RI’s REDD+ Series Part 2: Wildlife Works founder Mike Korchinsky

On the ground in Kenya to see how the initiative works in practice

Earlier this year, Responsible Investor senior reporter Vibeka Mair travelled to the Kasigau Corridor in East Kenya to visit a REDD+ project led by Wildlife Works (see separate story). REDD+, a UN framework, stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” and is seeking to fight climate change by preserving forests. REDD+ gives communities an economic incentive not to cut down trees through the sale of carbon offsets (calculated from the amount of carbon saved from saving the trees).
The Wildlife Works REDD+ project not only involves the protection of forests, but also seeks to conserve the wildlife in the surrounding area and uplift the local rural community economically.
This includes building new hospitals, providing clean water to more than 26,000 people, supporting people living with HIV through community initiatives, employing locals in fair trade factories making clothes and soaps, providing nurseries and schools for local children, providing training in sustainable farming and protecting the surrounding wildlife, especially elephants, at high risk of poaching coming from neighboring Somalia. Read more in a blog from Vibeka’s trip to the Wildlife Works REDD+ project.

Last year, the Kasigau REDD+ project raised $5.7m from the sale of carbon offsets which it ploughed back into its community and conservation work. One-third of the proceeds were shared with local communities who own the land, and 50% of the project’s profits are given to a community trust which set up committees to decide on how to use the new funding.
RI speaks to Wildlife Works founder Mike Korchinsky who started his work in East Kenya twenty-one years ago after a disappointing safari trip to the area, where he felt the local community was neglected over the conservation of African wildlife. He vowed to go back and find a better solution for animals and people to co-exist.

Why did you decide to use REDD+ carbon credit sales to fund your conservation and community work in Kenya, rather than the typical route of charity?
Wildlife Works was founded on the principle that if we want wildlife we have to make it work for local communities who share their environment with that wildlife. We felt the traditional conservation community was relatively underfunded, so we wanted to be additive to the solution rather than enter a competitive market for that donor finance. That led us to explore market mechanisms for conservation from the beginning. REDD+ was a new, and in my view an ideal mechanism to scale the funding for conservation of forests and wildlife to the scale of the global problem. The REDD+ mechanism, its actions as a pay-for-performance programme, has the right elements to scale up funding for the huge scale of the problem. REDD+ also gives you the opportunity to address a wide range of goals for the community. That is very unusual. Most NGOs are myopic as they have a charter that is very specific. We at Wildlife Works have always tried to be leaders in innovative ideas in how you engage the market place in conservation. REDD+ for us is the most elegant mechanism with the most potential of any large-scale conservation solution we’ve come across in 20 years.Wildlife Works recently mapped how its REDD+ activities contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). You describe it is a unique opportunity for investors to generate positive impact. Can you expand?
I think REDD+ is the Holy Grail for impact investors who want to gain a reasonable return and have impact on something that matters to them personally. REDD+ projects influence sustainable development within communities, protection of bio-diversity and climate and clean water access. In fact Wildlife Works’ REDD+ projects address 15 of the SDGs. This gives investors a unique opportunity to invest in a programme that impacts the issues they care deeply about, yet treats the problem in a holistic fashion, and generates a reasonable financial return. REDD+ is a very attractive platform for impact investors.

Wildlife Works is a REDD+ initiative at ‘project level’. There is also the UN-REDD framework that works with countries on national plans to stop deforestation and generate emission reductions to sell to other countries. Are there any links between the two?

The Paris Agreement identifies REDD+ as a mitigation category that is important and should be supported. The significant difference between the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Agreement is that Paris is really a bottom-up agreement that allows countries to set goals for themselves and the UN is essentially a score keeper, a guidance giver and best practice sharer.
Countries are deciding for themselves how to implement REDD+ as well as the other climate activities in the country. Most developing countries understand that the real activities to stop deforestation happen in the landscape at local levels. Very few believe you can pass a few laws at national level to solve the problem. There are lots of drivers of deforestation – logging, agriculture, population pressure – and you really need to have activity on the ground to address most of them. So countries are trying to figure out ‘nesting’ – how to nest those local project activities within national programmes so they build on each other. The local programme reflecting the national objectives and the national programme benefitting from local performance is key.

REDD+ has come under criticism from some circles for a number of years. For example, some say it is wrong to try and put a price tag on nature….
I call this ‘Nirvana’. I was once in this category too. I thought that nature was too precious to put a price tag on, too precious to rely on a market mechanism. We should value elephants, rhinos and lions because of their intrinsic value and I still believe that. But a significant proportion of the rest of the world doesn’t share or act on that belief. So it is not a practical solution to the problem. It isn’t practical to wait for the world to become enlightened enough to leave the forests and elephants alone. REDD+ puts a practical value on standing forests to give communities an economic alternative to deforestation.

There are also concerns about land rights where REDD+ developers work….
Land rights and land tenure people believe that giving land rights over forests to indigenous communities is the solution and in many cases that may well be true.

It is a useful generalisation to say that indigenous communities are better stewards of the forest than anybody else. However it is not universally true. There are many examples where just having an indigenous community own the forest isn’t protecting the forest because the indigenous community does not have the resources to protect that forest from outside threat. There are many indigenous communities today exploring REDD+ to get the economic power to protect their forests.
The situation of forest ownership in developing countries is complex. Most of these REDD+ countries were under colonial rule where the colonial government owned most of the forest. Most of them have made decisions about land ownership since independence in the last 50 years. These countries are devolving ownership in land slowly, starting in places of high political value like cities and towns and eventually working to rural areas. Wildlife Works must deal with the realities of legal land ownership in each country we work in, but regardless of who legally owns the land, we must find solutions that are supported by the local communities who live in and around the forests.
In Kenya land ownership has devolved to communities owning land. That is quite unusual. In the Congo devolution of forest ownership is likely going to be slower, but the government does recognise communities’ customary rights to the forest. We as a REDD+ developer have to design programs attractive enough to the communities that they voluntarily commit to joining the REDD+ project, before we are able to operate in their forests.After years of lagging carbon price in the compliance carbon market (markets like the European Trading System where companies have regulatory emission caps) prices are starting to rise again. How does the compliance carbon market interplay with the voluntary carbon market (REDD+ is part of this)?

Most prognosticators think the compliance carbon price will be substantially higher than $10 as we approach 2020 and beyond. That will raise the price for voluntary market credits for sure. The next challenge for REDD+ is getting into the compliance market such as the UN sustainable development market mechanism defined under the Paris Agreement (still under negotiation) and the California cap and trade market. REDD+ in a compliance market would have charismatic appeal. With the same price why wouldn’t you buy the offset with charisma? With a choice between compliance offset A and B, you are more likely to buy one with the social and biodiversity benefit.

In 2011, the Wildlife Works Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project was the world’s first to receive carbon credits after being validated by the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard (CCB). It is also the world’s first ‘VCS REDD+ mega-project,’ in that it will result in the avoidance of over 1.5m tonnes of CO2-e emissions per year for the next 30 years. Wildlife Works recently supported the spin out of its business development team into Everland, a new specialized marketing company.