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How the Rise of the Global Middle Class Is Driving Illegal Deforestation – and How We Can Change the Paradigm

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How the Rise of the Global Middle Class Is Driving Illegal Deforestation – and How We Can Change the Paradigm

A new report released today by Forest Trends finds that deforestation for commercial agriculture has been rampant in tropical forested countries since the turn of the century, and nearly half of all tropical deforestation (49%) has been illegall. Though illegality has not been at the forefront of governments’ discussions on curbing deforestation, addressing it could hold an important key to keeping the world’s remaining tropical forests intact – and keeping the carbon those forests store out of the atmosphere. 

Download the report here.

11 September 2014 | In Brazil, organized land grabbers and squatters cleared swaths of the Amazon for cattle grazing and then took advantage of government programs that grant land titles after the fact. In Indonesia, palm oil companies bribed local officials to obtain licenses to convert forests to plantations. In Cambodia, a rubber company was issued a land concession five times the size allowed by law, with more than half of the land area falling within a national park. In Tanzania, a jatropha company fudged the authorship of an environmental impact assessment and convinced villagers to sign documents they didn’t fully understand.

Illegal deforestation takes on many forms around the world, and – according to new research released today by Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends – it is more rampant than previously understood. And its drivers are shifting. While in the 20th century tropical forests often went to meet demand for timber, about three-quarters (71%) of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was caused by commercial agriculture. Nearly half (49%) of all tropical deforestation in this period was the result of illegal land conversion for commercial agriculture, and nearly one quarter (24%) was the direct result of illegal land conversion for commercial agricultural products bound for export markets. The commodities exported at the end of the process are worth an estimated $61 billion annually.

What is driving all of this outlawed and often unscrupulous activity?

A lot of it has to do with consumer demand. As the global population swells to nine billion by mid-century, and as millions of people escape the pains of poverty and join the growing ‘global middle class,’ they are buying more hamburgers (beef), chicken (raised using soy feed) and toothpaste (palm oil), and – as incomes and literacy rise – shipping more goods around the world in cardboard containers and consuming more paper (both packaging and book materials are now increasingly sourced from so-called “conversion timber,” the product of trees cut down when converting forestland to other uses such as a large-scale oil palm plantation). The Brookings Institute estimates that there are currently 1.8 billion people in the middle class, and that we can expect that number to rise to 4.9 billion by 2030.

The challenge, then, will to be meet the growing demand for beef, leather, soy, palm oil, pulp and paper and other products without ravaging the world’s remaining tropical forests. Doing so will be essential to protecting the rights of the indigenous peoples and communities who live in and depend on forests, and curbing runaway climate change. Illicit land conversion for mega-crops releases nearly 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere annually – about a quarter of the fossil fuel-based emissions of the European Union. If the international trade in agricultural commodities from illegal deforestation were a country, it would be the sixth largest contributor to climate change in the world.

Why focus on illegality?

“There is a lot of policy work and research and meetings and discussions that have been happening over the past two, three, four years regarding commercial agriculture and these commodities as a driver of deforestation, but the legality point has been almost non-existent within those debates,” said Sam Lawson, the lead author of Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations . “And that’s just madness given how important it is.”

In the report, Lawson offers three main reasons to pay closer attention to the legal status of global deforestation.

The first reason is scale. Overseas consumer demand has resulted in the illegal clearing of more than 200,000 square kilometers of tropical forest since the turn of the century, a rate of about five football fields per minute, the research finds. An estimated 40% of all palm oil, 33% of tropical timber, 20% of all soy, and 14% of all beef traded internationally comes from ex-forested land that have been illegally cleared. So, if we ignore these illegal activities, we’re actually missing a chunk of deforestation roughly the size of the land area of Ghana.

The second reason has to do with tactics. Namely, the idea that the methods used to fight illegal deforestation are categorically different than those used to curb legal deforestation. Illegal activity can be stopped by revoking land concessions, issuing fines, or sending perpetrators to jail, whereas none of these strategies can be used to stop legal deforestation. Also, many of the strategies to fight illegal deforestation have proven to be very effective. Brazil has reduced its deforestation 70% since 2004, mainly because of crackdowns on illegal clearing of land for soy and cattle ranching. Marina Silva, a current presidential hopeful who served as Brazil’s Environment Minister from 2003 to 2008, led the effort to shut down over 1,500 illegal operations. So, rather than passing new laws and policies, governments might be wise to work instead on enforcing the laws and policies already in place, the report argues.

