You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

As the protection of Tasmania’s forests is called into question and the deforestation debate heats up, Luke Craven asks whether the corporate bottom line will always trump the bigger environmental picture.

In what is being called an unprecedented step, the Abbott Government recently announced that it will remove World Heritage protection from Tasmanian forests.  These actions are echoed in the developing world too, with governments, industry and environmentalists battling over how to protect – or whether to protect – forest areas.

What is missing from these debates is a discussion on the true value of forests. Maintaining forests is an essential component of any global emissions mitigation strategy.  And it is climate change that poses the greatest threat to the development of poor countries and households.  Our forests also provide goods and services that contribute to rural livelihoods, food security, and climate resilience.  Indeed, it has been said that forest management and conservation is central to the achievement of most of the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet despite decades of international cooperation to control deforestation, forest loss continues at a rapid rate, driven in large part by the consumption patterns and policies in rich countries. Ironically, richer countries like Australia work to prevent deforestation in Indonesia, while promoting the unsustainable forestry practice and consumption at home.

So how do we reduce the rate of deforestation in developing countries? We could begin by increasing the proportion of forests with formal protection, removing subsidies that incentivize forest conversion, and giving greater recognition to indigenous and customary forest management systems.   The problem with these approaches is that while it continues to be profitable for people to engage in deforestation, they will. The ability of developing governments to police illegal forest conversion is often nonexistent.  It is estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of timber production in Indonesia stems from illegal logging.  These practices will continue unless developing countries can drastically reform the way they enforce forestry protection measures.

Part of the burden must also fall to the West to curb consumption patterns that promote forest loss in developing countries.  The power lies in the hands of the richer countries to introduce market-based incentives for removing deforestation from global commodity supply chains.  This can take many forms.  The UK Government’s buying standards are one example of practical action, but one that is yet to be replicated elsewhere.  Steps can also be taken to remove subsidies for unsustainable biofuels.  These actions are urgent, affordable, and politically feasible. They constitute a bridge to a future global climate agreement that includes forests.

The question we must ask is whether these public sector initiatives will have a significant impact on reducing deforestation.  Without a similar commitment from the private sector, this seems unlikely.  Those that control our supply chains must take responsibility for our supply chains.  It is corporate social responsibility that offers the greatest opportunity to reduce the demand driven causes of global deforestation.

It is companies like Unilever, the third-largest consumer goods company, that may be taking steps in the right direction. CEO Paul Polman has been awarded the 2013 Commitment to Development Ideas in Action for global leadership in efforts to reduce tropical deforestation. In addition, Mr Polman leads the Consumer Goods Forum. This global network of industry leaders joined with the US Government in 2012 to establish the Tropical Forest Alliance; an effort to end tropical deforestation associated with the production of global agricultural commodities by 2020.

Whilst these are positive developments, at the end of the day stopping deforestation will depend on strengthened law, increased regulation, and genuine enforcement in producer countries.  As long as there are markets that are insensitive to the adverse environmental impacts of deforestation then there will be individuals and corporations willing to supply those markets. This exploitation comes at the expense of local people, forests and the global climate and we cannot allow it to continue.

Luke Craven (@LukeCraven) is a current PhD candidate at the University of Sydney in the Department of Government and International Relations. His research is broadly concerned with migration, food systems, sustainability, and the connections between them.