Posted on September 11, 2014.
A clearing in the trees
New ideas on what speeds up deforestation and what slows it down
Aug 23rd 2014 | JAKARTA | From the print edition
IN 1998 Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then Brazil’s president, said he would triple the area of the Amazonian forest set aside for posterity. At the time the ambition seemed vain: Brazil was losing 20,000 square kilometres (7,700 square miles) of forest a year. Over the next 15 years loggers, ranchers, environmentalists and indigenous tribes battled it out—often bloodily—in the world’s largest tropical forest. Yet all the while presidents were patiently patching together a jigsaw of national parks and other protected patches of forest to create the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA), a protected area 20 times the size of Belgium. Now, less than 6,000 sq km of Brazil’s Amazonian forest is cleared each year. In May the government and a group of donors agreed to finance ARPA for 25 years. It is the largest tropical-forest conservation project in history.
This matters because of Brazil’s size: with 5m sq km of jungle, it has almost as much as the next three countries (Congo, China and Australia) put together. But it also matters for what it may signal: that the world could be near a turning point in the sorry story of tropical deforestation.
Typically, countries start in poverty with their land covered in trees. As they clear it for farms or fuel, they get richer—until alarm bells ring and they attempt to recover their losses. This happens at different stages in different places, but the trajectory is similar in most: a reverse J, steeply down, then bottoming out, then up—but only part of the way. This is usually called the “forest transition curve”. Brazil seems to be nearing the bottom. The world may be, too.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a UN body, the net change in the world’s forested land (deforestation minus forest expansion) was 52,000 sq km a year in the 2000s—a huge loss, but almost two-fifths below what it had been in the 1990s. The most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which represents mainstream scientific opinion on the environment, concurred, saying “deforestation has slowed over the last decade.”
Not everyone accepts that. Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland, who has studied millions of satellite images, thinks the rate at which forest cover in the tropics was lost rose between 2000 and 2012—though this refers to all trees cut down, including those in managed forests that may be replanted. The FAO excludes trees in plantations and agriculture generally (such as for shade-grown coffee).
And by the FAO’s definition, several tropical countries at different points along the transition curve seem to be doing better (see diagram). At the top, the deforestation rate in the countries of the Congo basin, which have the largest remaining area of African forest, fell from an already-tiny 0.16% a year in the 1990s to 0.1% in the 2000s (see table on next page). They have not begun to slash and burn, as many feared was inevitable. Towards the bottom of the curve, Mexico has cut its deforestation rate even more than Brazil. On the upswing, India and Costa Rica are replanting forests they once cut down. In 1980 India had about 640,000 sq km of forest left. Now, it has 680,000 sq km, and is replanting about 1,450 sq km a year. In the 1980s only 20% of Costa Rica was covered in trees. Now more than half is.
“To save the forest you have to think outside the forest,” quotes Andrew Steer, head of the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think-tank. In line with the saying, two big reasons for the recent slowdown in tropical deforestation have little directly to do with forest management. They are the easing of population pressures and big improvements in farming far from forested land.
Trees are different
In a new study* for the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a Washington think-tank, Jonah Busch and Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon look at 117 cases of deforestation round the world. They find that two of the influences most closely correlated with the loss of forests are population and proximity to cities (the third is proximity to roads). Dramatic falls in fertility in Brazil, China and other well-forested nations therefore help explain why (after a lag) deforestation is slowing, too. Demography even helps account for what is happening in Congo, where fertility is high. Its people are flocking to cities, notably Kinshasa, with the result that the population in more distant, forested areas is thinning out.
Two of the countries that have done most to slow forest decline also have impressive agricultural records: Brazil, which became the biggest food exporter of all tropical countries over the past 20 years; and India, home of the green revolution. Brazil’s agricultural boom took place in the cerrado, the savannah-like region south and east of the Amazon (there is farming in the Amazon, too, but little by comparison). The green revolution took place mostly in India’s north-west and south, whereas its biggest forests are in the east and north.
But if population and agricultural prowess were the whole story, Indonesia, where fertility has fallen and farm output risen, would not be one of the worst failures. Figures published in Nature Climate Change in June show that in the past decade it destroyed around 60,000 sq km of primary forests; its deforestation rate overtook Brazil’s in 2011. Policies matter, too—and the political will to implement them.
The central problem facing policymakers is that trees are usually worth more dead than alive; that is, land is worth more as pasture or cropland than as virgin forest. The benefits from forests, such as capturing carbon emissions, cleaning up water supplies and embodying biodiversity, are hard to price, whereas a bushel of soyabeans is worth $12 on world markets. The market for palm oil, much of which is supplied from deforested land in Indonesia, is worth $50 billion a year. Tourism can make elephants or lions worth more alive than dead, giving locals a material incentive to look after them. This is less true of trees, lovely though they are.
The most successful policies therefore tend to be top-down bans, rather than incentives (though these have been tried, too). India’s national forest policy of 1988 explicitly rejects the idea of trying to make money from stewardship. “The derivation of direct economic benefit”, it says, “must be subordinated to this principal aim” (maintaining the health of the forest). In Brazil 44% of the Amazon is now national park, wildlife reserve or indigenous reserve, where farming is banned; much of that area was added recently. In Costa Rica half the forests are similarly protected. In India a third are managed jointly by local groups and state governments.