The third reason is that reducing illegal deforestation is necessary to making any other effort to save the world’s tropical forests work. In particular, the many recent private sector commitments to “zero deforestation” supply chains – including those by pulp giant Asia Pulp and Paper and palm oil trader Wilmar – are undermined by illegal activities, since sustainably sourced products will have to compete with products sourced not only unsustainably, but also illegally, leading to huge price gaps. As long as illegal operations are business-as-usual and go unpoliced, there will always be companies willing to take the path of least resistance. Case in point: a recent concession of 470,000 hectares in the Republic of Congo, to a Malaysian company called Atama that has no previous experience in the palm oil sector, was found by local inspectors to be in breach of regulation.

Implications for REDD+

REDD, the United Nations (UN)-backed program for developed countries to pay developing ones to reduce emissions from deforestation, is also undercut by illegal activity. The REDD Readiness Preparation Proposals that countries submit to the UN-REDD Programme and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility in hopes of securing upfront ‘readiness’ funding rarely mention governance issues or the extent to which illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture has been the biggest recent driver of deforestation, according to Lawson, and even fewer propose methods for addressing illegal versus planned and legal deforestation. The official statement on drivers of deforestation agreed to by parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2013 does not specifically address illegal conversion for commercial agriculture.

“In terms of where most of the money and the effort is going on REDD, there is far too much – in my view – on tinkering with MRVs (monitoring, reporting and verification) and measuring carbon and negotiating changes in policies regarding development of forested land in these countries and not nearly enough on improving governance and dealing with illegality issues,” he said.

One of Indonesia’s core REDD strategies, for example, is persuading companies that have already received land concessions to clear forests for palm plantations to “swap” those concessions to already degraded land, such as nine million hectares on Kalimantan that was found to be suitable to grow palm. But voluntary commitments such as these are unlikely to work if many palm producers blatantly operate in violation of national laws, the report argues, and it will be difficult for donor governments to justify ‘payments for performance’ for reduced emissions in the context of activities that should have already been shut down.

Reason for hope

Though the report offers much fodder for concern, perhaps its most important finding is that, “these illegalities are not insurmountable.” In fact, the issues that the agricultural commodity sector is currently facing are ones that have been addressed by the timber industry throughout previous decades.

The ongoing Forest Law, Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) action plan, for example, has the European Union develop bilateral agreements with producer countries such as Indonesia. Through these processes, stakeholders from government, civil society, and private sector institutions in the producer country get together to define what ‘legal’ timber means and establish verification systems to ensure that exports meet this definition. These agreements are government-to-government and legally binding, and they guarantee a market for the products in exchange for improved forest governance.

“One of the ways of getting ahead of the curve on agricultural commodities is if you learn the lessons of what took the timber community 20 or 30 years to realize – that you need regulation at the consumer country level rather than just voluntary policies, and you may need to look at legality instead of sustainability,” Lawson said.

There are, of course, differences between illegal deforestation driven by timber versus agriculture. For one, when land is unlawfully cleared for timber, those logs are sent to market immediately and only once, whereas if a forest is cleared for cattle or soy or palm, the fruits of that illicit clearing will be produced continuously and sent to market over years or decades. In many cases, developers really only want the wood from a land concession but obtain concessions for agriculture rather than timber simply because those permits are easier to come by. Lawson notes that the commitments coming from the private sector promise “zero deforestation” in the future, so much of the trade being done by these companies will still be from land that was illegally deforested in the recent past.

However, there are some ways in which addressing illegal deforestation from commercial agriculture might actually be easier than dealing with illicit timber markets. While trying to determine whether a forest was felled above the legal yield can be tricky, conversion of forest to agriculture can be detected fairly easily from satellite imagery, and tools such as Global Forest Watch allow anyone with an internet connection to access remote-sensed images of forest losses and gains. Also, while agricultural commodity supply chains can be complex, many of them are actually simpler than the supply chains for timber and wood products, according to Lawson.

The report therefore argues that a process similar to FLEGT, that involves many stakeholders discussing legality and deciding on where to draw the line, could work in addressing illegal conversion for agriculture. Doing so could help countries on the verge of massive illegal deforestation – countries such as the Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea – to create a process that would bring commercial agriculture to the light side, avoiding at least some of the imminent forest conversion that would be disastrous for forest peoples and the global climate.

