The far-reaching importance of tropical forests, from stabilising regional climate to underpinning rural economies, has not protected them from rapacious deforestation.

Tropical deforestation during a single year (to July 2016) in a single country (Brazil) amounted to 7,893 square kilometres, an area which would almost cover the island of Cyprus. After a long period of significant reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region, the rate has been rising since 2012. This disappointing trend has continued into 2015 and 2016, escalating by 60% over those two years.

This picture in Brazil, together with that in Indonesia, contributed 50% of all tropical deforestation in 2016. The overall scale and trend in global tropical deforestation remains immensely sensitive to fickle political developments in these two major rainforest countries, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Brazil is home to 40% of the Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world, while DRC hosts 60% of the Congo Basin forest.

This rising global trend for deforestation is a major disappointment after a generation of environmental activism to protect tropical forests, supported by billions of aid dollars. However, the rapid advance of satellite technology, such as Global Forest Watch, now offers real-time accuracy for monitoring deforestation, within 100 metres of resolution, the data openly available.

Monitoring Forests in Near Real Time – satellite technology deployed by Global Forest Watch has transformed our ability to track deforestation
from World Resources Institute

Causes of Deforestation

Extracting timber, mineral and fossil fuel resources from a tropical forest prior to its clearance for agriculture remains the irresistible business model that powerful investors have relished since colonial times. Amongst these direct causes of deforestation, agricultural commodities have become by far the most important, their profile varying in each forest region.

The dominant forces in South America are cattle ranching and soy crops. Studies conclude that demand for beef accounts for more than 80% of deforestation in Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest as a whole. Oil palm plantations and the pulp and paper industries are the main culprit in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia supply almost 90% of the global market.

In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have been driven by the imperatives of extreme poverty that undermine wise management of natural resources. Poor farming communities often seek quick returns through “slash and burn” methods of shifting cultivation at the forest periphery.

The widespread lack of rural energy utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a further direct cause of deforestation. There are 1.1 billion people without access to electricity and at least another billion whose supply lacks capacity to power cooking facilities. The consequence is 3.0 billion people relying on traditional biomass methods of cooking, for which the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel is the dominant choice.

With no electricity available in rural Malawi, poor households have no choice but to collect firewood for their energy needs, illustrating a significant cause of forest degradation

Solutions to Deforestation

Product certification which offers the reassurance of an environmentally friendly label is a popular consumer solution to deforestation. Examples include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Popular global consumer campaigns have perhaps proved more effective than certification in slowing the pace of deforestation, especially those which target the reputational risk of big corporate brand names. A sequence of campaign victories has unleashed an avalanche of “zero deforestation” policies announced by the sector’s most significant global companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper, McDonalds and Cargill.

Chocolate Industry Fights Deforestation Caused by Growing Cocoa – environmental groups encourage chocolate lovers to think about the impact of cocoa on deforestation
from VOA News

By 2017, over 400 commitments were on record, many of them coordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of consumer companies. Formidable challenges remain, in particular to bring public pressure to bear on the world’s other major timber importers – China, Vietnam and Japan.

Merging the urgent challenges of climate change and deforestation has created a finance-driven solution known as “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” (REDD+). This interprets deforestation as the consequence of failure of the world’s market economy to attribute any value to the intrinsic assets of the tropical forest.

The correction of this malfunction envisages a “payment for environmental services” to custodians of a forest area in return for a measurable reduction in the rate of deforestation. The vision presumes that tropical forests will be protected if they acquire greater economic value standing than cut down.

The availability of carbon markets as a mechanism for controlling greenhouse gas emissions provides the final component of this commercial model. Credits are awarded for preserved forest carbon which can be offset against the investor’s commitments to emission reductions, or traded in carbon markets. The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 duly endorsed the importance of the REDD+ approach.


more Biodiversity briefings (updated April 2018)
The Anthropocene
Importance of Biodiversity
Tropical Forests
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Finance and Economics
Market Mechanisms
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
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