Crisis, speculation, poverty and climate change aggravate deforestation

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New factors in deforestation like the world economic crisis, speculation in markets for basic products and arable land, and worsening poverty and climate change are aggravating the old causes of this phenomenon such as the advance of agricultural frontiers, tree cutting for timber and fuel, and the use of wood as a fuel. This problem is reported and documented in the Social Watch Report 2012.

In recent years rising energy prices have increased the use of wood and charcoal among the poorest population sectors, and this has put even more pressure on forest resources.  

There is a vicious circle here. The disappearance of forests is reducing the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity, and this is hampering attempts to mitigate climate change. This problem is getting worse due to a lack of laws to protect areas that are ecologically sensitive or to these laws not being enforced in countries that do have them.

In the Social Watch Report chapter on the European “indignados” movement, Mirjam van Reisen, Simon Stocker and Georgina Carr sound a warning that the European Union is dependent on imports of feed for livestock, and this has stimulated “a growing demand for land abroad”, which has caused deforestation and other environmental and social damage all over the world.  

According to a preliminary declaration by the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development (which is included in the Social Watch Report under the title “Río+20 and beyond: No future without justice”), “fast spreading unsustainable production and consumption patterns” have led to “the rapid depletion of natural resources”, and also global warming, increasingly frequent extreme climate events, desertification and deforestation,

The report by the Social Watch coalition in Finland sums up how the industrial North is fostering deforestation, “Currently there are several examples of key Finnish companies claiming to be world leaders in sustainability establishing large scale eucalyptus monocultures … in the global South, contributing to population displacement and large scale land grabbing.”

According to the Finnish report, the demand for palm oil by Nestle Oil, an enterprise that is mainly State-owned and is striving to become the world leader in biofuel production, “is driving land conversion and deforestation in peat-land rain forest,” mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which experts say contain “arguably the world’s most concentrated carbon stock… The total land area needed for plantations to supply (Nestle’s) refineries is reported to be 700,000 hectares”.

The Social Watch 2012 national report from Malaysia highlights another aspect of this alarming trend. Local populations are suffering and “the destruction of their prime source of livelihood is also resulting on the loss of their traditional ways of life: as the forest disappears, so does their culture”.


The extractive model

One of the most serious instances of this phenomenon is in Malaysia itself, where “rapid rainforest loss in the 20th century can clearly be linked to extractive models.” “Large areas” are being cleared for rubber and palm oil production, and millions of trees have been felled to meet the demand for wood on the international market.

This national report adds that, “in 1985, for example, the forestry sector contributed up to 15% of the country’s export earnings”, although the price that was paid was that deforestation increased by 86% in the period 1990 to 2005, “more than in any other tropical country”.

The situation is extremely serious in Zambia. In previous decades the rate of deforestation was estimated at 300,000 hectares per year, but this increased to 800,000 hectares in 2008. In the 1990 to 2010 period, the country lost 6.3% of its forest cover, some 3.3 million hectares. The Zambia national report seems to contain every possible bad practice: the commercial exploitation of autochthonous timber, which began in the 1930s, slash and burn methods to extend the agricultural frontier, the use of wood and charcoal as fuel in homes, the use of wood in the building industry, and a lack of protection standards for forests.

According to the Social Watch Report from Brazil, the practice of slash and burn in the Amazon forest is a response to the demand for “an expansion of the agricultural frontier”. Moreover, as a result of pressure from powerful interest groups the Forest Code was weakened and the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house in Parliament) is to reduce “from 80% to 50% the proportion of land that all rural holdings in the Amazon must maintain as native forest”.

The Peruvian Amazon region is the eighth largest forest in the world and the second largest in Latin America, and the country also has natural forests in the Andes. For decades these areas have been devastated for fuel for “homes and restaurants, along with the slash and burn agricultural methods”. The mangrove forests and dry and sub-humid forests “are depleted” and deforestation is running at 150,000 hectares a year.