“There are practical limitations with what one could do – you can’t be perfect, you can’t eliminate everything,” Lawson said. “But what we’ve been seeing [in past efforts to address illegality] is essentially blanket amnesty, where everything prior to a certain date is called legal. The Brazilian government has done that, and it’s what these zero deforestation commitments by companies are essentially doing, and I think we should be trying to achieve a higher standard, where we only give amnesty when we absolutely have to.”

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Paradise Restored: Inside the Fight to Save Louisiana’s Wetlands

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Paradise Restored: Inside the Fight to Save Louisiana’s Wetlands

An ambitious plan is underway in the US state of Louisiana to save its coastal wetlands, an effort that has yielded some early success in the form of several completed projects, including a barrier island rebuilding project on Pelican Island in Louisiana. But current funding levels fall far short of the $50 billion needed for coastal wetlands restoration projects, meaning that other sources of financing – including possibly the carbon markets – must be identified and accessed.

10 September 2014 | As we drive down a stretch of highway in southeastern Louisiana on our way to the Barrier Islands, it is disconcerting to see boats floating well above our eye levels on the Mississippi River – a stark reminder of the everyday danger faced by those living eight feet below sea level in the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area. The region is so vulnerable to storm surge that about six feet of nearby marshes displaced by the surge of Hurricane Isaac, a mere Category 1 storm, in 2012 took weeks to clear off the road we are traveling on.

On the way to Pelican Island

On the way to Pelican Island

Louisiana loses about a football field worth of wetlands every hour. Barring a major intervention, much of Southeastern Louisiana will sink into the Gulf of Mexico by 2100, in large part because of significant subsidence – the gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land – that is occurring, and rising sea levels. The subsidence is part natural, part due to decades of oil and gas extraction from under the Gulf, while sea level rise is mainly due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2012 Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast outlines the state’s plans to deal with the land loss crisis that has claimed 1,880 square miles of land since the 1930s and could claim an additional 1,750 square miles. The Master Plan, as it is commonly called, envisions $50 billion worth of projects designed to increase flood protection for communities.

Back to nature

The challenge often seems insurmountable, given that sea level rise continues to accelerate and is now responsible for about a third of land loss in the area. But the wetlands projects we are on our way to visit are crucial in helping keep pace with rising sea levels and restoring the natural hydrology of the area, said Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist for Climate and Land Use Change for the US Geological Survey.

Virginia Burkett

Virginia Burkett

“A lot of the Master Plan is restoring the natural processes of the river to create land,” she said during an extensive tour of wetlands restoration sites sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists in early September. “There is still enough sediment carried by that river to restore land in Louisiana. But there are people living here, so they have to get the sediment and the freshwater over to the natural marsh without flooding the people.”

Aside from subsidence and sea level rise, the leveeing of the Mississippi River eliminated the overbank flow of water and sediments to those wetlands – which is what created the wetlands in the first place – and has also contributed to the more than a million acres of Louisiana wetlands lost, said Quin Kinler, Resource Conservationist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Once we shut that flow off, we eliminated the potential of those lands to build and to maintain themselves,” he said.

A trip to Paradise

The first site we visit is the completed Pelican Island restoration project, where the wetlands, dune and swale habitats have undergone substantial loss due to subsidence, sea level rise, oil and gas activities and marine and wind-induced shoreline erosion. But the land we spend the next few hours exploring was restored using about 6.4 million cubic yards (MCY) of mixed sediment and sand from four different borrow areas in state and federal waters. The sand was used to create 192 acres of beach dune habitats, and another 398 acres of marsh platform with an average elevation of about 2.6 feet. An emergency berm was also built at the front of the island for flood protection.

Pelican Island is part of the barrier shoreline of the Barataria Basin, an area located south and west of New Orleans that is bound by the present and a former channel of the Mississippi River on two sides and separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a chain of barrier islands – long, sandy islands that absorb wave action and protect the mainland from storms. Since 1932, the basin has lost almost 17% of its land area, with recent annual wetland loss estimates ranging between 5,200 acres and 7,100 acres per year. At this rate, the Barataria Basin will lose up to 142,340 acres of land during the next 20 years – a loss greater than that in any other basin in Louisiana’s coastal zone.

The land in Barataria Basin is losing the battle against sea level rise and subsidence

The land in Barataria Basin is losing the battle against sea level rise and subsidence. The pink area represents the coastal restoration project area.

