Discussion Paper

A Whole-of-Government Approach to Reducing Tropical Deforestation

Jul 6, 2011 | Michael Wolosin, Anne Riddle, Daniel F. Morris


Tropical forests provide critical global and local ecosystem services and habitat for many of the world’s plants and animals. Their loss threatens the sustainable economic growth and social stability of developing countries, and illegal deforestation abroad places U.S. producers at an unfair disadvantage. For these and other reasons, the United States has long been engaged in programs to reduce forest loss. This engagement has recently increased, with the new Presidential Global Climate Change Initiative including a pillar dedicated to slowing forest loss. While promising, this new funding and coordination is insufficient, with a narrow focus on climate-based development assistance. Engaging the full suite of forest policy levers in the federal government, or taking a “whole-of-government” approach, would provide greater immediate impact in preventing forest loss while building the foundations of a working landscape ethic. In this discussion paper, we explore the opportunities to expand U.S. contributions to reducing tropical deforestation through this approach. A whole-of-government approach to international deforestation consists of coordinating and focusing the programs across the federal government that could reduce the rate of tropical forest loss. It is an integrated strategy that employs existing activities and authorities of the U.S. government and directs them under an overarching goal of reducing deforestation in tropical forest countries, while continuing to support other developing-country goals, such as economic development, health, food security, and biodiversity. We identify three major areas where policy adjustments and actions by relevant authorities can have immediate and tangible impact on reducing deforestation.

The results of a recent survey of congressional staff made it clear that, although policymakers care about tropical forest conservation and would like to see policy successes, they think of the issue primarily in the “climate” frame or the more general “foreign aid” frame. Given the tightening national budget and political hesitancy surrounding climate change, neither framing is likely to successfully move the issue forward.  Legislative action leveraging these topics is likely to stall, meaning that lawmakers must think creatively about how to engage using other frameworks if they wish to impact tropical forest conservation. 

At the same time, attention, interest, and federal budgets directed toward reducing tropical deforestation have never been higher.  A number of efforts are underway across different parts of the U.S. government, primarily through foreign aid for climate mitigation and biodiversity protection. These efforts are making important progress, but the opportunity is ripe to step back and examine additional opportunities to focus and coordinate other areas of federal policy toward forest conservation goals.

In a new RFF Discussion Paper, Visiting Scholar Michael Wolosin, Research Associate Anne Riddle and Center Fellow Daniel Morris propose a “whole-of-government” approach to slowing and reversing tropical forest loss that would engage the full suite of policy levers in the federal government.  The authors identify three primary routes through which U.S. policy impacts tropical deforestation, and make four specific recommendations for additional action, coordination, and research.