Illegal Deforestation is Killing Our Lands – US Report

A May 2021 report by Forest Trends, a US based non-profit, finds at least 69 percent of agro-conversion from 2013 to 2019 (4.5 million hectares per year) was conducted in violation of national laws and regulations.

A new report that looks into the scope and scale of “illegal deforestation in the tropics that has been driven by commercial agriculture” has found that agricultural commodities are being grown on lands that have been “illegally cleared of forests – in violation of a country’s own national laws and regulations.”

US non-profit Forest Trends’ report “Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods: The State of Illegal Deforestation for Agriculture” finds that “tropical deforestation is at the root of multiple global challenges facing humanity.”

The report discusses the Paris Agreement’s commitment to keep climate warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, pointing out that in order to achieve this goal, “both rapid decarbonization of the world’s economy and rapid reduction in emissions from deforestation and other land uses” is required.

Noting that deforestation is “one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss”, the report also warns that areas of tropical forest loss are “global hotspots for zoonotic disease [disease transmitted from animals to humans] exposure and emergence.”

Another less obvious result of forest land clearance is increased violence “against indigenous peoples, local communities, and environmental defenders,” as well as “migration when communities are displaced.”

According to the report, “almost two thirds (60 percent) of tropical forest loss was driven by commercial agriculture between 2013 and 2019.” Of this tropical forest loss, “almost three quarters (69 percent) was conducted in violation of national laws and regulations.” Between 2013 and 2019, the report notes, the rate of illegal deforestation “increased by 28 percent compared to 2000 to 2012: from 3.5 million hectares (Mha) per year to 4.5 Mha per year.”

The report also points out that because of limited data at governments’ hands, and the fact that “audits rarely happen”, the true scale of the destruction is probably underestimated.

Key findings 

According to the “Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods” report by Forest Trends, “Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) together accounted for 51 percent of all tropical forest loss between 2013 and 2019. All three have seen increases in average annual loss (by 14 percent, 17 percent, and 162 percent, respectively) during this time.”

Between 2013 and 2019, the report says the loss of tropical forests was such that it was the equivalent of “clearing more than five Manhattans every day for seven years.”

The report also finds that “almost two-thirds (60 percent) of tropical deforestation between 2013 and 2019 was driven by commercial agriculture.” The authors note that commercial agriculture was “the primary identifiable driver of forest loss everywhere except Africa, where subsistence agriculture reportedly drove almost all deforestation.” Forest Trends marked an increase of 28 percent in the average annual scale of agro-conversion from between 2000 to 2012 to between 2013 to 2019, noting that “more than 6.58 Mha of tropical forests were cleared each year to make way for commercial agricultural operations.”

The authors also say that their findings of at least 69 percent of illegal agro-conversion is “likely an underestimate”. They say that of the 77 Mha tropical forest loss between 2013 and 2019 –– close to the size of the Republic of Turkey, at 78.4 Mha ––, at least 31.7 Mha, an area roughly the size of Norway, was illegally converted. Their “conservative” estimates suggest, the authors say, that more reporting is required. As examples, they mention Brazil, where “at least 95 percent of all deforestation was illegal,” and Indonesia, where the Supreme Audit Agency “found less than 20 percent of palm oil operations in compliance with national laws and regulations.”

The commodities driving the global figures of illegal deforestation, according to the study, are “soy, palm oil, and cattle products [beef and leather]” but the authors also mention cocoa, rubber, coffee and maize as “leading causes of illegal deforestation in some regions.”

The report also discusses the hypothetical situation that if illegal agro-conversion were a country, “its emissions would be third largest after China and the US.” Illegal agro-conversion was likely responsible for “at least 2.7 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year, and 19 Gt of CO2e between 2013 and 2019,” the report notes.

While the authors admit that “it is not possible to calculate at a global level precisely what share of illegally produced commodities are ultimately exported from their country of origin,” they posit that “more than 31 percent” of agricultural commodities linked to deforestation were exported, raising “significant concerns” about their links to illegal deforestation. They say that the risk of association to illegally produced commodities is “non-negligible” and must be assumed to be high for commodities such as “soy and palm oil.”

The report warns that “a bifurcation of trade is likely” with demand-side regulatory measures being adopted in some major markets (such as the US, Europe and Australia) but not in others, high-risk commodities may continue “to find buyers in import markets without legislation or trade measures blocking illicit goods.” They note that in China and India, “regulatory and consumer pressures for environmental protections are lower”, for example.

The authors conclude by saying despite the difficulties in proper monitoring and reporting, their report reveals “the ugly truth: that much of global agribusiness trade is linked to operations that illegally clear forests.”

They do say there is hope, though: “Brazil was successful in drastically reducing deforestation up until 2012 – and in doing so contributed more to addressing climate change through a reduction in related emissions than any other single country. Indonesia has successfully reduced its deforestation every year since a peak in 2016. Forest Trends observes continued leadership from some corners of industry. There is increasing global political focus on natural climate solutions, including legislation addressing the imports of agricultural products associated with deforestation – either legal or illegal – now being developed by the EC, UK, and US.”

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