Deforestation now driven by profit, not poverty

Local practices are no longer the problem. © Curt Carnemark / World Bank

BONITO, Brazil (2 August, 2012)_The main drivers of deforestation worldwide are no longer subsistence-level farmers trying to put food on their tables, but corporations, converting massive tracts of land for industrial agriculture, said the founder of the Mongabay website, adding that this offers a rare opportunity for conservation.

Because McDonalds, Mattel Inc, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and others are sensitive to campaigns by environmentalists, they are slowly becoming valuable actors in the fight to slow climate change, Rhett Butler said.

There are several caveats, however: conglomerates need to be monitored against “green washing” — misrepresenting the environmental qualities of their products, a common strategy used by those under fire. And, as Western consumer markets decline, big offenders may eventually become harder to influence.

Much has changed in the last half century, said Butler, whose website provides news and information on tropical forests.

In the 1970s, government development schemes promoted the clearing of vast tracts of land as part of efforts to help millions of poor farmers put food on their own tables and supply local markets. But with globalisation, people from rural communities are increasingly relocating to cities. And states, with an eye on international markets, have shifted focus to large-scale infrastructure projects like roads, dams and power plants, a number of CIFOR studies have shown.

“We know that commercial drivers of deforestation are now more important than some decades back. In part, that is simply because over this period national and international trade have become more important in all our lives, including in the lives of poor smallholders at the agricultural frontier,” said Sven Wunder, a principal CIFOR scientist based in Brazil.

As a result, a large portion of forests today are being cleared by the world’s biggest corporations, which control a larger and larger share of the market. Nearly half of all global production, Butlersaid citing data from a WWF study, comes from just 100 companies.

“This trend is increasingly driven by profit rather than poverty and by regional or international markets rather than local needs,” he said.

This could be good news. With the right pressure, he said, they could help slow climate change.

As an example, Butler pointed to McDonalds, which in 2006 was accused by Greenpeace of using chicken feed coming from soybeans grown in the Brazilian Amazon, thus contributing to deforestation. The fast-food giant responded to the pressure by launching its Sustainable Land Management Commitment (SLMC), a policy that requires suppliers to use raw materials that originate from sustainably-managed lands.

That same year, Brazil implemented a moratorium on soy grown on newly deforested lands, changing the way commodities were produced in the Amazon. It has been extended every year since and has had significant impact, said Butler.

A more complicated example is cattle ranching, one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, because there are so many actors involved and because it is as much part of culture as an economic activity. According to Mongabay, around 65,000 sq. kilometers of pastures have been set aside for ranching since 2006, with 80 million head of cattle in the Cerrado and Amazon region.

In 2009, however, Greenpeace launched a campaign targeted at buyers of secondary products, like leather, that go primarily to export markets. Increasingly, those companies have demanded assurances on deforestation from suppliers, Butler said. At the same time, public prosecutors took action, threatening multi-billion dollar fines against supermarkets and slaughterhouses that ignored existing laws. Within months, a cattle agreement was signed requiring supply chains to track cattle, forbidding cattle ranching on recently deforested lands and fines for non-compliant rangers.

There is no doubt, Butler said, that the campaign by Greenpeace contributed to policy changes in the country.

He stressed the need to be vigilant to corporate green-washing, changes that come with declining Western consumer markets, and a skyrocketing demand for raw materials. The biggest challenge is that as people consume, there is going to be more pressure on the land, he said.

Even so, Butler concluded, as long as big markets are still influential, there is better technology (satellites, supply chain tracking), a recognition of the value of the ecosystem services, and nascent leadership from emerging economies, there is reason for hope.

CIFOR’s research is supported by the CGIAR Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


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