Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.

 

Good news: Deforestation slowing in some countries

While there are plenty of environmental concerns to fret about, it's also important to recognize good news.  And some of the best news recently is this: A number of nations have had real success in slowing rampant deforestation.

Conservation strategies really are helping  (photo by William Laurance)

Conservation strategies really are helping (photo by William Laurance)

At the Bonn Climate Conference, the Union of Concerned Scientists has just released a report detailing how some nations are winning the battle to slow forest loss or encourage reforestation. 

Some of the key strategies include:

- Carbon trading, with REDD+ financing benefiting forests in Guyana, Brazil, Kenya, Madagascar, and Costa Rica

- Payments for ecosystem services, which have been successful in various countries, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Vietnam

- Improving governance and law enforcement, which has aided forest protection in central Africa and Brazil

- Temporary moratoria on forest clearing, which have benefited forests imperiled by the massive beef and soy industries in Brazil

- Notably, most success stories include examples of empowering local communities and decentralizing forest-management decisions

Globally, the rate of forest loss fell by a fifth between the 1990s and 2000s.  Perhaps the most remarkable story of all is the Brazilian Amazon, where the deforestation rate has plummeted by nearly 80% over the last decade.

What these examples reveal is that actions to conserve forests really can produce meaningful results.  The message for conservationists: take note and take heart.