Rainforest destruction increasingly driven by enterprises, not poverty
An interview with Dr. Thomas K. Rudel, forest researcher at Rutgers
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 18, 2007
Globally the U.N. estimates some 13 million hectares of forest are cleared each year, a figure only slightly changed from recent decades. But these numbers mask an insidious transition from government- and subsistence-driven deforestation to corporate-driven forest destruction.
A reason for hope?
Rudel says that while the corporatization of deforestation is cause for concern, it could also be reason for optimism.
Dr. Tom Rudel
Already the formation of groups like Alianca da Terra for beef producers in Brazil and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil suggest that industry is sensitive to pressure on environmental concerns, perhaps more so than government agencies or masses of rural poor. Seizing on the vulnerability of their public image, activist groups increasingly target the heads of multinational corporations in their campaigns. Last year, after pressure from Greenpeace, a group of the largest soy crushers in the Amazon agreed to a moratorium on soy until they can devise a tracking mechanism to ensure their crop is coming from responsible producers. Similar supply chain management systems may soon be seen for Amazon beef and palm oil from southeast Asia. Several financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp, have made concessions on their lending and funding practices relating to forest destruction following campaigns from environmentalists.
In a December 2007 interview with mongabay.com, Rudel talked about the changing face of deforestation as well as his personal experiences in one of the most biodiverse ecoregions of the planet: the eastern slope of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru. Since first visiting the areas as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the late 1960s, Rudel has witnessed the dramatic transformation of forests for agriculture.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. THOMAS RUDEL
Mongabay: In your 2005 book "Tropical Forests: Regional Paths of Destruction and Regeneration in the Late 20th Century" and subsequent "Land Use Policy" paper, you report a striking shift in the drivers of tropical deforestation since the 1970s. Why has deforestation become more enterprise-driven since then? Have changes in government policy in forest lands had a significant impact? What about globalization? Have forces driving deforestation varied by region?
Globalization has made a big difference because as governments were scaling down their efforts, timber firms, sometimes based in Southeast Asia, were ramping up their efforts. The recent interest of Asian logging firms in logging the Amazon basin and the recent sale of large amounts of Central African wood to China exemplify these trends.
Historically government forest policies have not had much of an effect on patterns of deforestation, but there may be changes afoot here. The growth in government promoted reforestation efforts, especially in Asia, is striking. It may be too much to hope for, but it is conceivable that these programs might relieve some of the economic pressure to cut down the old growth forests.
Mongabay: In your 2007 "Land Use Policy" paper, you note that logging eventually led to the establishment of cattle pasture in Brazil and oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Does commercial logging continue to play a significant role in driving conversion of forest lands for agriculture and other uses?
Mongabay: Some researchers (for example Wright and Muller-Landau 2007) have suggested that slowing rural population growth coupled with urbanization will give forests a reprieve and allow them to recover. Do you agree with this assessment or will factors like market-driven industrial agriculture and plantations continue to put pressure on forest lands? What's your near and long-term out look for tropical forests?
Smallholder deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (top), clearing for oil palm plantations in Sarawak, Malaysia (bottom). Images courtesy of Google Earth
Mongabay: In a 2000 paper you noted that conservation groups have had a tough time protecting forest in the Amazon. How can conservation groups be more effective?
Rudel: Oil companies (for example) have a lot of discretion about how they exploit a site. For example, serving wells by monorail rather than by a road has large consequences for deforestation in and around oil fields. Three and four party negotiations about these issues, including NGOs, can accomplish some meaningful gains. I would hope that the NGOs would not be afraid to talk to the companies for fear of being branded a 'sell out'. At the same time the NGOs need to be able to exact a high environmental price (in the form of preserved lands or reduced cutting around pipelines) for the legitimacy that they are conferring on the companies.
Mongabay: What is the best way to manage forests to ensure they will be around for future generations? Do you see a place for carbon finance/avoided deforestation in forest conservation?
Rudel: Definitely! It is a very hopeful sign that a coalition of forest rich countries is already raising this issue in the preliminary discussions about extending or re-authorizing the Kyoto Protocol.
Mongabay: What can people do here in the United States to help ensure the sustainable management/protection of forests?
Rudel: Don't buy mahogany furniture or eat Brazilian beef (it used to be banned from the US, but it no longer is). Mahogany invariably comes from old growth forests, and these 200 year old trees are just extracted; no replanting occurs. Teak is a different matter.
Mongabay: It seems that your work in the Peace Corps had a significant influence on your focus of research. What about that experience led you to pursue this path?
Shaded cattle pasture in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by Tom Rudel
Mongabay: Do you have any advice for students wanting to pursue a career in forest research?
Rudel: I think that it is important to alternate periods of practice, outside of schools, with study in schools. The work outside of schools gives meaning to the abstractions that one studies and grounds much of what goes on in schools. So going to a school of forestry or environmental studies makes a lot of sense, but it was a much richer experience for me when I did it because I had spent some time in the field before I went back to school.
Mongabay: What's your favorite place to visit in the tropics?
Rudel: I would have to say that the eastern slope of the Andes where it meets the Amazon in Ecuador and Peru would be my favorite place. When the weather clears (a big 'if'), the views back into the Andes are 'out of this world'. You can be looking up at snow covered volcanoes while standing in a place festooned with tropical plants. Whew! The view downstream from Macchu Pichu captures the same kind of scene from a different angle.