Why Zero Deforestation Is Compatible With A Reduction In Poverty

Jonathon Porritt, the environmentalist, last week attacked fellow Greens who back the ambition of “zero deforestation”’. He accused colleagues of “absolutism”, holding back development, perpetuating poverty and even colonialism. He suggested that the aim of stopping deforestation is simplistic and unrealistic.
His comments help mark an important fork in the road in the 40-year battle to save the tropical rainforests and highlight the choice that companies and countries have as they approach the complex question of sustainability.
That fork is seen in two distinct schools of thought: those who back the idea of eliminating forest loss from supply chains and development, and those who see no choice but to trade off environmental goals against development ones. This is not to say that those in the first camp never expect another tree to be cut or that those in the second say all the forests should be sacrificed for economic growth.
The real question is about the overall end point and the strategy adopted to reach it.
No serious environmentalist I know is blind to the dangers of environmental policies perpetuating poverty. They seek ways to achieve development while keeping key ecosystems intact. To this extent, zero deforestation is not anti-development but very much in the sprit of sustainable development. It’s a strategy increasingly embraced by some of the world’s largest companies, and especially those in the food and agriculture sectors.
In 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum, a grouping of hundreds of the world’s largest brands, made a commitment to “mobilise resources … to help achieve zero net deforestation by 2020”. Companies that have taken more explicit stances on this include global giants such as Nestlé, Danone, Unilever, Asia Pulp and Paper, Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources.
The latter two are major players in the palm oil industry and have adopted leadership positions that will hopefully soon be followed by others, such as Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby, a company advised by Porritt’s consultancy Forum for the Future. Sime has resisted calls to adopt a zero deforestation goal and is among those bankrolling a new study into the carbon emissions that result from forest loss.
While such an investigation might be helpful in reminding us of the huge carbon emissions and economic damage caused by forests loss (never mind impacts on local livelihoods, disruption of water cycles and destruction of wildlife – which it apparently will not cover), it might be more productive for Sime to instead review existing studies that show how it is possible to reduce forest loss while increasing food output. Work looking at how to do that gives clear steers as to how best to proceed.
The detail will vary from place to place but a combination of planting on restored degraded land, supporting smallholders to increase their productivity, and reducing waste between growers and the market are among the key strategies. Major companies say that such approaches can be combined to produce more food without further forest encroachment.
That development can be achieved at the same time as reducing forest loss is not in doubt. Take the case of Costa Rica.
During the mid 1980s the country was engaged in mass deforestation but then took the historic step of seeing its forests as worth more intact than when converted to cattle pasture. By seeing other values, including for water (which powers hydroelectric dams) and for tourism, the country invested in forest conservation and restoration while at the same time achieving economic growth. The result 30 years later was a doubling in forest cover while at the same time also doubling GDP.
More recently, Brazil, the country with more tropical rainforest than any other, broke the historic link between high forest loss and growing agricultural output. There are about 20m hectares of degraded land in Brazil so the potential exists for producing still more food with zero forest loss, if only the emphasis is on improving soils rather than cutting trees. A range of policy tools could move food producers in that direction, so can international supply chains that demand zero deforestation.
And then we should remember that the promise of development from deforestation has often not materialised, including in Liberia where Sime is seeking to expand its palm oil operations. Reports from groups working in that country say that plantations carved over recent years into natural forests have caused more conflict and destitution than prosperity.
The fork in the road for the forests is based on a clear choice: go for the concept of zero deforestation through sustainable rural development and farming, or continue with the old fashioned narrative of “trade-offs”. Having spent many years at the frontline in the battle for the last rainforests, I’m very clear which path I’ll take.
This article was first published by The Guardian Monday 8th September 2014.