Stopping Deforestation: why we're failing

Stopping Deforestation: why we're failing

Last night, sitting safely in my Swiss village home thousands of miles from the cut and thrust of tropical deforestation, Mighty Earth’s Glenn Hurowitz snatched my breath away with this tweet:

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Glenn is a passionate forest defender but I know that GAR is working great shifts to grapple with the challenge of ending deforestation in Indonesia.

GAR’s Anita Neville replied:

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Glenn is yet to respond. How indeed?

Deforestation is not exclusively a problem of small farmers, Glenn’s “illegal deforesters”. Big companies are ripping into tropical forests too, highlighted most recently by Greenpeace in Indonesia’s West Papua Province. NGO’s common response is to blame downstream traders and brands they say are failing to implement No Deforestation commitments; they shouldn’t buy raw materials from either source. NGOs argue that if companies did better, deforestation would go away.

Deforestation isn’t going away. In some places, having declined in recent years, it’s on the rise. We’re failing in our efforts to halt it.

Let’s look at small farmers. There are hundreds of millions of them. They’re usually poor. Growing commodities like palm oil, rubber and cocoa on small land parcels carved illegally out of a forest reserve gives them an opportunity to improve their livelihoods. Their farm income sustains their often large families and helps pay for healthcare and education. Their deforestation might be against the national law and against our feelings of what’s right for the environment, but the farmers often hold customary rights over the land and NGOs also rightly call for these rights to be respected. Their deforestation is aligned with some Sustainable Development Goals. Agricultural expansion is a foundation for development, even if it comes at the expense of tropical forests. Developing country governments see their land base, covered with forests or not, as a resource to lift people out of poverty, either through their own farming efforts or through employment generated by the industry that follows the development of large scale plantations, also often carved from forest.

Laws are human constructs but smallholder deforestation is aligned with the deeper and more fundamental laws of nature, all beings need food, so telling smallholders they can’t deforest, legally or otherwise, to sustain themselves is a fundamental abrogation of their human right to survive.

Let’s look at companies and palm oil. In Indonesia, around 40% of all palm oil is consumed within the country. Another 40% is exported to Asian neighbours who don’t ask questions about deforestation. A final 20% is exported to places like Europe and the US where some companies have unevenly implemented No Deforestation commitments. Even if every No Deforestation company became 100% deforestation free, deforestation would continue because of growing demand in Asia. Deforestation elsewhere linked to other commodities follows a similar pattern. Governments aren’t trying to stop deforestation. They issue licences that drive it and ignore “illegal” smallholder deforestation because they want development.

We should expect No Deforestation companies to fully implement their commitments. NGOs are right but blaming them every time a tree falls is ignoring reality. Can we ever tell a growing population of poor people that forests are more important than their lives? I love forests, I worship them, it grieves me when I see deforestation but I can’t advocate kicking farmers into landlessness, poverty and hunger. What to do?

Beating up on the handful of high profile brands with No Deforestation commitments sustains NGOs and makes a few conscious consumers in Western countries think these companies hold the key to saving the planet. It gives vent to their anger though shamed brands don’t seem to suffer falling profits so I’m not sure how far consumer anger really goes. Developing country governments, companies and smallholder farmers aren’t in this picture. They need to be.

We’re failing to stop deforestation because most of it can’t actually be stopped and because our efforts are too narrowly focused on a small stakeholder group. Nestlé, Mars and Unilever seem big to us, but try speaking to hundreds of millions of small farmers with their livelihoods at great risk, the companies doing larger scale deforestation or the governments that represent and support them. That’s where the power behind the bulldozers, chainsaws, machetes and matches truly lies.

The only way we will ever successfully grapple with deforestation and other similarly complex environmental problems is to sit down, person to person, and speak with everyone involved to find a way forward. We must be humble, respectful and compassionate toward the other. Only then can ears, minds and finally souls be open to consider the position of others with skin in the game. Deforestation is inevitable. It will continue. This is not defeatist; it’s life. The question is where the line will finally be drawn and what will remain when it is? My fear is the answer will be “not much.”

If we speak together, all stakeholders and I don’t mean via PowerPoint presentations in conference halls in grand hotels, we might find a little path we can all follow that will make the eventual loss less. That’s the reality we should explore and in doing so, courageously work to do the best we can to avert the worse. There’s a very strong chance even that will fail, humanity is humanity and the real problem is that there is just too many of us to care for, but we should try.

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