DEFORESTATION has been around for millennia and one could argue was a historical precursor to the emergence of a developed country.
Clearing land for agricultural use to grow food for expanding populations or to provide timber for construction or the production of heat had a big part to play in the “ascent of man”.
By contrast, indigenous peoples who have learned to live in harmony with their forest environment have generally continued a way of life that, until relatively recent contact was made with the developed world, has changed comparatively little over many hundreds or even thousands of years.
The impact of deforestation on global warming and the general degradation of the Earth’s resources have now been understood to a greater or lesser extent for some time. Conservationists have been lamenting the failure of governments throughout the world to get to grips with this problem but there are probably many of us who were under the impression that this was yesterday’s news and that the wilful destruction of globally important rainforests was a thing of the past. That perception could not be further from the truth.
A report just published by “Forest Trends”, a US-based NGO, asserts that 49% of the deforestation that occurred in the first 12 years of the 21st century was illegal, and equivalent to forest the size of five football pitches being illegally cut down every minute of every day during that 12-year period.
The main drivers behind this? Consumer demand in the EU and the USA for commodities such as beef (and as a result, soya bean), leather, palm oil and, of course, timber itself.
A very strange position to be in when the EU is apparently giving large amounts of money to third country governments to reduce deforestation and yet is itself fuelling the demand for the practice to continue.
Much of the problem at a local level is that many of the governments of countries which still have a significant area of tropical rainforest are incapable of enforcing their own legislation concerning logging. Even when “licences” are granted, this is often through corrupt or fraudulent means which makes monitoring impossible.
If you look at some of the details in the aforementioned report, they are both shocking and frightening. For example, in Brazil, 90% of deforestation is for agroconversion of which 79% is illegal; 30% of the produce from that illegal agroconversion is then exported, almost exclusively as soya bean for intensive beef production in the northern hemisphere.
Some of the countries that are newer to this process have even more disturbing figures. In Papua New Guinea, 50% of deforestation is down to agroconversion of which 90% is illegal and from which 100% of the product (mainly palm oil and cocoa) is exported.
The problem then is one of demand in the rich west and one can hardly blame the producer countries concerned for producing what they can easily sell at a profit. They all want to have a secure lifestyle and own a mobile phone in the short term, even if in the long term the means of providing them is unsustainable.
The answer then lies as much with ourselves as it does with those countries that still have significant areas of intact rain forest.
The EU in particular has made great strides in passing legislation to force companies to exercise due diligence when sourcing tropical timber to ensure that their supplies are both legal and sustainable.
It is almost certainly time to ensure that similar legislation is put in place to require the same type of due diligence from those importing palm oil and soya bean.
Burying our heads in the sand so that we can eat cheap food at any one of a number of hamburger chains, or spread margarine rather than butter on our toast in the morning, is no way to preserve what little there is left of the “lungs of the world” and the biodiversity that exists within them.