The destructive agro-export model

Monocrops for export to rich countries, such as sugar cane in Guatemala and coffee in Nicaragua, have also contributed to the loss of forests. The agro-export model in Paraguay has caused “progressive deforestation”. When international cocoa prices fell in the 1980s, the Government of Cameroon resolved to “increase production even more … so even more of the tropical forests were cut down”.

In Guatemala, as a result of extractive activities and the use of wood for building and for household fuel, “the country’s native forests have been all but annihilated”. If deforestation continues at the present rate of 82,000 hectares a year the country will have no forests at all in 2040.

Nicaragua is losing 75,000 hectares of forest per year due to illegal cutting, agricultural expansion and forest fires, which are often started deliberately to clear new land for crops. Some 76% of the fuel for cooking is wood. Of this country’s 12 million hectares of forest land around 8 million are degraded.

Agriculture and related activities are responsible for deforestation in Panama. Data from the National Environment Authority (ANAM), collected for the Social Watch Report 2012, show that forest coverage fell from 70% in 1970 to 35% in 2011.

In the period 1937 to 1987 Argentina lost 23,553 square kilometres of native forest, and from 1998 to 2006 it lost 2,500 square kilometres a year, which amounts to one hectare destroyed every two minutes. According to this country’s national report, the causes of this are “the disorganized exploitation of forests, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and the lack of public policies or incentives for private actors to undertake reforestation with native species”.

In Myanmar (Burma) the forest law is not being implemented, and the mining law, which makes consultation with the local population affected by these projects mandatory, is also being disregarded, and as a consequence the country lost 20% of its forests between 1990 and 2005. Mining and other extractive activities are also a serious problem in the Philippines, and “will have to be put on hold or under the strictest control” to “restore forest cover … now down to 27%, back to the ideal 40%.”

It is the same story in Armenia, whose government has permitted “mining in ecologically sensitive areas”. Because of this, and because of “the use of wood as fuel”, deforestation “has escalated to an unprecedented level”. In the country’s Social Watch report it is estimated that “only 7% of the territory remains forested, down from 35% two centuries ago, and much of this is degraded”.


Disappearing from sight

In some countries that are afflicted with wars such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan, different factions cut down trees to provide fuel and to leave their enemies nowhere to hide.

Sri Lanka has managed to preserve only 1.5% of its original forests. A report by Conservation International that is included in the Social Watch report from this country explains that much of the loss occurred under British colonial rule when land was cleared for planting rubber, coffee and tea. After the conflict, between 1990 and 2005, the country had one of the highest deforestation rates of primary forest in the world and more than 18% of the remaining forest coverage was lost in that period. The severe damage caused by this was further aggravated during the reconstruction effort after the tsunami of 2004.

In the Central African Republic, food insecurity (made worse by droughts resulting from climate change) has impelled farmers to advance their frontier into the forests. To make matters worse, 90% of the population’s cooking fuel is wood, and wood accounts for 91.7% of heating in Bangui, the capital, where 750 to 1,400 tons are burned every day.

In Nigeria, it is not only farmers that are causing the damage but also hunters, who burn away forest land to make it easier to find their prey. Wood is also taken for building houses, fences, fishing activities and fuel.

In Tanzania, forest coverage decreased by 15% between 1990 and 2005 and deforestation has “increased significantly since 2000”. Rising poverty levels in the country have led to more wood being used for cooking.

Social Watch in Senegal reports that the forests in the south are disappearing at “an unprecedented rate”. The authors blame this on wars, the need for new land for cultivation, the production of charcoal and the use of wood for building.

In Somalia, a main cause of deforestation is charcoal production for local use and for export, and this is putting “severe strain” on the forests, which cover only 9% of the country’s surface area. In Sudan wood and charcoal account for nearly 75% of the energy consumed, and this has “led to the clearing of many forests”. As a result the Sahara desert is encroaching more and more into “what was previously arable and forested land”.

In Thailand, the mangrove forests “have been threatened by encroachment for settlement and industry as well as by the use of timber for firewood, charcoal, furniture and construction”.

Social Watch Report 2012: