What’s ahead for rainforests in 2016? 10 things to watch

Between Indonesia’s massive forest fires, the official approval of REDD+ at climate talks in Paris, and the establishment of several major national parks, there was plenty to get excited about in the world of rainforests during 2015. What’s in store for 2016?

Here are a few things we’ll be watching closely in the new year.

1. El Niño

El Niño typically causes significant droughts in Southeast Asia, the Southern and Western Amazon, and boreal regions, greatly heightening the risk of catastrophic forest fires usually set by humans. With last year’s strong el Niño forecast to continue into 2016, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Canada may experience a resurgence in forest fires.

Indonesia is particularly a concern given the damage caused by peatland fires last summer and fall. For a couple of months, daily emissions from Indonesia’s fires exceeded daily emissions from the entire US economy.

2. Low commodity prices

The price of most commodities spiraled downward for much of 2015, curbing investment in mining and energy exploration. While there hasn’t been clear indication of a similar decline in investment in industrial agriculture and plantation development, if the price of palm oil, soy, and cattle remain depressed, it could start to affect land prices, undermining the viability of marginal forest conversion projects. In some countries, governments may shelve both infrastructure development projects and conservation initiatives. Budgets for environmental law enforcement may go on the chopping block in nations heavily dependent on commodity exports.

3. Shifts in Chinese demand

China’s slowing economy is the primary driver of falling commodity prices globally. If China’s boom ends, it could affect the market for luxury items made from rainforest products, like rosewood timber and other high-value hardwoods. Additionally, President Xi Jinping’s continuing crackdown on corruption, combined with a pledged phase out of the ivory market, could cut demand for some wildlife products.

4. Indonesia’s peat regulation

In the aftermath of 2015’s devastating peat fires which became a national embarrassment and health crisis for Indonesia,President Jokowi decreed a series of regulations intended to protect and restore peatlands, while barring opportunists from using the disaster for their own gain. However those regulations are not yet laws and may well be overturned by parliament, which is heavily influenced by the plantation sector.

Several major companies have a lot to lose — potentially tens of thousands of hectares of oil palm and acacia plantations in South Sumatra and parts of Kalimantan — if the strictest peatland regulations are adopted. But if Indonesia is serious about addressing haze and fires, it must fundamentally change business-as-usual when it comes to peatlands. It also can’t ignore Papua, which is the archipelago’s last great frontier in terms of relatively intact ecosystems but is already being eyed by industrial palm oil companies and big agribusiness.

5. REDD+ and other ecosystem services

After getting the official go-ahead at the Paris COP, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program will start to move forward in 2016. Most of the focus will be on negotiating the details of REDD+, including financing and what a potential market for REDD+ credits might look like. Struggling carbon conservation projects may see new investment.

REDD+ may also spur conversations about other services afforded by forests. For example, if drought conditions persist in Brazil and Indonesia experiences a resurgence in haze, expect to hear more talk about the value of the Amazon in sustaining rainfall in urban areas and the role Sumatran forests play in maintaining Singapore’s air quality, respectively.

6. Brazil’s cratering economy

Brazil’s cratering economy may have both positive and negative influences on forests. Provided they have access to affordable credit, the weaker Brazilian real may encourage some investors to expand agricultural production, potentially affecting the cerrado, Mata Atlantica, and Amazon ecosystems. The underperforming economy may embolden the agricultural lobby to push for further weakening of environmental laws.

The credit crunch and corruption scandals may hit Brazilian infrastructure projects, especially dams, which are already facing opposition due to social and environmental concerns.

7. Indigenous land rights recognition

Expect more progress on the movement to recognise traditional land rights. Conservationists are increasingly being swayed by evidence indicating that local communities do a better job of stewarding natural resources when their traditional management rights are recognised. In places like Indonesia there is a major push to take control of forests out of the hands of the government and turn it over to local communities. However there are concerns that if the process isn’t done right, it could backfire, weakening communities’ grip on forests and leading to more deforestation.

8. Zero deforestation commitments

The adoption of zero deforestation policies among major commodity consumers, traders, and producers has outpaced all expectations in the past two years. But making a commitment is a lot easier than implementing a commitment, so look for a lot of discussion around how companies are progressing in eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. There will be slip-ups and breaches. The debate over methodologies for defining “zero deforestation” will likely continue given diverging criteria between two palm oil sustainability initiativew.

9. Technological advances

There will continue to be advances in anti-poaching and forest monitoring technologies ranging from on-the-ground sensors to drones to satellite-based data collection analysis. Global Forest Watch, a leading forest mapping platform, will launch significant updates that will give users more insights than ever before on the quality, extent, and health of forests.

10. New protected areas

Peru and the Malaysian state of Sabah made headlines in 2015 with the establishment of new protected areas and they may not be done yet. Peru is reportedly considering the creation of a reserve in the watershed of the Yaguas River, while Sabah has indicated it plans to protect still more forest in Class I Reserves.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.

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