Top-down bans require more than just writing a law. Brazil’s regime developed over 15 years and involved tightening up its code on economic activity in forested areas, moratoriums on sales of food grown on cleared land, a new land registry, withholding government-subsidised credit from areas with the worst deforestation and strengthening law enforcement through the public prosecutor’s office. (The most draconian restriction, requiring 80% of any farm in the Amazon to be set aside as a wildlife reserve, is rarely enforced.)
Two developments make bans easier to impose. Cheaper, more detailed satellite imagery shows in real time where the violations are and who may be responsible. Brazil put the data from its system online, enabling green activists to help police the frontier between forest and farmland. Its moratoriums on soyabeans and beef from the Amazon, which require tracing where food is coming from, would not have worked without satellites.
The technology has also boosted democratisation, the second requirement for top-down bans to work. That sounds counter-intuitive: surely authoritarian regimes are better at enforcing rules? Perhaps not. Democratisation may help explain the transition curve: authoritarian regimes preside over deforestation while countries are poor, but when opposition politicians, non-governmental organisations and a free press bring demands for accountability to bear, the felling slows.
Frances Seymour of the CGD says this may be one reason why Brazil has quieted the chainsaws and Indonesia has not: democracy in Brazil began earlier and has gone further. Since Indonesia banned new logging and plantation concessions in primary forest in 2011, deforestation has actually risen. Land concessions continue to be issued by the Forestry Ministry, rated the most corrupt among 20 government institutions by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission in 2012. Some within government are hostile to anti-deforestation schemes, which they see as “foreign”, says Ade Wahyudi of Katadata, an Indonesian firm of analysts. Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a single, unified map including all information on land tenure and forest licensing: efforts to create one have been slowed by unco-operative government ministries and difficulties created by overlapping land claims.
But in the longer term, says Ms Seymour, the link between democratisation and slowing deforestation gives reason for hope. In Brazil it was not until well after military rule ended that the voices calling for protection of the Amazon had grown loud enough that the government had to take heed. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was elected president in 2002, in the country’s fourth election after the end of dictatorship, made anti-deforestation a priority. Indonesia has just had its second free presidential election since the fall of Suharto and politicians across the spectrum say illegal logging must be eradicated (though so did Suharto’s successor).
Right for the wrong reasons
Brazilian officials now say that they are reaching the limits of what top-down prohibition can do. Despite the experience of India, they want to shift to offering more incentives to make it profitable to keep the forests intact. Such policies, though, are an uphill struggle.
The simplest is to boost the incomes of forest dwellers, hoping they will look after the trees better. But more money can also mean more to spend on chainsaws. The CGD study finds that though income support sometimes works, it is often insignificant and more often associated with cutting down trees. The same is true of improving land tenure, which can simply encourage people to sell what have just become their trees to loggers.
Mexico and Costa Rica have pioneered something different: “payment for ecosystem services”. This tries to alter the basic trade-off that makes forests worth more cut down than standing. The idea is that users of clean water and other benefits from the forest should pay for them, using markets in which they are buyers and the people who look after the trees are sellers.
The idea is sound. The problems are practical. Governments have found it almost impossible to create markets for clean water downstream from forests—let alone for carbon emissions produced in, say, China and absorbed by trees in the Amazon.
Where the policy has worked, it has been in a roundabout way. Mexico, which has gone further in this direction than most, kept up its payments for environmental services though the markets that were supposed to accompany them never materialised. The result was an income-support scheme: around $500m was handed over to 6,000 forest organisations in 2003-11, almost all by the federal government. The beneficiaries ploughed cash into looking after the forest, though they were not obliged to do so. A study† by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an international group, concludes that “the programme…reduced the rate of deforestation—just not for contractual…reasons.”
There is one group for whom subsidies and land-tenure improvements are an unqualified success: indigenous people. Overwhelmingly, they respond to incentives by protecting their land, presumably for cultural reasons: the forest is their home and they do not want to sell it, even if that would be profitable. According to a new study§ by WRI and the Rights and Resources Initiative, another NGO, deforestation in indigenous areas of Brazil is about 12 times worse than in areas outside them. Worldwide, indigenous people have legal rights in only about 5m sq km of forest (an eighth of the total and less than the area they live in), so expanding indigenous rights further could make a big difference to slowing deforestation.
Light at the end of the clearing
Fifteen years ago, the conversion of forest into farmland accounted for a quarter of total greenhouse-gas emissions and the rainforest was the symbol of worldwide environmental degradation. Average surface temperatures, ocean acidity, glacier melt and carbon emissions are all higher now than then. Yet deforestation now accounts for only 12% of greenhouse gases. True, too much forest is still being turned into farms. True, too, regrown forests are near-monocultures compared with the virgin canopy that once stood there. But in a world where there is little good environmental news, the state of tropical forests is a precious exception.