By Stuart Johnson
Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Image Credit: Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, much attention has been drawn to plummeting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions around the globe and the revival of urban natural habitats as a result of government-imposed lockdowns. Unfortunately, this trend has not applied to deforestation rates in the Amazon - which have increased during this same period. This recent alarming trend can be attributed to macroeconomic market forces - within the last three years the global demand for beef has gone up a staggering 23 percent while available farmland in the Global North (particularly in the Midwest) has decreased. But more importantly, it is linked to the increased economic desperation on behalf of out-of-luck loggers and farmers desperate for cash - an acre of deforested land in the Amazon is worth a lot more than a forested one.
Granted, and as a WACNH blog post pointed out last summer, the Amazonian fires last summer and today’s dire situation can also be attributed to politics - when right-wing nationalist Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil’s President in 2018 he slashed the budget for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) by over 25% and reversed a downward trend in illegal deforestation since 2004. However, to blame politics alone is to pull attention away from the deep social learning that sustainable development solutions must continue to undergo in order to be put into practice successfully. Even neoliberal policies like the UN sponsored Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program, which promised to have Global North countries compensate Global South countries for reducing their deforestation rates, have failed to be implemented effectively.
As such, it stands to reason that any multi-faceted approach to address deforestation today must meet meat and agricultural producers where they are - by developing methodologies that positively incentivize good behavior rather than merely punish bad actors in the big agribusiness and meatpacking industries. The COVID-19 crisis has laid out the case for this. Deforestation is a sustainable governance problem that requires effective strategies that can address socio-economic problems while also meeting ecosystem preservation goals.
The “Tipping Point”
In 2019, Brazil’s Amazon ecosystem saw its highest deforestation rates in over a decade. First-quarter losses in 2020 have been even steeper – up more than 50 percent compared to first-quarter 2019, according to Brazilian satellite data. As depicted by the graph above, the Amazon’s rate of deforestation is close to a “tipping point” - the five main drivers of deforestation: agricultural expansion, livestock ranching, logging, infrastructure expansion, and overpopulation are pushing towards a point where the forest itself will no longer serve as a carbon sink. A recent New York Times investigative study revealed that much of this devastation is being done by transnational criminal networks which work in remote places in the Amazon that are still technically protected lands but where enforcement is relaxed.
The Politics of Deforestation
In short, the perceived politics of deforestation are much more nuanced than they are made out to be. Logically, the poll above reveals the point that two things can simultaneously be true but contradictory at the same time: 75% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that “other countries’ interest in the Amazon is legitimate because it is important for the entire planet and is under threat,” yet 61% also strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “Other countries’ interest in the Amazon is only an excuse to be able to exploit its resources.”
The larger point here is this: how do you separate the idea that emissions and GDP are linked? Today, G20 countries currently make up 78% of the world’s emissions. It’s a logical conclusion to think that they are tied together. Yet, they should not be. In order to move towards a more sustainable governance model, countries have to believe that in reducing their emissions they won’t be negatively impacting their economic output. As such, sustainable governance is about acknowledging that the livelihoods of the poorest affect those at the top just as much as those at the top affect those at the bottom. And yes, unwanted foreign influence is real, but widespread public support for more sustainable governance strategies clearly exists (as this poll shows) - it just takes the right messaging to capture it.
Incentivizing Forest Preservation - UN’s REDD+ Program & Carbon Offsetting
In September 2019, 230 institutional investors with more than $16 trillion in assets called on companies to implement anti-deforestation policies for all of their supply chains. This type of negative reinforcement demonizes bad actors but does not compensate those who are trying to do the right thing. According to estimates from the Woods Hole Research Institute (WHRC), reducing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to zero within 10 years would cost $100 million to $600 million per year under a UN-sponsored program involving carbon credits for forest conservation (REDD+). In effect, this program (also known as the Amazon Fund) compensates indigenous and small landowners for the opportunity costs they would lose if they were to raze the forests on their lands rather than preserving them. Unfortunately to date, these programs have largely been unsuccessful due to lack of consistent strategies and the complex nature of the financial compensation system but are promising in principle.
The California Tropical Forest Standard is another step in the right direction, as pointed out in an op-ed by ecologist Dan Nepstad, President and Founder of Earth Innovation Institute who has worked in the Brazilian Amazon for more than 30 years. Essentially what this standard sets out is a principled way in which companies can buy verifiable carbon credits from Amazonian landowners - easing governors’ and community leaders' concerns that their efforts to cut back on illegal deforestation will cost them money while also allowing the private sector more direct access to this market. Moreover, this standard allows for indigenous people and local communities to retain their voice in the process.
In conclusion, COVID-19 has exposed the unique economic challenges reducing deforestation imposes on sustainable governance models. The politics are complicated yes, but there is widespread public awareness of the importance of forests as climate mitigators. Engaging with and compensating good actors is harder than demonizing bad ones as we have seen time and time again, but ultimately, it will be more fruitful.