Demand For Agricultural Goods Drives Shocking Rates Of Illegal Deforestation

Crustmania, 'Deforestation,' via Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

A rather depressing new report, released today by the non-governmental organization Forest Trends, serves as a harsh wake-up call to the staggering rates of consumer-driven deforestation.

According to the report, over 70% of tropical deforestation worldwide is due to commercial agriculture, and half of the land clearance is illegal. Of the illegal destruction, 50% is driven by overseas demand for agricultural commodities such as beef, leather, soy, palm oil and paper. The authors estimate that as much as 40% of all palm oil, 20% of soy and 14% of beef traded internationally comes from illegally cleared land. Astonishingly, this trade is worth a whopping $61 billion per year.

“Five football fields of tropical forest are being destroyed every minute to supply these export commodities,” said lead author Sam Lawson. “There is hardly a product on supermarket shelves that is not potentially tainted.”

The largest importers of these agricultural commodities are the EU, China, India, Russia and the US. Despite tough laws and regulations that prevent the import of illegally logged timber, the EU and US have no equivalent legislation in place to prevent trade in commodities produced on illegally converted land. “This unfettered access is undermining the efforts of tropical countries to enforce their own laws,” said Lawson.

This devastating deforestation is widespread, but the majority is taking place in Brazil and Indonesia. Between 2000 and 2012, 90% of the 30.6 million hectares of forest lost in Brazil was illegal. However, the majority of this took place before 2004 when the government implemented strategies to reduce deforestation; since then, the rate has dropped. During the same time period, Indonesia lost 15.5 million hectares of forest, 80% of which was illegal.

Forest Trends

The majority of the companies that are devastating these tropical forests actually have government permits to do so, but Forest Trends found that these licences were often issued corruptly or obtained fraudulently. Unfortunately, this is not only affecting the environment but also the rights of indigenous communities that reside in these forests and rely on them for food and income. Recently, four indigenous campaigners in Peru were murdered for opposing illegal deforestation.

Alongside destroying habitats and causing significant losses in biodiversity, illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture is also contributing to climate change through carbon emissions. Each year, it’s estimated that the process produces around 1.47 gigatonnes of carbon, which is roughly one quarter of the EU’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions.

If we want to tackle this ongoing problem, which is now starting to spread to new countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, countries need to first stop importing these products. “Consumer countries have a responsibility to help halt this trade,” concluded Lawson. 

[Via Forest Trends, BBC News and New Scientist]

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