Tropical rainforests are home to rich indigenous cultures and amazing biodiversity. They also play an important role in stabilizing the climate and sequestering carbon. However, tropical deforestation continues to happen around the world at an alarming rate. This loss generates almost 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation sector, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
A large amount of tropical deforestation is driven by the creation of agricultural land, but a new report from Forest Trends finds that nearly half of all conversion from primary rainforest to agricultural use happens illegally. A few key agricultural products drive most of the deforestation, and are largely produced for export.
1. BeefRising demand for beef is driven in part by a growing global population and also an expanding middle class, particularly in the East Asia and China. Beef and leather production are both drivers of illegal deforestation in Brazil, although the country has had considerable success in slowing the rate of forest loss.
Sam Lawson, the lead author of the Forest Trends report, said that soy is linked to the rising demand for meat. “Most of the soy is used as feed for cattle and chickens and pigs.” Soy farming drives deforestation in Brazil, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia.
3. Palm oil
Palm oil is the most efficient source of vegetable oil, and also one of the most profitable. The deforestation associated with palm oil is vast, particularly in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia. “You can drive through large areas of Malaysia and see nothing but oil palm plantations,” said Lawson. “And yet the projections are that the world is going to need another Malaysia’s worth of oil palm plantations to be planted to meet growing demand.”
4. Wood pulp
Deforestation for wood pulp plantations is a major problem in Indonesia. The pulp used to create paper products, or to make textiles like rayon.
In many countries, some of the agricultural products grown on illegally converted land are sold domestically. However, in Papua New Guinea, 100 percent of the these products (including both cocoa and soy) are exported, according to Forest Trends. The good news is that ethically-sourced chocolate is one product that’s relatively easy to find.
What can be done
A number of companies are taking steps to establish more traceable supply chains, with help of third-party verifications systems like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
However, Forest Trends suggests that governments of consumer countries can also play an important role. “The problem is that the efforts by the tropical forest countries to prevent deforestation for these commodities are being undermined by the fact that the importing countries are basically undiscerning,” said Lawson. Importing countries could create penalties for importing goods not produced on legally created plantations, thereby lowering the incentives to continue illegally clearing forests for these commodities.
Changing consumer behavior might have some positive impact, but with products like wood pulp and palm oil it can be extremely difficult to discern the good from the bad.
“What individual consumers could probably more effectively do is to lobby their politicians, lobby the companies that produce these goods, and give to NGOs and charities that are campaigning on these issues," said Lawson. “I think that would probably be more effective than changing your own purchasing practices.”