Food Production Driving Deforestation
In the past decade, demand from the international market for agricultural products such as palm oil, soy, beef and timber caused the deforestation of tropical forests at an average rate of five football fields every minute. This has resulted in a total loss of 200,000 square kilometers of land, an area twice the size of South Korea.
This is according to a new study released by Washington-based non-government organization (NGO) Forest Trends on Thursday, which revealed that 49 percent of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was caused by illegal clearing for commercial agriculture, and that trade in products grown on illegally converted land was worth a total of US$61 billion. A staggering 40 percent of internationally traded palm oil is grown on illegally deforested land, said the report.
Titled Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture, the report also found that this illegal deforestation generated 1.47 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year between 2000 and 2012. This is equivalent to a quarter of the European Union’s annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Michael Jenkins, president and chief executive of Forest Trends, said that although the link between agricultural production and deforestation was well established, “this is the first report to show the major role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide.”
The export of agricultural commodities grown on illegally cleared forest land was responsible for 25 percent of all tropical forest destruction between 2000 and 2012, according to the report. A majority of the demand for products grown on this land – such as beef, leather, soy, palm oil and wood products originated from China, India, Russia, the United States, and the European Union.
The report revealed that a fifth of all soy, a third of tropical timber, and 14 percent of all beef traded internationally came from land that had been illegally deforested.
Sam Lawson, lead author of the report, noted that given the rapid speed at which illegal deforestation was taking place, “there is hardly a product on supermarket shelves that is not potentially tainted”.
Brazil and Indonesia were pinpointed as the biggest producers of agricultural exports. Together, the two countries also had the highest rates of land clearance in the world, with 90 percent of Brazil’s deforestation and 80 percent of Indonesia’s forest clearance deemed illegal.
Other countries such as Tanzania and Bolivia also grappled with this problem, with their forests making way for crops such as jatropha (a biofuel plant) and soy respectively.
The problem was even spreading to new tropical regions where deforestation rates had traditionally been low, said the report. It pointed to the Republic of Congo as an example, where illegal palm oil projects were set to double the country’s deforestation rate.
The study found that companies which destroyed forests illegally often did so using fraudulent permits obtained from corrupt officials.
In other instances, companies flouted environmental protection laws when planting or clearing land, which resulted in environmental degradation and violated the rights of local people and indigenous communities dependent on the forest for food and income.
These illegal practices could only be fully addressed by governments, said the report, though it lauded corporate efforts such as “zero deforestation” commitments by some consumer goods companies. To this end, the report recommended a set of actions for the governments of countries that produced and consumed these agricultural goods.
Recommended measures for governments of producer countries included:
- Enforcing a moratorium on all forest conversion until a clear legal framework and enforcement systems were in place;
- Improving law enforcement by improving information sharing between government agencies;
- Imposing harsher penalties on culprits;
- Using technology such as satellite images to monitor deforestation more effectively.
“Urgent action is needed to help countries where these agricultural products are being grown, both for governments to enforce their own laws and regulations, and for businesses aiming to produce commodities legally and sustainably,” said Jenkins.
The report also made several recommendations for consumer countries which were donors to the global program Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a mechanism through which developing countries receive international funding to preserve their forests.
For example, the report suggested that REDD+ donor countries could insist that donated funds are used to make improvements to forest governance and legal frameworks, ensure that nationally-governed financial institutions do not do business to companies associated with illegal forest clearance, and provide technical support to civil society groups tackling these issues.
Governments of all consumer countries, regardless of their REDD+ status, could also act to curb the demand that fuels illegal deforestation. Some measures include requiring that all government purchases of agricultural products are from legal and sustainable sources, making it an offence to sell or import agricultural commodities grown on illegally cleared land, and ensuring that the penalties are high enough to discourage others from flouting these regulations.
“The current unfettered access to international markets for commodities from illegally cleared land is undermining the efforts of tropical countries to enforce their own laws,” said Lawson. “Consumer countries have a responsibility to help halt this trade.”
“Reforming the complex, conflicting and unclear laws and regulations that govern the forest and agricultural sectors is a critical step, alongside improving the enforcement and compliance of national and international laws. These must all be prioritized if global commitments to stop tropical deforestation are going to be achieved,” Jenkins added.
While such measures have been successfully implemented to combat trade in illegally sourced timber, it remains to be seen how they can be applied to other agricultural commodities, the report said.
“Increased agricultural production will be necessary for food security and to meet the demand of the emerging global middle class,” said Jenkins. “However, the world must also wake up to the scale of how much of this agricultural production is taking place on land that has been illegally cleared.”
Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management and land use are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.
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