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Forest-risk goods

Export-oriented commercial agriculture is the single largest driver of tropical deforestation, argues a new book

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Wednesday 15 March 2017
Frances Seymour and Jonah Busch<br>
Center for Global Development |
429 pages | $24.95

Tropical forests, which are essential to arrest climate change, are falling prey to the consumption patterns of the modern world. Why Forests? Why Now? puts the spotlight on the role of rich nations, pointing out that while the global demand for certain commodities is a key driver of tropical forest loss, industrialised countries have done little to combat greenhouse gas emissions arising due to deforestation.

Export-oriented commercial agriculture is the “single largest driver of tropical deforestation”, with demand for soybean, palm oil and wood products constantly soaring in the international market. The book also contradicts the conventional wisdom that blames smallholders or poor people for converting forestlands into agricultural farms, thus, leading to deforestation.

While Latin America’s primary forest loss can be blamed on beef production and soybean cultivation, in Southeast Asia, pulp and paper, timber and palm oil are the major contributors to deforestation. Rubber, coffee and cacao have also contributed to forest loss.

Spices and beverages have always been in demand in the temperate latitudes, and this led to earlier explorations by European settlers in the tropics. However, in recent times, the scale of demand has changed, as the affluent are demanding more food and fibre. Between 1963 and 2005, there was a 30 per cent increase in croplands due to dietary demands.

Perverse government policies are also encouraging this trend by providing subsidy for biofuels. Such subsidies in the European Union and the US have increased the pressure on precious forest resources, threatening food security in developing countries through higher food prices.

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Citing the example of a hypothetical dinner table in Milan and its forest foot-print, the book mentions a study conducted in 2014 that estimated that four “forest-risk” commodities—beef, soybeans, palm oil and wood products—were produced in eight countries by cutting 3.9 million hectares of forests in 2009, or roughly one-third of the deforestation that took place globally that year.

The positive sign is that many private companies have pledged to break the link between commodity production and forest clearing. Many reputed brands now want to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. The authors argue that there is an urgent need to reduce the demand of “unsustainably-produced” goods, especially by the rich countries.

However, they concede that the forest footprint of globally traded commodities, given the increasing demand, will only grow in the future. The book is a much-needed treatise on tropical forests.

FRANCES SEYMOUR, co-author of the book
`Clarify forest rights, tenure'
FRANCES SEYMOUR, co-author of the book, is Senior Fellow, Tropical Forests for Climate and Development Initiative, Center for Global Development, Washington DC. She speaks to Down To Earth on the factors leading to deforestation. Excerpts from an interview

What are the various ways we can combat deforestation?

Our book focuses mostly on what rich countries can do to provide incentives, including finance, to forest-rich countries to reduce deforestation. We need to ensure that the forest-risk commodities that they import are legally and sustainably produced. How to address smallholder-driven deforestation is one of the most difficult challenges faced by forest-rich countries. There are no ªone-size-fits-allº solutions, in part because the term ªsmallholdersº encompasses a broad range of land-users, some with more legitimate claims on forestland than others.

While our book does not provide an in-depth treatment of this issue, evidence from other studies suggests that often the first step needed is to clarify forest resource rights and tenure, in order to establish who owns a particular area of forestland, and under what circumstances it is legal to convert forests to other land-uses or to exploit for forest products. For example, there are many cases in which indigenous or other local communities want to protect their forests from encroachment by third parties, but lack the legal recognition of their rights or official back-up to do so.

Is there a need to change our dietary habits to arrest forest loss?

The analysis in our book makes it clear that production of forest-risk food commodities such as beef are the key drivers of deforestation and associated emissions. And because the costs of those impacts are not reflected in commodity prices, current dietary choices are effectively being subsidised by the people, who are adversely affected by the loss of the un-priced ecosystem services provided by forests—both locally, and in the case of climate emissions, globally. We recommend that governments of consumer countries enact policies to ensure that imported commodities are legally and sustainably produced. We further recommend that governments should not subsidise biofuels based on food-based feedstocks. Because such policies would only increase the demand and prices for those commodities, which in turn, is associated with greater deforestation. While our book doesn't prescribe dietary choices for individuals, it's clear that eating less beef would decrease a person's carbon footprint.

What kind of global policies can help reshape timber trade to reduce the growth of forest-risk commodities?

The European Union's Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative, and similar policies in other timber-importing countries, have stimulated constructive processes in a number of timber-producing countries to establish systems for verifying the legality of timber exports. Based on the progress made under such initiatives, a similar approach could also be applied usefully to other forest-risk commodities.

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