How Bezos’ latest plan to protect forests could backfire

The $2 billion plan by Jeff Bezos to plant trees and restore land across Africa and the US, which he announced last week, has raised concerns among conservationists and activists. After he had pledged $10 billion to combat climate change, activists in the US criticized him for not doing enough to reduce Amazon's pollution and work with local communities as he developed his environmental plans. He's now facing similar criticisms worldwide.
On November 1, the Bezos Earth Fund announced its new round of funding during a high-profile United Nations summit in Glasgow. The fund claims it will channel $1 billion to plant trees in Africa and "revitalize" grasslands in the USA. The remaining $1 billion will be used to support sustainable agriculture initiatives.

The new conservation investment aims to protect ecosystems that naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide pollution. This follows a September commitment by Bezos to invest $1 billion in conservation. Bezos Earth Fund says that it wants Indigenous peoples and local communities to be "placed at heart of conservation programs."

"They do a lot more damage than they should," is the worst-case scenario.

Experts warn that the initiative could harm ecosystems and violate Indigenous peoples' rights without safeguards. They would rather that Bezos spend his money on these projects and reduce pollution from the huge businesses he founded.

"Organizations such as the Bezos Earth Fund tend to hire people in Seattle to help fix Africa. It doesn't work," says Forrest Fleischman of the University of Minnesota, who teaches natural resource policy. "The worst-case scenario with inexperienced donors is that they waste all their money. The best-case scenario is that they cause a lot of harm."

Right now, there are heated discussions about how to restore and conserve ecosystems. This is partly due to a slew of new, exciting projects that aim to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, last year, the World Economic Forum initiated an initiative to plant one trillion trees. This was met with resistance from conservation and forestry experts who warned that tree-planting campaigns can sometimes lead to monocrops of one species of tree. These tree farms are not as ecologically beneficial as natural forests with a variety of species. You could even endanger ecosystems by planting too many trees in places they aren't needed, such as in grasslands and savannas.

Susanne Vetter, Rhodes University's ecologist, wrote an email to The Verge that while many believe planting trees is good for the environment, she said that planting trees in grasslands and other savannas can cause irreversible damage. Vetter stated in an opinion paper published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in 2020 that environmental groups such as the World Resources Institute mistakenly classified these ecosystems as forests suitable for tree planting in past.

According to the Bezos Earth Fund, it will be working with AFR100. This partnership is between 31 African governments and is advised by WRI. It aims at restoring 100 million hectares across Africa by 2030. AFR100 "advocates actively for the conversion of natural ecosystems like grasslands, savannas into tree plantations," a spokesperson told The Verge in an email. Bernadette Arakwiye is a Rwandan research associate with WRI. Each country in AFR100 makes its decisions on the basis of input from experts and local communities. According to Arakwiye, the maps Vetter referred to in her paper were not updated and may not be used to inform decisions about which lands to restore.

However, bold climate change commitments such as the Bezos Earth Fund could easily fall prey to the pitfalls of tree planting due to their emphasis on speed and scale. Prakash Kashwan is an associate professor of political sciences at the University of Connecticut. He says, "Designing restoration projects that are environmentally friendly requires that we work with each landscape and take into account the characteristics of the landscape." If we want to learn from native engagements with nature, the first principle is to slow down.

It's been a tradition of "green-grabbing"

It is important to take the time to meet with the local communities that use the land. This is because projects can inflame past wounds that were inflicted on Indigenous peoples for the sake of conservation. There is a long history of "green-grabbing", which has been linked to colonization all over the globe. According to Victoria Tauli Corpuz, former UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, half of the "protected areas" in the world are lands that once belonged to Indigenous peoples. Tribes could be forced from their lands, or prevented from continuing to practice traditional hunting practices, even if they are being done sustainably, after land is designated as protected.

There is also a history in which violent police have been used to protect areas. A Buzzfeed News investigation in 2019 revealed that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) funded park rangers who were accused of torturing, killing and raping Indigenous and local people in African national parks and wildlife reserve. The Bezos Earth Fund gave WWF $100 million in 2020 to help protect and restore more lands.

The Verge spoke to experts who shared their advice on how to avoid repeating past mistakes. Ida Djenontin, who studies environmental governance and management at the London School of Economics and Michigan State University, says that money should be directed to where, to what local communities are doing, and to which they think are the best ways to restore landscapes. Djenontin also collaborated previously with AFR100. Research shows that forests thrive when they are managed by Indigenous peoples who depend on them for their livelihoods.

Forests are more resilient when taken care of by Indigenous peoples

Kashwan worries that, even if Bezos Earth Fund is serious in wanting to include Indigenous peoples in its conservation programs it could have trouble engaging in meaningful engagement in developing countries that lack strong legal protections for tribal members. Kashwan states that these initiatives are fundamentally flawed as they only make declarations of good intentions. He says that there is no mechanism to hold the Global South accountable.

There is still much to be done in the US to ensure that environmental philanthropy does not neglect vulnerable populations. According to the Bezos Earth Fund, 40% of US funds will be used for projects that "directly engage and benefit underserved community." This is after grassroots activists pressured Bezos into investing more in communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution. Some of these communities still fight for Amazon to remove the pollution from their streets.

According to experts, The Verge believes that Amazon's pollution is the greatest threat to the environment. Despite making huge pledges to combat climate change, Amazon’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in recent years. Experts like Fiore Lango, head for the conservation campaign at Survival International (a human rights organization advocating for tribal peoples), say that initiatives such as Bezos Earth Fund are nothing more than corporate greenwashing.

She says that wealthy corporate leaders think they can continue to destroy the planet by producing carbon dioxide, then create protected areas or plant trees, and then, magically, their carbon dioxide will be offset. We can't allow this type of distraction to distract us from the critical moment when real decisions are needed for climate change prevention and protection.

The Verge declined to comment on The Bezos Earth Fund's request.