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Saturday, September 20, 2014
Stephen Leahy* - IPS/IFEJ
- Nearly 40,000 hectares of forest vanish every day, driven by the world's growing hunger for timber, pulp and paper, and ironically, new biofuels and carbon credits designed to protect the environment.
The irony here is that the growing eagerness to slow climate change by using biofuels and planting millions of trees for carbon credits has resulted in new major causes of deforestation, say activists. And that is making climate change worse because deforestation puts far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire world's fleet of cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined.
"Biofuels are rapidly becoming the main cause of deforestation in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil," said Simone Lovera, managing coordinator of the Global Forest Coalition, an environmental NGO based in Asunción, Paraguay.
"We call it 'deforestation diesel'," Lovera told IPS.
Oil from African palm trees is considered to be one of the best and cheapest sources of biodiesel and energy companies are investing billions into acquiring or developing oil-palm plantations in developing countries. Vast tracts of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries have been cleared to grow oil palms.
Oil palm has become the world's number one fruit crop, well ahead of bananas.
Getting accurate numbers on how much forest is being lost is very difficult.
The FAO's State of the World's Forests 2007 released last week reports that globally, net forest loss is 20,000 hectares per day – equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris. However, that number includes plantation forests, which masks the actual extent of tropical deforestation, about 40,000 hectares (ha) per day, says Matti Palo, a forest economics expert who is affiliated with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica.
"The half a million ha per year deforestation of Mexico is covered by the increase of forests in the U.S., for example," Palo told IPS.
National governments provide all the statistics, and countries like Canada do not produce anything reliable, he said. Canada has claimed no net change in its forests for 15 years despite being the largest producer of pulp and paper.
"Canada has a moral responsibility to tell the rest of the world what kind of changes have taken place there," he said.
Plantation forests are nothing like natural or native forests. More akin to a field of maize, plantation forests are hostile environments to nearly every animal, bird and even insects. Such forests have been shown to have a negative impact on the water cycle because non-native, fast-growing trees use high volumes of water. Pesticides are also commonly used to suppress competing growth from other plants and to prevent disease outbreaks, also impacting water quality.
Plantation forests also offer very few employment opportunities, resulting in a net loss of jobs.
"Plantation forests are a tremendous disaster for biodiversity and local people," Lovera said.
Even if farmland or savanna are only used for oil palm or other plantations, it often forces the local people off the land and into nearby forests, including national parks, which they clear to grow crops, pasture animals and collect firewood. That has been the pattern with pulp and timber plantation forests in much of the world, says Lovera.
Ethanol is other major biofuel, which is made from maize, sugar cane or other crops. As prices for biofuels climb, more land is cleared to grow the crops. U.S. farmers are switching from soy to maize to meet the ethanol demand. That is having a knock on effect of pushing up soy prices, which is driving the conversion of the Amazon rainforest into soy, she says.
Meanwhile rich countries are starting to plant trees to offset their emissions of carbon dioxide, called carbon sequestration. Most of this planting is taking place in the South in the form of plantations, which are just the latest threat to existing forests.
"Europe's carbon credit market could be disastrous," Lovera said.
The multi-billion-euro European carbon market does not permit the use of reforestation projects for carbon credits. But there has been a tremendous surge in private companies offering such credits for tree planting projects. Very little of this money goes to small land holders, she says.
Plantation forests also contain much less carbon, notes Palo, citing a recent study that showed carbon content of plantation forests in some Asian tropical countries was only 45 percent of that in the respective natural forests.
Nor has the world community been able to properly account for the value of the enormous volumes of carbon stored in existing forests.
One recent estimate found that the northern Boreal forest provided 250 billion dollars a year in ecosystem services such as absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere and cleaning water.
The good news is that deforestation, even in remote areas, is easily stopped. All it takes is access to some low-cost satellite imagery and governments that actually want to slow or halt deforestation.
Costa Rica has nearly eliminated deforestation by making it illegal to convert forest into farmland, says Lovera.
Paraguay enacted similar laws in 2004, and then regularly checked satellite images of its forests, sending forestry officials and police to enforce the law where it was being violated.
"Deforestation has been reduced by 85 percent in less than two years in the eastern part of the country," Lovera noted.
The other part of the solution is to give control over forests to the local people. This community or model forest concept has proved to be sustainable in many parts of the world. India recently passed a bill returning the bulk of its forests back to local communities for management, she said.
However, economic interests pushing deforestation in countries like Brazil and Indonesia are so powerful, there may eventually be little natural forest left.
"Governments are beginning to realise that their natural forests have enormous value left standing," Lovera said. "A moratorium or ban on deforestation is the only way to stop this."
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)