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How to stop deforestation? Make 'good stuff' cheaper

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 07:24 GMT

A man cuts lumber from trees illegally extracted from the Amazon rainforest in Viseu, Para state, Brazil, Sept. 26, 2013. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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The world can meet goals to protect forests if companies and governments drive shift to sustainable commodities

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazil has reduced deforestation in the Amazon by 82 percent, the country's president, Dilma Rousseff, said at the United Nations on Sunday, as she announced Brazil's contribution to an anticipated new global deal to curb climate change.

In the next 15 years, the Latin American nation aims to eliminate illegal deforestation, restore and reforest 12 million hectares, recover 15 million hectares of degraded pastures, and establish 5 million hectares of land on which crops, livestock and forests co-exist, she said.

Brazil is often lauded internationally as an example of how political will, legislation and the right incentives combined can stop forests being cut down.

But even there, the battle is not won, as deforestation spiked in 2013, mainly in areas where agricultural expansion is happening.

"We've been deforesting our planet for the last 40 years - don't expect it to change overnight," said Andrew Mitchell, founder and executive director of the Global Canopy Programme (GCP), a tropical forest think tank.

According to a new GCP report, more than 50 percent of the world's tropical forests have been lost over the last half-century, with Indonesia having replaced Brazil as the country with the highest rates of deforestation.

In the last decade, around two thirds of global deforestation has been driven by the production of agricultural commodities: palm oil, timber and paper products, soya, beef and leather, and to a lesser extent biofuels, the report said.

But more recently some of the world's biggest companies that produce and trade those commodities have "got it", realising that destroying rainforests doesn't make sense for their business in the long term, Mitchell said.

That recognition has given rise to a raft of promises by corporations to stop their operations causing forest loss, in many cases by 2020 or earlier.

Some are joint efforts. The 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, signed by businesses, governments and indigenous peoples, aims to cut natural tropical forest loss in half by 2020 and end it by 2030.

The new Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by 193 countries on Friday, promise to advance the sustainable management of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and plant substantially more trees by 2020.

While the deforestation target has not received much attention, it is one of the few the world is on track to achieve with an extra push to cover the last mile, according to research from the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

While deforestation is expected to continue in the short term, by 2020 the share of the world's land that is forest is set to start increasing, so that by 2030 there will be almost as much forest as there is today, it said.


To meet goals to end deforestation, the GCP argues that companies must apply their pledges across all commodities, and along their entire supply chains.

Today, only 7 percent of 250 major businesses it tracks have signed up to zero or zero-net deforestation pledges covering their supply chains, while 59 percent have no specific policy for commodities.

And pledges vary by commodity. A separate report this month from Supply Change, a project led by Washington-based non-profit Forest Trends, found that of 41 companies that had endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, 94 percent had publicly committed to reduce deforestation risk tied to palm oil.

For soy, however, the figure was only 41 percent and for cattle, 50 percent.

Certification systems for soy and cattle have yet to catch on, while the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies 20 percent of global palm oil production, the report noted.

The GCP's Mitchell urged reforms that would boost demand for sustainable commodities that do not harm the environment.

"We need to start making the good stuff cheaper than the bad stuff," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Changes to import and export tariffs, taxation of goods, subsidies and government procurement policies could help achieve this, he noted. Developing countries that are major importers of commodities like palm oil - such as China and India - must also come onboard, he added.

It should be possible to make the supply chains of European and North America-based businesses sustainable by 2020, and for the rest of the world by 2030, Mitchell estimated.

Key to this is waking up financial firms, including commercial banks, to the threats their current lending policies pose to forests, he added.

"Trashing forests and making money is great for investors - it's a very profitable business," he said.

Efforts are now underway, such the Natural Capital Declaration and the Banking Environment Initiative, to help financial institutions start considering deforestation risk in their investment decisions, the GCP said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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