'Zero net deforestation' goals may harm natural forest - experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 November 2013 19:00 GMT

A cowboy herds cattle through the Amazon rainforest near the city of Uruara, in Brazil's Para state, April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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“Countries say, ‘Look, aren’t we great? We have zero net deforestation.’ But it means all their native forest is gone, and planted with exotics. That’s not what the world is looking for,” says study author

WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Efforts by countries and companies to achieve “zero net deforestation” may be having the unintended effect of rainforests being replaced by less valuable plantations, a review warned on Thursday.

“People probably think they’re doing the right thing,” said Sandra Brown, director of ecosystem services at Winrock International, a U.S. environmental services firm. But such targets “don’t necessarily produce the outcome desired”, said Brown, co-author of an article published in the journal Science.

The approach - which means any forest loss is replaced - does not distinguish clearly between the different value of replanted areas and natural forest.

So a country pursuing a “zero net deforestation” goal could still see much or all of its natural forests destroyed. And companies doing the same could find their claims are actually masking widespread ecological damage and contributing to climate change, the review suggested.

“Countries say, ‘Look, aren’t we great? We have zero net deforestation.’ But it means all their native forest is gone, and planted with exotics. That’s not what the world is looking for,” Brown said.

Natural forests, besides protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, store much more planet-warming carbon than reforested land, scientists say. In addition, cutting or burning of natural forests – often to expand farmland – is a leading contributor to climate change.

Between 2005 and 2010, an average of about 13 million hectares of forest were cleared each year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, and pressure on forests is growing as the world tries to ramp up food production.

By 2050, experts believe the world will need around 60 percent more food to feed a growing population that is demanding more meat and milk, which take large amounts of grain to produce.

SEPARATE TARGETS URGED

Around the world, a rising number of companies, governments and non-governmental organisations have set zero-deforestation targets to try to slow forest loss or burnish their green credentials.

But zero deforestation is next to impossible to achieve, and is often at odds with the need of tropical countries to continue developing, Brown said, while “zero net deforestation” can lead to large-scale loss of more valuable natural forests.

One group committed to zero net deforestation is the Consumer Goods Forum, whose 400 members include major international companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever and Carrefour, noted Brown and Dan Zarin, programme director of the Climate and Land Use Alliance, and co-author of the review.

A better way to protect natural forests would be for companies, states and other groups to set separate targets for reduction in forest loss and for reforestation efforts, in an effort to ensure progress in reforestation doesn’t harm natural forests, the authors said.

“One has to be careful when one goes along blindly making targets, without understanding what they mean,” Brown said. “Business wants indicators of sustainability – but it’s important they understand if they are supporting the right kinds of activities.”