Tropical deforestation claimed roughly 13 million hectares of forest per year during the first half of this decade, about the same rate of loss as the 1990s. But while the overall numbers have remained relatively constant, they mask a transition of great significance: a shift from poverty-driven to industry-driven deforestation and geographic consolidation of where deforestation occurs. These changes have important implications for efforts to protect the world’s remaining tropical forests in that environmental lobby groups now have identifiable targets that may be more responsive to pressure on environmental concerns than tens of millions of impoverished rural farmers. In other words, activists have more leverage than ever to impact corporate behavior as it relates to deforestation.
According to research by Tom Rudel of Rutgers University, from the 1960s through the 1980s, a large proportion of deforestation was the result of government policies promoting rural development, including agricultural loans and road construction. These initiatives, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia, drove large-scale deforestation by small landholders. Today, economic stability, an increasingly global financial market, and a worldwide commodity boom are conspiring to create a ripe environment for development by the private sector. While centrally planned development projects and poverty alleviation programs were once the engines of road construction and colonization schemes, the political impetus today for large infrastructure projects comes from industry interests seeking to facilitate access to international markets. Surging demand for grain, driven by the thirst for biofuels and rising standards of living in developing countries, are fueling the trend.
Since the 1990s deforestation has become increasingly concentrated. Recently published research by Matt Hansen of South Dakota State University suggests an even more dramatic shift in recent years. His work, which is based off of high resolution satellite imagery, shows that Brazil and Indonesia accounted for 61 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2005, rather than the 43 percent reported by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Although many are dismayed by what they see as greater capacity to destroy forests, the recent shift from poverty-driven deforestation to industry-driven deforestation may offer new opportunities for rainforest conservation in that it is easier for pressure groups to target corporations and enterprises rather than tens of millions of poor farmers who are simply trying to put food on the table for their families.
A good example can be seen in Greenpeace’s Slaughtering the Amazon report released this past June. The report linked some of the world’s most prominent brands — Nike, Toyota, Prada, and others — to destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The fallout from the report was immediate. Some of the world’s largest beef and leather buyers suspended contracts with suppliers associated with Amazon forest clearing. The Brazilian government announced a crackdown and fines, raided the offices of powerful cattle companies, and called for a review of loan programs. Government ministers joined the private sector in demanding new chain-of-custody controls for suppliers to ensure that cattle products were not contributing to deforestation. The largest cattle producers and traders soon responded with a moratorium on Amazon deforestation and a promise to implement improved supply-chain tracking mechanisms. The Brazilian cattle industry may now be on the cusp of transitioning from being the world’s largest single driver of deforestation to a critical component in helping slow climate change.
|To be effective, green NGOs should be careful to avoid “blackwashing” or using the same tactics corporations use to blatantly misrepresent environmental realities. Lying to the public undermines the credibility of activist groups and undermines support for protecting the environment, doing long-term damage to the cause.|
But while the shift in Brazil and some other parts of the world would seem to herald a shift towards greater concern over environmental performance among the largest drivers of deforestation, difficulties remain. Some markets — notably India and China but even in the U.S. and Europe in some cases — there is less consumer preference for environmentally-friendly goods. Further, “greenwashing,” or the misrepresentation of the environmental qualities of a product, also presents challenges for efforts to meaningfully reduce industry’s impact on the planet. Finally, industrial activities can often create a strong economic impetus for infrastructure development that further promotes forest clearing.
However an emerging emphasis on the values that ecosystems afford humanity may take some pressure off forests by creating opportunities for corporations to profit from protecting — rather than destroying — wildlands. For example, the proposed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) mechanism could provide incentives for traditional forest destroyers to embrace forests as valuable assets. The net result could be enterprise-driven preservation of wild lands. Of course, the key to the success of this effort is ensuring that rural populations and forest dwellers share in the proceeds. Without their partnership, deforestation is not going to disappear.
For a more nuanced discussion of this concept, take a look at New strategies for conserving tropical forests, a paper I wrote with Dr. William Laurance last year.