What are you overall views on the WWF-report?
It is quite an exhaustive yet very readable and informative report that contains a comprehensive analysis of deforestation connecting drivers and responses globally by identifying 24 “deforestation fronts” – areas where forests are under threat.
These 24 deforestation fronts are specific regions within countries or regions spanning more than one country (e.g., the Chocó-Darien eco-region in western Colombia and Ecuador) that have a significant concentration of deforestation hotspots and where large areas of remaining forests are under threat. The report shows that over 43 million hectares of forests were lost in these 24 deforestation fronts between 2004 and 2017, an area roughly the size of Sweden.
Also, the report seeks to uncover the different drivers of deforestation in each region, and highlights the role of global value chains and increasing demands for agricultural products or minerals used in industrial production that are the underlying cause for a lot of deforestation. Recognizing deforestation as a global problem, which requires global concerted action is a really important first step to do something about it.
How can the report be used to leverage pressure to halt deforestation?
Well, the pressure has to come from different sides, from consumers, politicians and the private sector. First of all, we need good data to make a strong case to change existing and future trade agreements and to improve value chains by excluding products and places of origin where the production of these raw materials drives deforestation. The recent discussions around the EU-Brazil trade agreement was a case in point, showing that there is political leverage to push for change. Unfortunately, the EU is not necessarily the biggest importer of Brazilian agricultural products and other importing nations (e.g. China and the Middle East) may have other views on the sustainability of the imported products.
Nonetheless, improving forest governance and supporting countries to strengthen forest monitoring and law enforcement is crucial of course - but the devil lies in the detail, like always. Too often are those people who are the most vulnerable and who exist on the edge of survival those that are also most impacted when states clamp down on deforestation. They often pick the low hanging fruits and not the biggest deforesters (which often have allies in governments or sometimes are in government themselves).
And, to be honest, we, as in rich industrialized countries, who demand a lot of these raw materials should work on how we can reduce these demands in the first place.
Some simple twists and turns (e.g., by certification, standards and improving value chains) won’t help much I am afraid. We need to work with demand and consumption, and not just of the most common products such as chocolate, beef or palm oil, but across the range of products we use and consume that contain deforestation causing production, for instance cellphones and batteries (coltan and rare earth), jewelry (gold), leather products, cosmetics, pulp and paper.
The WWF-report highlights a number of different causes for deforestation. Can you comment on these?
The importance of the causes (or drivers) for deforestation varies of course. The report differentiates these drivers for each of the 24 deforestation fronts, which is good. Context matters when it comes to the drivers, but also regarding the potential solutions.
The reports also mentions the underlying indirect drivers, such as global consumption patterns and critically highlights the role of economic growth focused policies, which is an important message.
I currently work on a project in Colombia where we study the role of the peace agreement on natural resources and deforestation. Colombia is an interesting and important case, because while peace is of course good, there are processes that were set in motion which led to a huge rise in deforestation, mainly because of land grabbing and speculation, but also because the Colombian state wants to use natural resources to support economic growth. This is exemplary of the very traditional economic growth paradigm, which overrides more sustainable forms of development.
The report identifies 24 different hotspots for deforestation. Can you comment on these?
The report selects those areas that experience major deforestation pressure, but of course these are places that still have natural forest left for many reasons. When we look back in history, many regions have experienced historical wide-spread forest loss a long time ago, for instance central Europe or East Asia which has lost nature forests during the process of agricultural settlements being established and the onset of the industrial revolution. Therefore, most of the deforestation nowadays happens on the fringes, in frontier areas like the Amazon where there is room for the expanding needs for land for agriculture.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that deforestation is a problem we see in many places, nonetheless also eastern Australia, a region we would not typically think about as a deforestation hotspot.
Can we save all of the forests? Would it better to choose some areas to save and “sacrifice others”
Should we save all forests? Well, it is not about saving and sacrificing really, but about how to combine use of resources without harming the resource base to an extent that leads to irreversible degradation.
It is a bit of an ethical question too, along the lines of can we save all species/biodiversity? We need to find ways to balance management and resource use with the needs of other species.
Forests are a really important ecosystem and their health depends on their biodiversity. Forests are not just a bunch of trees on a given piece of land, but they are complex systems, particularly in the tropics, where there are hundreds of tree species on a given hectare of forest land.
These trees in turn depend on animals and the animals depend on the trees. People also play an important role here, as managers and stewards. We can learn a lot from how local communities have used forest resources sustainably over centuries.
