If we want to end the climate and biodiversity crises, it is essential that we stop tree loss. We have the tools to tackle the challenge. Here are five ways to stop deforestation
Let’s not beat around the bush: trees are one of our planet’s greatest resources. They are carbon sinks and purify the air, reduce flooding, and produce the oxygen we breathe. Despite all their benefits, man seems determined not to cut them down.
According to the UN, global forest cover has declined since 1990. shrunk by around 13m hectares per year (that’s an area roughly the size of England). This loss is mainly in tropical forests in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are also losses to boreal and temperate forests in Canada, the US, and Russia. Since the beginning of the century, the United States has lost more trees than any other country.
There are signs that there is progress. A 2021 study revealed that the world has gained an area of forest the size of France since 2000. That’s not nearly enough to offset losses and ecologists have consequently been barking up every tree for a fix. Although there is no magic bullet for this problem, there are proven ways to stop deforestation.
Five solutions to deforestation
1. Empower local people
Having profited from large-scale deforestation in their own lands, industrialised nations – now alert to the climate and biodiversity crises they helped create – are dictating what people in developing nations can and can’t do with their own woodlands.
“Unfortunately, more and more of the international strategies [for halting deforestation] involve increasingly unilateral decisions, which make demands about deforestation that are not considering the local context, or the impact on local people,” explains Dr Constance McDermott, associate professor in land use and environmental change at the University of Oxford.
It’s essential to start by involving local people in the policy process
McDermott uses Ghanaian cocoa farmers as an example. Those trading with the EU can’t fell trees on their own land without special, tough-to-obtain permits. Technically, they are illegally logging if they do.
“It’s essential to start by involving local people in the policy process, both instrumentally, because strategies are more likely to work [when local people buy into them], and also ethically,” says McDermott. “This is a fundamental democratic principle. I’m not making some radical argument here, but it’s almost as if it were, because so many policies don’t do that.”
McDermott says that ultimately, deforestation efforts will bear more fruit if local people are involved in decision making.
2. Give land ownership to indigenous people
Research is showing that indigenous peoples are the best way to stop deforestation. A 2021 study – covering Africa, Asia and the Americas – found that tree-felling reduced by a fifth where indigenous communities were in control. In some cases, the deforestation rates were lower in national parks than in other areas.
Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UKThe NGO RFUK, which works in Africa and South America believes that such findings are a reason for optimism. “The evidence increasingly backs up RFUK’s founding principle that entrusting forests to indigenous peoples and other local communities… is the most effective and socially just way of protecting them,” he says.
Many indigenous populations have strong cultural and sometimes spiritual connections to the forest. They are more likely to protect it. This may not always be the case. One conservationist said that while some indigenous communities may protect the land, others may want to take the money and move to Florida.
In some cases, the deforestation rates were lower in national parks than in certain areas.
What if indigenous populations aren’t present? Concession schemes have been proven to be equally effective in reducing deforestation. They involve the authorities ‘renting out’ forests to local communities, who want to harness benefits from the land in a sustainable way.
This idea – which, in theory, could be implemented anywhere – has proven successful in the Maya Biosphere ReserveGuatemala. Nine forest concession schemes in Guatemala have seen a near-zero rate of deforestation over the past 20 years. A stat that’s even more eye-catching given surrounding regions have suffered some of the highest deforestation rates in the Americas.
3. Introduce discipline into supply chains
While forests and agriculture can happily coexist, it is not the norm. Clearing trees for agriculture is the main cause of deforestation. Seven commodities account for most of the destruction: beef, soy (largely used in livestock feed), palm oil and wood fibre, as well as coffee, rubber, and cocoa.
One solution is to make sure that these products are not sold on the international market in unsustainable versions. It’s an idea that Steven Wolf, associate professor of natural resources and the environment at Cornell University, New York, endorses.
“I think this is exciting,” says Wolf. “If we introduce feedbacks that put pressure on specific actors that fail to follow norms and codes of conduct, then we’re really getting somewhere.”
Firms that can demonstrate sustainable practice could be eligible for preferential tax arrangements
An example of ‘feedbacks’ could include higher taxes or bans on products directly linked to deforestation. Firms that can demonstrate sustainable practices could also be eligible for subsidies and preferential tax arrangements. Similar systems could be used in order to prioritise local businesses that benefit from and are run by local people.
Simply making supply chains more transparent (something that is often touted as a solution to deforestation), is, in Wolf’s opinion, not going far enough.
“Accountability cannot be conflated with transparency,” he says. “We know that giving people information about fuel efficiency of cars, for example, doesn’t solve the problem of emissions. It makes behaviours a little less worse, but the idea that if you give people information, then everything will be well is nonsense.”
4. Reduce beef consumption (and other meats)
People can also reduce their meat consumption. A 2022 study, by Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, found that a 20 per cent reduction in the amount of beef humanity consumes could halve the rate of deforestation.
Even better results would be achieved if all meat consumption was reduced. This would decrease demand for soy which is primarily grown in the south to feed livestock in north.
“Importing animal feed for meat production is Europe’s largest contribution to deforestation,” says Louisa Casson, a senior political strategist at Greenpeace. “So, if we’re serious about protecting forests we have to transform the way we produce food, and, ultimately, consider more carefully the food we eat.”
5. Elect forests-favouring governments
While it’s helpful to make informed decisions at the supermarket, it’s arguably even more important to make planet-positive choices at the polling booth.
“The idea that government is relevant is out of fashion,” says Wolf. “But we really have no alternative. We need governments that do more than just create policies. Because policies aren’t real. You actually have to implement them.”
Brazil is a prime example. Following rampant deforestation during the 80s and 90s, the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva-led government – elected in 2003 – made tackling tree felling a priority. After five years of decline in deforestation, the country’s rates have fallen again. In contrast, the country now has some of the highest deforestation rates since decades after Jair Bolsonaro, a climate-denier was elected in 2019.
We need governments that do more than create policies. Policies aren’t real. You must implement them
Wolf emphasizes the importance of governments in the global North in finding solutions to deforestation.
“We’re not going to pass better laws and we’re not going to implement those laws without major political change at home,” says Wolf. “I’m talking about green parties, progressive parties. Governments who are going to have much more ambitious ideas about how we come together to solve this global problem.”
Main image by Lewis Roberts
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