Biofuels behind deforestation surge

Oil from African palm trees is considered to be one of the best and cheapest
sources of biodiesel and energy companies are investing billions into
acquiring or developing oil-palm plantations in developing countries. Vast
tracts of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries
have been cleared to grow oil palms.

Oil palm has become the world’s number one fruit crop, well ahead of
bananas.

Biodiesel offers many environmental benefits over diesel from petroleum,
including reductions in air pollutants, but the enormous global thirst means
millions more hectares could be converted into monocultures of oil palm.

Getting accurate numbers on how much forest is being lost is very difficult.

The FAO’s State of the World’s Forests 2007 released last week reports that
globally, net forest loss is 20,000 hectares per day — equivalent to an
area twice the size of Paris. However, that number includes plantation
forests, which masks the actual extent of tropical deforestation, about
40,000 hectares (ha) per day, says Matti Palo, a forest economics expert who
is affiliated with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education
Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica.

"The half a million ha per year deforestation of Mexico is covered by the
increase of forests in the U.S., for example," Palo told IPS.

National governments provide all the statistics, and countries like Canada
do not produce anything reliable, he said. Canada has claimed no net change
in its forests for 15 years despite being the largest producer of pulp and
paper.

"Canada has a moral responsibility to tell the rest of the world what kind
of changes have taken place there," he said.

Plantation forests are nothing like natural or native forests. More akin to
a field of maize, plantation forests are hostile environments to nearly
every animal, bird and even insects. Such forests have been shown to have a
negative impact on the water cycle because non-native, fast-growing trees
use high volumes of water. Pesticides are also commonly used to suppress
competing growth from other plants and to prevent disease outbreaks, also
impacting water quality.

Plantation forests also offer very few employment opportunities, resulting
in a net loss of jobs.

"Plantation forests are a tremendous disaster for biodiversity and local
people," Lovera said.

Even if farmland or savanna are only used for oil palm or other plantations,
it often forces the local people off the land and into nearby forests,
including national parks, which they clear to grow crops, pasture animals
and collect firewood. That has been the pattern with pulp and timber
plantation forests in much of the world, says Lovera.

Ethanol is other major biofuel, which is made from maize, sugar cane or
other crops. As prices for biofuels climb, more land is cleared to grow the
crops. U.S. farmers are switching from soy to maize to meet the ethanol
demand. That is having a knock on effect of pushing up soy prices, which is
driving the conversion of the Amazon rainforest into soy, she says.

Meanwhile rich countries are starting to plant trees to offset their
emissions of carbon dioxide, called carbon sequestration. Most of this
planting is taking place in the South in the form of plantations, which are
just the latest threat to existing forests.

"Europe’s carbon credit market could be disastrous," Lovera said.

The multi-billion-euro European carbon market does not permit the use of
reforestation projects for carbon credits. But there has been a tremendous
surge in private companies offering such credits for tree planting projects.
Very little of this money goes to small land holders, she says.

Plantation forests also contain much less carbon, notes Palo, citing a
recent study that showed carbon content of plantation forests in some Asian
tropical countries was only 45 percent of that in the respective natural
forests.

Nor has the world community been able to properly account for the value of
the enormous volumes of carbon stored in existing forests.

One recent estimate found that the northern Boreal forest provided 250
billion dollars a year in ecosystem services such as absorbing carbon
emissions from the atmosphere and cleaning water.

The good news is that deforestation, even in remote areas, is easily
stopped. All it takes is access to some low-cost satellite imagery and
governments that actually want to slow or halt deforestation.

Costa Rica has nearly eliminated deforestation by making it illegal to
convert forest into farmland, says Lovera.

Paraguay enacted similar laws in 2004, and then regularly checked satellite
images of its forests, sending forestry officials and police to enforce the
law where it was being violated.

"Deforestation has been reduced by 85 percent in less than two years in the
eastern part of the country," Lovera noted.

The other part of the solution is to give control over forests to the local
people. This community or model forest concept has proved to be sustainable
in many parts of the world. India recently passed a bill returning the bulk
of its forests back to local communities for management, she said.

However, economic interests pushing deforestation in countries like Brazil
and Indonesia are so powerful, there may eventually be little natural forest
left.

"Governments are beginning to realize that their natural forests have
enormous value left standing," Lovera said. "A moratorium or ban on
deforestation is the only way to stop this."

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