So, no – we should not readily sacrifice forest for other land use, particularly when these forests are biologically diverse and ecologically speaking in a healthy state.
But practically speaking – if one has to choose, then a plantation forest may be less valuable than a diverse uneven aged old growth forest. Nonetheless, the question should always be, what do we sacrifice a forest X for, is it worth it and really necessary, and who benefits from it and who bears the cost?
Also, there is still a lot to learn and know about the different species inhabiting forests. In diverse tropical forests, we have not even been able to count all species or uncover the myriad ecological interactions.
What will happen if the areas identified in the report become deforested?
Deforestation has many negative ecological and social implications. These are very contextual and vary greatly of course. If global deforestation where a country, the emissions from deforestation would rank on third place – so the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions from forestry and deforestation are tremendous. Another more concrete example is the role of forests in regional climate and weather patterns. Just to name one – there is increasing evidence that if deforestation in the Amazon continues, this will have tremendous negative impacts on regional and almost continent-wide rainfall patterns, leading to more droughts in Brazil, which has a big economic cost for the rainfall dependent industrial agriculture of Brazil.
Are there any perspectives missing in the report according to you?
Yes, the report does not mention that the sad reality in many of the countries highlighted in the report is that fighting deforestation is really dangerous. Giving local and indigenous communities rights and establishing better forest governance is very difficult if there are illegal networks involved, often backed by local elites, that silence those people who speak out with threats and, sadly, also using violence. One of the recommendations for Colombia for instance is to “End encroachment of protected areas and indigenous territories.” But how this is supposed to happen is not mentioned. Moreover, Colombia (and Brazil, the Philippines, Peru etc.) are some of the most dangerous countries for defending the rights of indigenous peoples, every year dozens of activists are killed, many of these murders are never solved. The drivers of deforestation, such as illegal land grabbing and mining, are not easy to come by and “ending encroachment of protected areas and indigenous territories” requires almost military like operations, which brings about its own set problems.
Are there messages that are forgotten in the general discussion on deforestation today?
The report provides a good overview of the ‘wickedness’ of addressing deforestation, it is not just about protecting the remaining forests, but much more complicated, for instance because of leakage of deforestation across countries.
Ultimately, we need to understand and speak openly about how to deal with the underlying drivers. The report mentions the importance of questioning economic growth and global demand, which I think is really important and has been increasingly taken up in the general discussion on deforestation.
There is of course still a lot of room for moving from the currently widespread empty phrases used by politicians and the global business elite to really tangible concrete action and change, but I am hopeful we will get there eventually. Unfortunately, while the world slowly wakes up to the value and importance of forests, we will still see a lot of additional deforestation still.
The report highlight recommendations to halt deforestation – what are your views on them?
One specific recommendation that applies for several of the mentioned deforestation fronts that I deem very important, not the least because I work with this topic myself, is the “recognition of indigenous peoples and community land rights, and how their local management practices and governance systems have contributed to protect forests under effective local control.” This is a crucial recommendation and there is still a long way to go for many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, where land rights (legal rights) often to not exist.
Based on my own research in Colombia, recognizing and respecting the wealth of knowledge local and indigenous people have can support more sustainable forest management. Moreover, from a justice and rights perspective, local and indigenous communities have often been marginalized and are at a greater risk of suffering the negative impacts of forest conservation and protection, loosing access to resources and land. Thus, these groups and their knowledge are also crucial in designing better forest governance mechanisms and policies at the national and of course the local level, only this way we can ensure that policies and mechanisms are inclusive and equitable.
What research areas need to be strengthened to stop deforestation?
As researchers we must of course carry out high quality research to collect data on the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in order to find the leverage points and recommendations that are effective and bring about transformative change to reduce and stop deforestation. To achieve this, we need to work in interdisciplinary research teams so we find solutions that do not risk leaving particularly vulnerable and already marginalized people out. Working across the board with anthropologists, sociologists, ecologists, political scientists and legal scholars and others, we need to look at forests as social-ecological systems and have to understand how wicked the problem is, yet not despair because of it. Ultimately, as scientists, we must speak out and speak truth to power, we should not be scared to become political when we must.
What are the impact on Sweden if deforestation continues?
We are all in the same boat called earth, so yes – global deforestation affects all of us, also in Sweden. Climate change and biodiversity loss are global problems, caused to a large extent by global drivers, solving these requires global and integrated solutions and commitments.
Read a blogpost by Torsten Krause about the current situation in Colombia