As fog clears on benefits of forest protection, excuses for failure wear thin

Scientists are producing stronger evidence on the economic and environmental value of keeping tropic forests standing.

deforestation waterscapes indonesia
An aerial view of forest and fields in Indonesia. Image: water.alternatives, CC BY-SA 2.0

Global efforts to stop the destruction of tropical forests have faltered so far largely because poor understanding of the value of preserving them has led to weak political will - a barrier that may be overcome with stronger evidence of their benefits.

In 2019, tropical rainforests disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to data recently published by Global Forest Watch, despite growing awareness of the role of carbon-storing forests in slowing climate change.

The loss of 3.8 million hectares (9.3 million acres) of forest was the third-biggest decline since the turn of the century, with Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia the top three offenders, the forest monitoring service said.

Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute (WRI), which runs the service, said effective forest protection was hamstrung by “lack of political will on the part of governments to enforce existing law”.

“We continue to tolerate high levels of illegal forest conversion. We continue to finance road-building and other infrastructure that provides access to forests,” she said.

“We continue to consume globally traded commodities produced on land recently cleared of forests.”

We continue to tolerate high levels of illegal forest conversion. We continue to finance road-building and other infrastructure that provides access to forests.

Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow, World Resources Institute 

Additional obstacles include slow progress on providing finance that rewards nations for conserving their forests and low appreciation of forests’ real value, added Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at WRI, a US-based think-tank.

A study by more than 100 researchers this week estimated the financial and wider economic benefits of setting and reaching a proposed goal to protect 30 per cent of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030.

For forests and mangroves in tropical countries alone, doing so could avoid annual losses of $170 billion-$534 billion by 2050, it said, by preventing the flooding, climate change, soil loss and coastal storm-surge damage that occurs when vegetation is lost.

But Seymour said the natural services provided by forests - including biodiversity conservation, maintaining cleaner air and water, generating rainfall and keeping temperatures cooler - had been mainly ignored by policy-makers up to now.

Climate goals 

Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions produced worldwide.

Forests also provide food and livelihoods for people living in or near them, as well as an essential habitat for wildlife.

“When policy-makers recognise those values, more attention is given to forest protection,” Seymour said, citing action by Indonesia after a bad fire season in 2015 that has helped brake deforestation rates.

Brazil also succeeded in reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 80 per cent from 2004-2012 through increasing law enforcement, expanding protected areas, recognising indigenous territories, and using incentives to control land conversion, she noted.

“Stop pursuing those policies, and deforestation goes back up,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Try harder 

In recent months, conservationists have warned of a rising threat to the world’s forests because of restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

Although deforestation cannot be completely halted, it can be reduced considerably, said Robert Nasi, director general at the Center for International Forestry Research.

“Let’s be realistic given our economic model and demography,” he said.

Pledges like those made by major corporations in 2010 to stop forest-clearing linked to palm oil production by 2020 have mostly missed their deadlines but are bringing change, environmentalists said.

“It is better to have ambitious aspirational targets that you cannot reach rather than easily achievable ones,” said Nasi. “But we also need to be serious about trying.”

Thorny prospects 

Companies should make more effort to stick to their no-deforestation commitments, said Kiki Taufik, head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s forest campaign.

Governments must also double down on regulating and monitoring land use, give fiscal incentives for conservation and be transparent with reliable data, he added.

But despite the world having the tools and know-how, few conservationists see big improvements in the coming years.

Many predict more deforestation linked to agriculture and degradation in boreal forests due to climate change and fires.

WRI’s Seymour said proven methods of protecting forests needed to be stepped up, such as giving indigenous communities legal rights and state support to defend their areas against encroachment by others.

The next 10 years would be key, she added.

“If we continue on our current path … we will certainly have much reduced, more degraded and more fire-prone forests in 2030,” she warned.

Conservation tools 

Green activists have blamed the production of palm oil, the world’s most widely used edible oil, for much of Southeast Asia’s forest loss and fires in recent years.

Efforts to green the industry have hit roadblocks.

Almost a decade ago, Singapore-listed palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources began working with Greenpeace on new environmental standards.

That led to the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) in 2014, which uses satellite imagery, ground surveys and consultation with local communities to distinguish high-value forests needing protection from land suitable for development.

“We want to halt deforestation,” said Grant Rosoman, a senior forests advisor at Greenpeace and co-founder of the HCSA. “We have got the tool to do it.”

In 2018, the HCSA methodology was adopted by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the global industry watchdog.

And in 2019, HCSA signed a partnership with the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry group accounting for about 85 per cent of the cocoa supply chain, to end deforestation in the trade.

By June, almost 700,000 hectares of high-value forests had been secured for conservation. The HCSA estimates it will prevent deforestation of 8 million-10 million hectares by 2030.

“It is a proven methodology for conserving tropical forests whilst respecting local community rights,” said HCSA executive director Judy Rodrigues.

But earlier this year, palm oil giants Wilmar and Sime Darby Plantation quit the HCSA steering committee, with Wilmar citing governance concerns and Sime Darby saying it would focus on “on-ground commitments” in its global operations and supply chain.

HCSA said the issues raised by Wilmar were being resolved.

Family farmers

In Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, analysts say progress will also depend on giving smaller growers access to forest conservation tools.

HCSA is piloting a simplified version of its method for such farmers, who typically manage less than four hectares each.

Trials with palm oil and other commodities are also being conducted in Ghana, Mexico and Peru.

“Family farmers are the backbone to commodity supply chains,” said Rodrigues. “It is critical they are supported to play a central role in deforestation-free supply chains.”

In Indonesia, the HCSA is working on a pilot programme in three villages on Borneo island with the Oil Palm Smallholders Union (SPKS), a cooperative of around 48,000 small farmers.

SPKS head Mansuetus Darto said he hoped the enhanced model of conservation would help producers receive higher prices.

“It is a new path to greater prosperity for farmers,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit


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