Trees are a crucial part of the ecological balance that is under threat from human activity
Of all the Earth’s natural resources, it would be hard to find anything more perfect than trees. From cleaning the air to preventing soil erosion, providing shelter for wildlife and humans as well as fuel and livelihoods, trees have been lifesavers – and largely taken for granted because of their seemingly endless supply.
Numerous global organisations, though, have been sounding alarm bells over the past decade about the widespread destruction of forests, calling on governments to better protect forests and on businesses to treat them more responsibly. Awareness has grown in the public and industrial sectors about the need to be more thoughtful when considering forest use and take steps to replace trees. But the crisis is still here and experts say the importance of healthy forests, particularly rainforests, cannot be overstated.
“Forests are the most complex ecosystems on Earth and the most complex social habitats,” according to Jeff Conant, an international forests campaigner for Friends of the Earth US, part of the largest environmental group in the world, which develops public advocacy campaigns to protect tropical forests.
Forests still cover 31% of the planet’s land area and 1.6 billion people rely directly on their many benefits, but only 10% of the planet’s original primary global forests are left. Many groups are monitoring the rate of deforestation – the permanent destruction of forests in order to free up land for other uses. An estimated 7.3m hectares or 18m acres of forest, which is about the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. This equates to losing 36 football fields every minute.
Deforestation has many causes and culprits, many of which have to do with cutting trees for fuel and raw materials and clearing forests for ranching or large-scale farming for high-demand crops such as palm oil and soy.
“We call it ‘death by a thousand cuts’,” says Rod Taylor, director, forests, for WWF International and the interim head of WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN). “It has a whole bunch of players behind it, some from outside the forest sector; the expansion of roads, infrastructure, farms, various sectors, palm oil, soy. Also, poor management of forests within the forestry sector. When an area is selectively logged by a company, it becomes degraded and is susceptible to fire. Over time, the forest disappears.”
In the tropics, deforestation causes include small farmers burning forest to increase the size of their land, soy and palm oil farming and illegal logging, says Hans Stout, tropical timber programme director at IDH, a group that promotes sustainable trade.
Forests for people
The well-being of local populations depending on forests also suffers when incoming forest users fail to consult with them, according to Patrick Anderson, policy advisor with the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which works with more than a dozen Indonesian non-government groups to document, support and advocate with forest peoples facing threats from the oil palm and pulp and paper industries.
“A key aspect of deforestation is the failure of governments and industry to respect the rights of forest peoples,” Anderson says. “Numerous studies have shown that where traditional forest communities have security of tenure, they manage forests better than government or industry, maintaining forests that contain more carbon and biodiversity and generate more local economic activity. The role of forest peoples in maintaining and protecting forests is routinely ignored and violated by governments, industries and even some conservation groups. A rights-based approach to saving forests is urgently needed.”
The consequences of deforestation are felt throughout the eco-system. Besides disrupting the lives of indigenous people, deforestation increases the risk of soil erosion, displaces native animals and is a contributing factor to climate change because trees absorb carbon dioxide. Fifteen percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation.
“You cannot separate motivations for protecting forests,” says Conant. “They absorb significant amounts of CO2 pollution. Destruction of world forests does more to damage the atmosphere than cars and trucks.”
About 300bn tonnes of carbon, equal to 40 times the annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, is stored in trees, according to Greenpeace. When a tree is felled or dies, it stops absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and if the tree is burned or left to rot, its carbon – stored in the wood – is largely released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Deforestation releases nearly a billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere a year, according to the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment. Destruction of trees also has decreased global water vapour flows from land by 4%, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences. Just this minor change in vapour flows can disrupt natural weather patterns and change current climate models.
In addition, if peat is exposed when forests are cut down, the drying peat also decomposes and emits carbon dioxide.
“We believe forests are part of the broader climate solution,” says Michael Wolosin, managing director of Climate Advisers, which studies the connection between deforestation and climate change. “Reforestation and forest restoration could be part of the global solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re looking at how the US can partner with other countries to help them stop deforestation.”
While all forests are in need of protection, a number of groups are concentrating on tropical rain forests because of the accelerated rate of deforestation in some countries. “A lot of energy is going into protecting them,” Conant says.