The Central Barataria Basin Land Bridge project aims to fortify and rebuild the marshes in that area to maintain the gradient of habitats from bald cypress and tupelo swamps to fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes. Kinler describes the problem the project is attempting to tackle in great detail: “We’ve had significant deterioration of the Barrier Islands. We’ve had significant deterioration of the saline marshes that rim the northern shore of the Caminada and Barataria Bays. We’re having a much greater marine influence further up into the basin than what is historically present, so those marshes that are of lower salinities in their origins … are now being exposed to much-higher salinity conditions.”

The Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project aims to restore 447 acres of these marsh grasses over 20 years

The Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project

Our afternoon site visit takes us to the Lake Hermitage Marsh Creation project, where we board and ride airboats in the stinging rain for a first-hand look at the 24-hour-a-day effort to use dredged material to restore marsh. Under the marsh creation restoration technique, dredged material is placed in a deteriorated wetland at specific elevations so that desired marsh plants will colonize and grow to form new marsh. For projects that are long distances from available sediment sources, the technique involves the use of booster pumps to transport sediment. In this project, the Mississippi River is being used as a sediment source to rebuild acreages in the basin. Significant marsh loss has occurred south and east of Lake Hermitage and along the eastern lake shoreline. The project aims to restore a net of 447 acres after 20 years, at an estimated cost of $38.3 million.

These projects are a testament to the fact that the main challenge to restoration is not a question of what to do – the areas of rapid wetland loss are well-documented and the techniques for restoring them exist – but rather finding the financing.

Where’s the money?

Brad Inman is a bit of a glutton for punishment, having worked for a consulting firm employed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the federal agency criticized for a delayed and insufficient response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 – and now for the Army Corp of Engineers, the often-embattled agency tasked with designing and building a levee system to protect Gulf communities against another Katrina-like disaster. But Inman had a front-row seat to the devastation wreaked by that storm and the subsequent failure of the levees, allowing 20-foot storm surges to invade the area and decimate the surrounding infrastructure. “Everything pretty much had to be rebuilt completely,” he said.

Sand is imported from 'borrow sites' to restores these dunes

Sand is imported to restore dunes

The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) has been at the center of the efforts to restore the coast of Louisiana. Under CWPPRA, which was originally authorized by the US Congress in 1990, 101 projects have been completed and another 150 projects are currently active. Each year, CWPPRA receives an 18.5% share – amounting to roughly $70-80 million – from the US Interior Department’s Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Safety Trust Fund. The cost of the program is shared by the federal and state government: a split of 85% federal and 15% state financing, with total funding to date of $1.5 billion and expenditures at about $922 million. But CWPPRA needs to be reauthorized beyond 2019, and a failure to do so would jeopardize any future restoration efforts, a major concern for those most directly involved with these projects.

The limited amount of financing available to CWPPRA forces some tough choices, said Inman, Chairman and Senior Project Manager for CWPPRA’s Planning and Evaluation Subcommittee. Every year, the agency develops a list of priority projects in what is a fairly democratic process in the beginning as local parish officials and other stakeholders can nominate projects, with roughly 80-100 projects nominated during the first round. That list gets winnowed down to a short list of about 10 projects, with the CWPPRA team selecting three or four projects to pursue every year because that is all that is affordable.

“Even though a couple of billion dollars over the lifetime seems like a lot of money, we found out that it is woefully inadequate to actually do a lot of good here in the coast with the types of losses that we are looking at,” he said.

Carbon markets to the rescue?

Given the inadequacy of government funding, could the carbon markets be tapped to support the restoration of these wetlands and stave off disaster? For certain projects, the answer could be yes. In September 2012, the American Carbon Registry approved a wetlands methodology that will allow landowners to quantify the carbon sequestered by restoration projects and then sell verified emissions reductions (i.e. carbon offsets) to voluntary offset buyers.

The methodology was co-authored by Sarah Mack, who is the chief executive officer of Tierra Resources, an organization piloting the first carbon offset project using the wetlands methodology at the Luling Oxidation Wetlands Assimilation Pond, a 950-acre wetland 20 miles west of New Orleans threatened by subsidence and saltwater intrusion. Entergy, the major utility on the Gulf which faces serious threats to its infrastructure from seas level rise and storms, spent $150,000 to help develop the wetlands carbon methodology and plans to buy some of the offsets from the Luling project once they are developed.

