity-Based Deforestation. Here’s How

Updated: May 12, 2022

Picture a coffee truck, a converted gray ‘66 Citroen retrofitted with a wood awning and countertop, parked at the Glasgow City Council’s Sustainable Landing Hub during COP26. From this quaint shelter, attendees were served shade-grown coffee from Ecuador’s Intag Valley and pastries baked with Amazon (aka Brazil) nuts from Madre de Dios, Peru. As delegates and visitors queued up to the Partner Forest Coffee Truck, they crossed a wooden boardwalk built with conservation timber from communities in Péten, Guatemala. Refreshed by coffees — or Maya-nut capomo lattes — some then popped into a nearby canvas tent to meet the forest-based producers of these treats via Zoom.

Scott Francisco, director of the Partner Forest Program, speaks with BBC editor Douglas Fraser at the Partner Forest Coffee Truck during COP26 in Glasgow, November 2021. Photo by the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC)

It was an evocative experience that surely left people thinking: What if all coffee or timber sales directly funded communities that practice sustainable or restorative forest management? What if all daily diets shifted to include foods such as Maya seeds and Amazon nuts that can only be harvested from intact tropical forests, thereby supporting social and ecological conditions that keep these forests healthy?

This is the vision of Cities4Forests’ Partner Forest Program. In it, city governments and their residents help halt and reverse deforestation and biodiversity loss by establishing transparent value chains to “forest-positive” products and the communities who produce them. Such an approach could become a tool to reduce commodity-driven deforestation and the consumption-based emissions of cities, while creating economic benefits for commodity producers.

How Do Cities Impact Commodity-Driven Deforestation?

Right now, tropical deforestation progresses every day. It is driven by demands from people in cities for products like coffee and chocolate, but also beef, soy, timber, rubber and more. In 2019 alone, the world lost 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) of tree cover in tropical forests as land was converted for the unsustainable production of these commodities. Rural communities are facing tremendous economic pressure to cut down forests, and sometimes violence, even when they want to protect their forests and know how to do it.

Against this backdrop, Roatan Chocolate Factory, which supplied exquisite chocolate for the coffee truck, sources cacao that grows wild in Honduras’ Great Mosquitia Rainforest, an area covering 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres), or more than three times the size of Manhattan. The consistent production of these rainforest cacao trees is a critical source of income for communities with limited economic options and would be unavailable if the forests are converted to cattle pasture or agriculture. Examples like this show how forest-focused consumer demand could secure sustainable livelihoods for forest communities around the world and keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

Three Cities Leading on the Partner Forest Model

Given that cities are responsible for the consumption of up to 80% of global resources that drive deforestation, a robust change in the way city governments, businesses and residents consume is key to stopping and reversing it. While small pilot projects like the coffee truck put inspiring possibilities in front of people, helping cities build their capacity for long-term commitments to sustainable consumption is the larger goal of the Partner Forest model.

The Cities4Forests Partner Forest Coffee Truck sourced forest-positive products such as Roatan chocolates made from cacao sustainably grown and harvested in La Mosquitia, Honduras.

In this model, cities would form “local-to-local,” mutually beneficial relationships with communities that steward forests and provide the forest products that cities depend on. These partnerships would help create stable markets to finance conservation and opportunities for innovation, and preserve traditional knowledge. Additionally, they would create opportunities to bridge divides and spark new educational and cultural exchanges between urban and rural, Global North and Global South communities.

Building on the success of COP26 and existing commitments to climate-change action and a circular economy, Glasgow is taking steps toward this model. In March 2022, Cities4Forests ran a workshop with a group of city councillors and staff to co-create ideas for a larger program that will connect Glaswegians to tropical forests. This workshop connected existing ideas, passions and struggles within urban planning, forestry, procurement, and economic development to the faraway tropical forests that can underpin a more sustainable Glasgow.

Workshop participants reflected on the history of European forestry and monoculture plantations, alongside the imperative to conserve the natural biodiversity of tropical forests. They hoped an improved understanding of sustainable tropical forestry could inform when and how Glasgow uses tropical woods, which many cities use blindly for outdoor furniture. New sourcing-partnership concepts were raised for building on the Leader of City Council’s stated commitment to procuring sustainable wood and supporting forests globally.

Other cities are also embracing the Partner Forest model. Cities4Forests is working with Amsterdam, a city whose history, and very foundations, are dependent on timber. Amsterdam is now leading on innovative uses of wood in its plans to build an entire net-zero neighborhood. Our recent workshop with city officials explored how conservation timber from a Partner Forest could exemplify the city’s commitment to circularity and climate neutrality. Conservation timber could be used in the restoration of historic bridges and boat-docking infrastructure that line more than 600 km of quay walls. Finding the right balance between timber needs in the city, proven forest management strategies, costs and co-benefits with forest communities will be the key to the success of this kind of global partnership.

The Cities4Forests Partner Forest workshop in Amsterdam took to the canals to re-imagine boat and dock infrastructure built with conservation timber.

Meanwhile, another Partner Forest has emerged in Argentina. At the University of Buenos Aires, architect and urbanist Professor Elizabeth Vergara is coming into her second year of leading a postgraduate course Bosques Associados or “Partner Forest Studio.” Led by Vergara and supported by Cities4Forests’ Partner Forest Program, the course helps students step outside their urban milieu to engage with their own country’s tropical forests through field trips and lectures, and also with their peers in conservation biology. The idea is to get students to intimately know their materials and how their design decisions impact the fate of threatened forests and those who live in them.

For Vergara, inspiration came from the project that started it all. Vergara was moved to reach out to Cities4Forests when she heard about the award-winning Brooklyn Bridge Partner Forest project, which reimagines the bridge as safer, more accessible and built with timber from the Uaxactún community in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Uaxactún community has practiced low-impact forestry for over 100 years, yielding one of the most intact areas of Central American forest while producing timber species that are ideal for outdoor urban infrastructure. A sales relationship with New York City would pay for increased forest protections and improved livelihoods in the form of forest patrols, firefighting, satellite monitoring, medical facilities, schools and more.

Seizing the Partner Forest Opportunity

In these projects, the common message is clear: everyone benefits when a city’s relationship with tropical forests are acknowledged and transformed. Urban and rural residents benefit, biodiversity benefits and climate benefits. The challenge and the opportunity lies in cities transforming their consumption habits intentionally, and swiftly.

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