Rainforests are the home of much of the world’s biodiversity. About 17% of the forest in the Amazon has been lost in the past 50 years, mostly through forests being cleared for cattle ranching. While particularly heavy near the more populated areas, even remote regions are not immune to deforestation.
Indonesia has the highest rate of deforestation. So far this century, Indonesia has lost at least 15.8m hectares of forest land, according to a study by the University of Maryland in the US and the World Resource Institute. Between 1m and 2m hectares of forest disappear annually.
The palm oil problem
The primary reason for clearing so much land is to grow African palm oil trees. Indonesia is the world`s largest producer of palm oil, a key ingredient in many household items. But the practice is devastating critical rainforests.
A type of edible vegetable oil, palm oil is derived from the palm fruit of the African oil palm tree. Originally from West Africa, the trees now grow in many warm, rainy climates. Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85% of the world’s palm oil, but usually not involving sustainable methods.
Palm oil is an ingredient in 40-50% of household products in countries including the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK. It is used across product lines, as an ingredient in baked goods, confectioneries, shampoo, cosmetics and cleaning agents, among many others. “There’s an enormous market for palm oil, and there will be a rise in demand with rising numbers of consumers,” says Sarah Lake, a research analyst on Global Forest Watch’s commodities team.
“Palm oil is the single biggest driver of deforestation,” says Conant. “It is grown in huge plantations with limited environmental and social regulations and has become the leading crop in the developing world. It has to do with the fact that it is a versatile oil, very efficient, solid at room temperature, transports well and is very cheap.”
Over the past few years, though, some palm oil farmers have voluntarily committed to reducing deforestation, says Wolosin. “The commitments are just starting to be operational; they are moving from commitment to operation.”
Besides palm oil, Indonesia is also a major producer of paper and wood, making the country the planet’s third largest generator of carbon dioxide emissions.
One of the biggest concerns emerging from the University of Maryland/World Resource Institute report was the rate of tree removal in Indonesia’s primary forests, the areas where many animals on the verge of extinction live, such as tigers, Asian rhinoceros and orangutans, according to an article in Zeenews.india.com. The Indonesian government did approve a moratorium in 2011 designed to limit the removal of native forests, but it only pertains to intact forests, leaving others at risk.
After the Amazon and Congo, Indonesia has the largest tropical forests in the world, home to 10% of the planet’s plants, 12% of mammals, 17% of birds and 16% of amphibians and reptiles, according to Zeenews.
About half of the world's tropical forests have already been cleared and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has predicted that if the current deforestation levels continue, the world's rainforests may be completely gone in as little as 100 years. Besides Indonesia, countries with significant deforestation include Brazil, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa, as well as parts of Eastern Europe, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The tropical rainforest is in danger and has an important function for fauna and flora, carbon storage and the life of many communities,” says IDH’s Stout. Part of IDH’s mission is to work closely with NGOs such as WWF, FSC International, the African organisation ATIBT and PEFC to raise awareness of the problem. IDH has chosen to focus its efforts on Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.
Out of about 600m hectares of production forest, only 30m hectares, about 5% of the total, is under sustainable forest management, Stout adds.
Forests, though, have many advocates and more are getting on board. In September 2014, 36 countries signed the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary agreement to reduce the rate of natural forest loss by half by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. (The WWF has set a goal of Zero Net Deforestation and Degradation by 2020.) Pledges were made by 14 countries in which more than half of the estimated tropical forest loss is expected to take place. Developed countries have pledged monetary rewards to countries that reduce emissions from forest loss or degradation, but the amount has been below expectations. Only four countries have set targets to reach zero deforestation by 2020.
Transparency for trees
Getting businesses and government to rethink their approach to development and increasing transparency in the supply chain are among the challenges that remain in combating deforestation. “The big challenge is land use planning, making a business case for timber and a combination of products such as agro-forestry,” says Stout.
“Companies can and do play every role imaginable in deforestation and attempts to end it,” adds Anderson. “There are progressive companies seeking to end their role in deforestation, and there are many companies who still only seek to maximize short term profits regardless of environmental and social impacts.”
Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a group of pulp and paper manufacturing companies in Indonesia and China, is supporting the South Sumatra government’s plan to use a multi-stakeholder approach to curb deforestation and cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, partner countries, the community, NGOs and the private sector met with APP and the Dutch-based NGO IDH to create a partnership to develop a GHG reduction model.
To implement the model, the South Sumatran government divided its region into three landscapes: peat and mangrove; water catchment; and dry and lowland areas. APP gave a presentation on its plans to develop peatland management best practices.
APP is currently in the third year of implementing a forest conservation policy and recently launched a two-year, multi-million-dollar project with independent researchers Deltares to establish best practice in peat management. The project involves the detailed 3D scanning of 4.5m hectares of Sumatran peatland.
“As one of the stakeholders operating in this landscape, we are well aware of our commitment to preserve it for the future,” said Aida Greenbury, APP’s managing director of Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement in a prepared statement. “To do this we must develop effective, clear mechanisms for stakeholders to engage with the issue, to understand the roles and responsibility in managing the landscape – from the businesses who oversee the concessions to governments and policy makers addressing climate change, and the communities and NGOs on the ground.”
Relevant data has already been collected on High Conservation Value (HCV), High Carbon Stock (HCS), community mapping, and the neighbouring concessions holders.
In the past few months, two major international companies announced agreements with the WWF to help curb deforestation. Unilever and the WWF formed a one-year partnership in July to enlist consumers to help protect one million trees. The two plan to fund projects in Brazil and Indonesia designed to “reduce deforestation and forest degradation, restore forest areas, promote sustainable forest management and increase tree stocks in agricultural landscapes,” according to the WWF. The partnership is designed to raise public awareness about the importance of forests to the health of the planet and the threats forests face by engaging millions of consumers on the issues and providing them with practical ways to express their views.
“Stopping deforestation is an urgent priority in tackling climate change,” notes Unilever CEO Paul Polman in a WWF statement. “Forests are second only to the oceans as the largest global store of carbon and support 80% of terrestrial biodiversity across the globe. As a business it is crucial that we operate sustainably and take action to help consumers live sustainably.”
In May, the WWF and Apple announced they were teaming up on a five-year project to help China shrink its environmental footprint by producing paper products from responsibly managed forests within its own borders. The programme is aimed at assisting China—the world’s largest producer and consumer of paper products, according to the WWF - use less land and water and generate less pollution to produce paper, while still meeting the ever-growing demand for paper products. While this type of forest management is growing in China, it is not yet widespread.
Among the goals of the project is increasing the amount of forest land within China certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), ensuring that the wood comes from a responsibly managed forest that “follows rigorous standards for environmental and social responsibility,” notes the WWF.
Other measures to protect forests can be as simple as examining the way roads and railways are built, to ensure they don’t go through fragile forests and safeguards are provided to preserve nearby trees and paths for wildlife, says Taylor of the GFTN.
Conant cites an ongoing challenge the “black box of the supply chain, the lack of transparency that makes it very difficult to trace where your palm oil or other products are coming from”. The lack of clear land rights in developing countries also complicates efforts to curb deforestation. “Forests in most of the developing world are de facto owned by the government,” Conant says. “The single best way to protect forests is to protect the rights of people who live in them.”
Businesses’ drive for profit and growth and consumers’ demand for products have to be reconciled with the fact that only 10% of original primary global forests remain, Conant says, but he adds: “Companies are increasingly aware of the need to act responsibly.”
A movement is underway among retailers to provide consumer goods from a deforestation-free supply chain, Taylor adds.
Results-based incentives will have to come into play, says Wolosin, such as bilateral agreements, payment for reduced emissions, trade incentives, lower tariffs on countries that reduce deforestation and encouragement for banks to finance projects where deforestation is not involved.
“There are ways to make it more valuable for countries to want to manage their forests,” Wolosin says. “I see significant and long-term incentives that emerge from climate policy to reduce and eliminate deforestation by companies and government. We are part of the problem and need to be part of the solutions.”deforestation natural resources Brazil China UN wildlife animals WWF rainforest Palm Oil