The battle to stop deforestation continued to rage across the planet in 2017, writes Mark Hillsdon. But the year ended with a flurry of new commitments and partnerships aimed at saving the world’s forests, and restoring millions of hectares of degraded land

In one of the year’s most telling reports, scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) revealed that, due to deforestation and general disturbance, our tropical forests now emit more carbon than they sequester. Researchers mapped the forests using data and satellite images, but as well as looking at the huge areas that had been cleared-felled, they also took into account the impact of activities such as small-scale agriculture and the use of wood for fuel, issues that previous studies had overlooked.

The results showed that forests have become a net source of carbon in the atmosphere, and now add some 425 teragrams a year, equivalent to the annual emissions of all the trucks and cars in the US.

“If we’re to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, we need to drastically reduce emissions and greatly increase forests’ ability to absorb and store carbon,” said Alessandro Baccini, the study’s lead author. “Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects – from regulating rainfall to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

For decades the Amazon has been a reluctant battleground in a long war against deforestation

For decades the Amazon has been a reluctant battleground in a long war against deforestation. In the year up to October 2017 tree loss there actually dropped by 16%. However, a mixture of droughts, which are leading to wild fires – some allegedly started deliberately to clear more land for grazing – and the continued weakening of environmental laws by the Temer government means that the decline isn’t expected to continue into 2018.

Environmentalists also highlighted problems in Europe. In October Greenpeace launched its Wiping Away the Boreal report, attacking Swedish-based Essity, the world’s second-largest tissue manufacturer, which it accuses of destroying Europe’s Great Northern Forest in Sweden, Finland and Russia by logging in highvalue forest landscapes in Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Greenpeace's campaign against Essity in northern Sweden (credit: Jari Stahl/Greenpeace)


Essity, formerly SCA Hygiene, pointed out that it is one of only four companies globally to receive A scores from CDP for both water and forests this year. It said in a statement: “Our fiber policy and implementation
practices have repeatedly been scrutinized by other international organizations and institutes, such as WWF and CDP, and we have been praised for our strong commitments on biodiversity as well as our leadership in transparency for disclosing our production’s ecological footprint.”

There was also a huge rise in deforestation in Australia. Queensland, in particular, has been hard-hit, with official figures showing a 33% rise in clearing in 2015/16 to around 400,000 hectares. “Australia has become one of the deforestation hotspots in the world,” lamented Queensland’s deputy premier Jackie Trad.

Another worrying effect of deforestation was also revealed, with a report making the link between forest loss and malaria, with cleared forests proving the perfect habitat for mosquitoes to breed.

Yet 2017 was not all bleak for our forests. In September, the Cerrado Manifesto was launched by a coalition of Brazilian and international NGOs and research bodies.

Cleared forest provide a habitat for mosquitoes (credit: Shutterstock Inc.)

As we reported in July, the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast tropical savannah, has been devastated by soy, which represent 90% (15.6 million hectares) of all agriculture in the area. Many environmentalists fear that moves to reduce deforestation in the Amazon have simply pushed the issue into the Cerrado, where between 2000 to 2014, agriculture expanded by 87%.

The manifesto calls for the private sector to take action, not just in stopping deforestation but also severing any links within their supply chains with areas that have recently been converted to soy production. So far more than 20 major companies, including M&S, Mars, Walmart, McDonald’s, and Unilever have taken up the challenge and signed the manifesto. Only time will tell whether it proves just another paper-pushing exercise.

Much of this soy is destined to feed the world’s livestock. WWF is one organisation that has been thinking outside the box to tackle the issue. In its report, Appetite for Destruction, WWF looks to further develop the idea of feeding farm animals on insects and algae, arguing it would be a far more efficient use of the world’s resources than growing soy and maize.

