Forest Trends Report Series (September 2014) by Sam Lawson for Forest Trends, with contributions from Art Blundell, Bruce Cabarle, Naomi Basik, Michael Jenkins, and Kerstin Canby.

Tropical forests continue to disappear at an alarming rate despite growing international recognition of their crucial role in mitigating climate change. Their loss generates nearly 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the global transportation sector (IPCC 2014). Yet the rate of forest loss is accelerating (Hansen et al. 2013). In this report we examine one central question: what is driving this loss?

Recent studies suggest that at least half of global deforestation in the last decade has been for commercial agriculture to meet the rapidly surging global demand for food, fuel, and fiber. This is likely an underestimate, given the increasing area of forestlands being converted for agricultural commodities—mainly beef, soy, and palm oil—as well as tropical timber, pulp and paper, and plantation wood. The growth of commercial agriculture is cited as an important driver of deforestation by nearly every tropical country in official national strategies to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

Much of this conversion is taking place in the context of complex, contradictory, and poorly implemented regulations governing forested areas. This confusing regulatory environment makes “legal deforestation” difficult for both large and small forest enterprises to achieve, while enterprises that blatantly break the law often do so with impunity and may even be rewarded after the fact with acts of amnesty or retroactive changes in the law.

This report presents the first-ever assessment of the extent of illegal deforestation and forest conversion for the production of commercial, export-driven agriculture. This study is significant in adding new data to the global dialogue on tropical deforestation and trade in forest-risk commodities because it:

  • introduces the concept of “illegal forest conversion” and the subsequent illegality of associated commodities produced on this converted land;
  • uses best available data to quantify illegally sourced commodities in global trade, and concludes that a significant portion of global trade in relevant commodities is sourced from illegal forest conversion;
  • describes what is illegal and introduces concerns not reflected in current international initiatives designed to reduce deforestation or to make commodity supply chains sustainable;
  • argues that unless effective forest governance (including legality as a key indicator of governance) is established, broader efforts by governments, companies, and donors to tackle tropical deforestation and associated trade will continue to face tremendous challenges. Current initiatives need to better understand and capture the legal requirements linked to forest conversion and resulting commodities if they are to be effective in reducing tropical deforestation.

To read full report, click here.