However, the contribution of the voluntary carbon markets could be limited because of its relatively small size. Ecosystem Marketplace tracked about nine million tonnes of all types of carbon offsets transacted in North America last year, with a total value of about $40 million, in its State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2014 report. But a version of the Mississippi Delta wetlands protocol is being adapted for California’s coasts, with the hope that the methodology developed in the voluntary carbon markets will be embraced by California regulators for the state’s regulated cap-and-trade program, which will be facing a supply shortage for offsets starting in 2015. While California legislators have expressed a preference for in-state offset projects, the program currently allows five different types of carbon projects throughout most of the United States and state regulators have consistently cited a need to expand the geographic scope of available projects given that 85% of California’s economy is capped and therefore ineligible to produce offsets for the program.

The best in the business

Despite the obvious funding challenges, one thing Southeastern Louisiana has going for it is that they there are some very smart, dedicated people on the front lines fighting against these literally rising tides. People such as Burkett, a native of nearby Biloxi, Mississippi who happens to also be a Nobel Laureate. Burkett is extremely proud of the fact that the project planning that Louisiana has done is consistent with the sea level rise scenarios featured in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report, which is noteworthy because many other states have not used the science in managing their coasts, said Burkett, a co-author of the IPCC reports. And as those fighting the good fight to save Louisiana’s coasts know all too well, the erosion will continue unabated without sustained intervention.

“We’re in the middle of this crisis,” Kinler said. “We’re certainly not at the end of it.”

Heading into the marsh

Heading into the marsh

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BREAKING: Indigenous Leaders Assassinated In Peru; Loggers Implicated

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BREAKING: Indigenous Leaders Assassinated In Peru; Loggers Implicated

10 September 2014 | 0116 Eastern Daylight Time | UPDATE: The Upper Amazon Conservancy and its Peruvian sister organization, ProPurús, report that the widows and orphans of the four assasinated leaders have fled the village of Saweto into the regional capital of Pucallpa.

"The remaining members of the community persist in Saweto, surrounded by illegal loggers who continue to issue death threats over the radio," reports Diego Benjamín Leal, who has been in touch with the village via skype.

9 September 2014 | A planned meeting of leaders of the Ashaninka community took a tragic turn when four leaders from Peru traveling to meet Ashaninka leaders in Brazil were assassinated.

Edwin Chota Valera, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez, Jorge Rios Perez and Francisco Pinedo, leaders of the Community of Saweto in the jurisdiction of the Masisea district on the Peruvian border with Brazil, were murdered during a patrol in the forests to meet with co-leaders in Brazil, Robert Guimaraes Vásquez, regional indigenous leader, said. The crime may be motivated by revenge by illegal loggers, Guimaraes-Vasquez said.

Illegal logging, drug trafficking and the invasion of their territory by Brazilian citizens are the biggest problems facing people in Saweto. Chota Valera had repeatedly lodged complaints with Pucalipa forest authorities against illegal loggers in the area who were indiscriminately exploiting the natural resources of the community. But these complaints have had little success and illegal loggers continue their illegal activities in the Alto Tamaya.

The Ashaninka leaders from Peru were travelling through the forests to meet with the Ashaninka in Brazil to continue their collective work to monitor and safeguard their territories from the frequent invasion of illegal wood loggers and narco-traffickers, said Beto Borges, Director of the Communities and Markets Program of Forest Trends (publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace).

The Ashininka are among several indigenous peoples participating in efforts to harness carbon finance to save their rainforests, and the Communities Initiative has been working with the Ashaninka in Acre, Brazil to develop an integrated approach to land management, Borges said. “Our Ashaninka friends expelled the illegal loggers from their lands in Brazil and have been supporting their brothers and sisters in the Peruvian side to do the same,” he said.

Borges expressed sympathy for the Ashaninka people in Brazil and Peru and asked authorities on both sides of the border to conduct a full investigation and “do justice in this cruel crime.

“We also ask the governments of Brazil and Peru to ensure the protection of Ashaninka territories and support their work in defense of their lives, their culture, and the forest, which they have in maintaining standing for generations,” he said.

The region has seen a flurry of violence against indigenous people not seen since the violence-drenched 1990s, and two groups of previously uncontacted indigenous people have emerged this summer: the first, comprised of seven young warriors, emerged in June, and the second, comprised of two dozen women and children, emerged in July. Both groups said they had been attacked by intruders believed to be either drug runners or illegal loggers.

The escalating violence is not confined to the Brazil/Peru Border. In early August, the indigenous Ka'apor people of northeastern Brazil, far from the Peruvian border, forcibly removed illegal loggers from their territory.

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