Trees Fell Faster in the Years Since Companies and Governments Promised to Stop Cutting Them Down

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In the seven years since governments and corporations promised to stop deforestation, the clear cutting of critically important tropical forests has instead increased by more than 50 percent, a new report shows, with commercial agriculture driving most of the increase.

The report, released Tuesday by the conservation group Forest Trends, tracks deforestation, legal and illegal, in 23 countries with large areas of tropical forests, including Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest. The research looks at the period, starting in 2014, when dozens of governments, organizations and companies signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it altogether by 2030.

The researchers found that, since those commitments, an area nearly twice the size of California has been cleared of trees, mostly for commercial agriculture, which is the largest driver of deforestation and the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from land use.

“The scale of the increase in deforestation is really huge, and given all the commitments, is really disappointing and shocking,” said Cassie Dummett, one of the report’s lead authors. “Every year so much is being cleared, and when it’s for commodities, that means that the world’s consumers and governments are complicit.”

In 2014, Forest Trends published research that found that from 2002 to 2012, 18 million acres of forest were cleared every year. The new report says that figure is now 27 million acres a year, a 52 percent increase. From 2013 to 2019, nearly 190 million acres were cut down. Most of that deforestation—about 60 percent—was driven by commercial agriculture, and much of the forest clearing for crops or cattle was illegal.

From 2000 to 2012, nearly 9 million acres were cleared illegally every year for agriculture; from 2013 to 2019, that figure grew to 10 million acres a year.

Two countries, Brazil and Indonesia, suffered most of the forest losses driven by agriculture, the report found. In Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter of beef, nearly 95 percent of the conversion of woodlands to agricultural fields was done illegally. 

Most of that clearing was driven by a demand for exported commodities. In addition to beef, the biggest culprit throughout Latin America continues to be soy, largely for animal feed and destined for overseas markets, especially China, which has seen a surge in demand for meat. In Indonesia, the largest driver of deforestation continues to be palm oil, which finds its way into a wide array of commercial food and consumer products in markets around the world.

“In each of the countries there’s a slightly different context, but the trends across the board are that we see demand for commodities increasing, both for domestic and export markets,” Dummett said. “China has grown immensely as an importer of commodities, many of which are grown on deforested land. At the same time, domestic demands have grown in Latin America.”

Increased demand is only part of the problem. Regulatory rollbacks, particularly in Brazil, have allowed both illegal and legal timber cuts to accelerate. Under Brazilian law, a certain percentage of a landowner’s forest is required to be left standing, but that fraction has gotten smaller under a new law.  

“Behind a lot of this is land deals, land speculation and land laundering, depending on the country,” Dummett said. “The legal framework is often exploited, where a nexus of political and business elites are using commercial agriculture as a means of claiming ownership, and the land value increases massively when it’s transformed from forest to agricultural land.”

Dummett said that Forest Trends will follow up on the report with a set of policy recommendations, but the authors intend it to inform a handful of legislative proposals already in the works. 

Lawmakers in the United Kingdom are considering a law that would ban the import of any product linked to illegal deforestation. In the United States, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has said he will introduce legislation that would ban the import of products linked to illegal deforestation, and has called consuming products connected to such destruction of woodlands “immoral.”

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In March, nearly 30 environmental groups sent a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to put in place regulations that would restrict the import of agricultural products tied to deforestation. 

“Commodities produced on illegally converted lands continue to find unwitting consumers and investors in the United States and other major markets,” the groups wrote.

Many conservation and environmental organizations are pushing governments to impose stricter requirements on imports and financial institutions to reduce deforestation. 

“Voluntary commitments haven’t had the intended effect,” Dummett said. ”They haven’t worked.”

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