Deforestation Is Getting Worse, 5 Years After Countries and Companies Vowed to Stop It

As fires in the Amazon draw attention to the problem, critics say big agribusinesses aren't doing enough to stop deforestation in their supply chains.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Credit: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images

The cutting and burning of tropical forests, especially mature tropical forests like much of the Amazon rainforest, is particularly damaging because of the carbon storage lost and the contribution to climate change. Credit: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images

Five years after joining in a historic commitment to stop cutting the world's forests, governments and companies are not only failing to slow deforestation, they are rapidly driving the disappearance of more trees.

As fires consume Amazonian forests, stoking global concern about the loss of a vital ecosystem and climate regulator, a new report published Thursday finds that forests continue to be cleared at an alarming rate, driven mostly by agricultural expansion and demand for beef, palm oil and soy.

"We're losing the battle, so to speak, on stopping deforestation," said Craig Hanson, a vice president at the World Resources Institute. "This is a clarion call."

Nearly 200 companies and governments have signed onto the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests—which includes the goals of halving deforestation by 2020 and stopping it by 2030. But the new assessment by researchers and environmental groups found that forest loss has accelerated by more than 40 percent annually since the declaration's launch.

The cutting and burning of tropical forests, especially mature tropical forests, is particularly damaging because of the carbon storage lost and the contribution to climate change when trees burn or decompose, the authors write. They found that, on average, tropical deforestation and tree deaths emitted more carbon dioxide per year in the past five years than the entire European Union did in 2017.

Chart: Deforestation on the Rise

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the world won't achieve critical emissions reductions goals without stopping deforestation and restoring the world's forests.

"It's critical for climate change," Hanson said. "We simply can't afford to fail to achieve the New York Declaration on Forests."

Soy, Cattle and Fires in the Amazon

The high number of fires in the Amazon this year has drawn international attention to the problem and the importance of forests for slowing global warming.

In June, deforestation in Brazil was up nearly 90 percent compared to June 2018, according to the report.

The country had slowed its forest loss after the government in 2004 implemented new deforestation policies. But pressure from agricultural companies, mostly beef and soy producers, and the permissive anti-regulatory administration of new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is quickly reversing years of progress. Bolsonaro, who took office in January, promised the country's powerful agriculture lobby he would open the Amazon for business.

"Brazil was once a success story," said Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, a manager with Imaflora, an environmental group based in Brazil, in a call with reporters Thursday. "But now we have a new story to tell. ... The forest fires are the most striking example of deforestation at the moment."

Deforestation by fire in the Amazon. Credit: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

Farmers have been lighting fires to clear land to graze cattle, encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's promise to the country’s powerful agriculture lobby that he would reduce environmental protections and open the Amazon for business. Credit: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

In the Amazonian basin, primarily Brazil and Bolivia, farmers have been lighting fires to clear land to graze cattle. "Cattle production is the Number One driver," said Stephanie Roe a climate researcher with the University of Virginia and one of the report's lead authors.

Under Bolsonaro, monitoring for illegal deforestation has been scaled back to nothing. So, as demand for beef and soy rises, farmers have been able to clear more forests, even though some limits on deforestation are still in place.

"The monitoring has been at a standstill," said Thomas Hertel, an agricultural economist with Purdue University, who was not involved with Thursday's report. "They're free to go in and capitalize."

Big Corporations' Supply Chain Problems

Critics say multinational agribusinesses aren't doing enough to stop the problem, largely because they're not adequately tracking deforestation in their supply chains.

Environmental groups, both in Latin America and in the U.S., notably Mighty Earth, blame American grain giant, Cargill, and others for putting pressure on the government to loosen regulations.

"Forests are burning in large measure because the big companies that committed to save them are not actually trying to do so," said Glenn Hurowitz, Mighty Earth's CEO, in response to the report.

"Companies like Ahold Delhaize, McDonald's, and Mars are, despite all their pledges, continuing to do business on a vast scale with the very companies most responsible for this deforestation, such as Cargill and JBS," he said. "Not only are these companies directly financing deforestation, they have repeatedly lobbied governments to stop basic environmental protections."

Earlier this month, the Coller FAIRR Index analyzed the sustainability performance of the world's largest meat and dairy companies and found that none of the top 50 companies had comprehensive policies to stop deforestation in areas where they buy cattle and soy.  Walmart has said it aims to reach net-zero deforestation by 2020, but the index shows that some of its suppliers have no policies on deforestation.

Some of the groups involved in Thursday's report, however, say that singling out companies or commodities won't solve the problem. Neither will boycotts on products linked to deforestation.  (Retailers and manufacturers, including H&M and Timberland, have said they would not use leather from Brazil, for example.)

"If we close trade, it can be an even worse situation," said Fernando Guedes Pinto. "If we close the doors for all farmers, for all companies, then we're going to put in the same basket the good ones with the bad ones."

Changing the Economic Incentives

In a recent study, Purdue's Hertel found that stopping deforestation requires paying farmers to keep land in forests, in addition to strong government regulation.

"If you want to effectively stop the deforestation, you can't just focus on soy or beef or one commodity, because it's a multi-commodity world," he said. "It's like a balloon. If you press on one place, you expand another. You need to intervene at the forest margin." By that, he means, either strong bans or direct payments to farmers or both.

Consumers also have a big role to play in pressuring companies to source their products in deforestation-free regions.

"Agribusiness is willing to deliver what the consumer wants. They'll find a way to deliver responsible soy," Hertel said. "The consumer piece is very important, particularly as governments in the U.S. and Brazil seem to be less interested in enforcement."

Institutions are critical, too. Investments in stopping deforestation currently represent only 1.5 percent, or about $3.2 billion, of the total $256 billion committed by institutions and donors to mitigate climate change over the last decade, Thursday's report found.

"There has been a failure to transform the underlying economic incentives that favor forest destruction over forest protection," said Ingrid Schulte, one of the report's authors. "Halting forest loss will take a serious systemic shift in behavior—from everyone—by reducing demand for commodities that carry embedded deforestation, reducing meat consumption, and investing in governance and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples."

A growing body of research has determined that strong land rights for indigenous populations are critical for keeping forests intact. 

"Having an indigenous population is very important to preserving the land," said Paula Pacheco, a director with Agua Sustentable, an environmental group based in Bolivia. "But they don't have the power to get funding from outside. These groups are very important, ecologically speaking, and they're not getting the attention they deserve."

While Thursday's report was largely discouraging, there were some bright spots, including a finding that deforestation rates in Indonesia have slowed, thanks to government bans on development in carbon-rich peatlands and primary forests, along with better weather that has meant fewer fires.

"Companies must accelerate action," said  Fernando Guedes Pinto, noting that advances in satellite mapping and tracking tools should make halting deforestation easier than it was even a decade ago. "We have all the information we need... There are no more excuses for delay and failure."

Published Sept. 13, 2019

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