Forests are the only carbon capture and storage “technology” we have in our grasp that is safe, proven inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects

Another important development in 2017 was the announced merger of the Rainforest Alliance with the Dutch certifier UTZ. One of the key tests for the new organisation will be how it addresses the age-old criticism that companies often talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk when it comes to commitments around stopping deforestation. The RA is already part of a coalition of NGOs that is developing the Accountancy Framework, a set of common guidelines for companies seeking to eliminate ecosystem destruction and human exploitation from their supply chain.

As Nigel Sizer, the outgoing president of the RA, told Ethical Corporation in September: “It’s just not good enough for companies to make the commitment to deforestation and effectively continue business as usual, saying there’s a lack of agreement on definitions. We are removing that excuse.”

A new toolkit for companies involved in global palm oil supply chain was also released this year by the High Carbon Stock Steering Group. The HCS Approach Toolkit 2.0 is designed to help companies meet their commitments to zero deforestation and has set out to standardise the methodology both for protecting tropical forests and identifying areas where palm oil can be grown sustainably.

There was more support for forests in October with the launch of a Trillion Trees, a partnership between three of the world’s largest conservation organisations, the Wildlife conservation Society, WWF and BirdLife.

Peatland destroyed by fire in Riau, Indonesia (credit: Rony Mhuarrman/Greenpeace)

The 25-year initiative has set out to catalyse large-scale investment to protect, restore and replant trees in the world’s most at-risk landscapes, as well as mobilising finance to help find solutions for local forestry and other social and economic issues.

“Although forest restoration plans and strategies to avoid deforestation exist around the world, on-the-ground implementation and financing of these commitments lag well behind these ambitions,” said Simon Petley, WWF-UK’s forest and finance programme manager. “Trillion Trees will help achieve global forest commitments by bringing together a diverse group of corporate, non-profit, and community stakeholders to deliver targeted conservation projects and unlock access to private-public funding."

We want the finance industry to change their agricultural lending away from deforestation and towards integrated landscapes, which provide good jobs, protect biodiversity, and are good for the climate

Work is already under way helping to expand and strengthen protected areas in Colombia, improve environmental certification in locally controlled forests in Tanzania and support large-scale restoration plans for vulnerable watershed areas of the Rwandan highlands. There are also plans to establish sustainable, deforestation-free models of cocoa production.

Restoration and reforestation were the watchwords at the COP23 climate conference in Bonn, as the crucial role that forest can play in meeting the targets set by the Paris Agreement was again acknowledged. One headline grabber was the announcement from the World Resources Institute (WRI) that more than $2bn of new private investment has been committed to restoring degraded lands in Latin America and the Caribbean, through the WRI’s 20x20 initiative.

Another was the signing of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, an agreement between 21 cocoa companies and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to end illegal deforestation by introducing climate-smart farming practices and lifting hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers from poverty.

The Cocoa & Forests Initiative was signed at COP23 to end illegal deforestation (Credit: Mars)

Another sign of the growing importance and influence of green finance in stopping deforestation is the partnership between Rabobank, a global leader in food and agriculture financing, and UN Environment. The link up has created a £1bn facility to finance climate- smart agriculture using a combination of public and private funding.

In Brazil, for instance, the coalition is promoting and financing integrated crop, livestock and forestry (ICLF) farming practices on the 17 million ha of land that is already managed by farmers who are customers of the bank.

“We want the entire finance industry to change their agricultural lending away from deforestation and towards integrated landscapes, which provide good jobs, protect biodiversity, and are good for the climate,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

In a similar development, Asian palm oil giant Wilmar International announced at the end of November that it had signed an agreement with Dutch investor ING to convert a portion of its existing $150m revolving credit facility into a sustainability performance-linked loan. Performance will be measured by ESG specialist Sustainalytics on indicators including promotion of biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, along with social performance.  

It’s the kind of bold and ambitious thinking that’s needed to reverse deforestation and reduce the negative effects of the way we farm. Year of the tree in 2018? It’s got a certain ring to it.

Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.

Woods Hole Research Center  Amazon  Essity  Cerrado Manifesto  World Resources Institute  WWF  Soy  climate-smart farming  Cocoa & Forests Initiative  Rainforest Alliance 

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