What lies behind the recent surge of Amazon deforestation

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Matt Zimmerman under a Creative Commons Licence

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest.

A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, he has focused his work on how to sustainably develop the Amazon in the face of enormous pressures to cut and clear the forest. He is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting and forest clearing in the Amazon is on the rise again.

He explains that the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation include a slowly improving global economy, rising commodity prices and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that are encouraging the development of the Amazon.

Fearnside warns that this great tropical forest will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff – who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests – doesn’t change course.

Yale Environment 360: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit – they call it the hiccup – in 2013, but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.

The government hid these figures before the recent election. The August and September data would normally have been released in October [before the October 26th presidential election]. But they sat on the data, and it was not disclosed until the end of November. It’s a scandal.

e360: This comes as a surprise to many observers who thought that Brazil had the deforestation problem under control. Rates of deforestation actually declined from 2004 until 2012. How do you account for these earlier declines?

Philip Fearnside: The exchange rate with the Brazilian real hit a peak in 2002. From almost 4 reals to the dollar, it went all the way down to 1 ½, which means if you are exporting things like soybeans or beef, all your expenses are in reals and you get paid in dollars, and they are worth half as much in Brazil, so it’s not nearly as profitable.

The expectation is if you clear illegally, there will be another amnesty that will forgive your crimes

At the same time, you had international commodity prices going down. The soybean peak was in 2003, it crashed in 2007, and beef prices were in a similar downward trajectory. Those two factors – the exchange rate and commodity prices – together explain basically all of the decrease in deforestation until 2008.

e360: What happened after 2008?

Philip Fearnside: From 2008 to 2012, commodity prices recovered. The exchange rate didn’t recover until the end of that period. But what changed in 2008 was a Central Bank resolution that ties financing for agriculture and ranching – to buy tractors and fertilizers and such – to having a clean record with the environment department, IBAMA.

If you have cut the forest illegally and have an unpaid fine, you don’t get financing. This blocking of credit is something with real teeth in it, and there are no appeals. It had a big effect, especially on the large landowners. So commodity prices recovered and yet deforestation still stayed low.

e360: So now deforestation rates are rising sharply. How do you explain this dramatic change?

Philip Fearnside: One factor is the new Forest Code, which became law in 2012. It weakens critical environmental protections and also offers an amnesty for all those who violated environmental laws before 2008. So if you cleared illegally, you got away with it. And the expectation is that if you clear illegally now, sooner or later there will be another amnesty that will forgive your past crimes.

On the other hand, if you actually obeyed the law, you lost money. So the incentives are very perverse.

Another thing is that the prices for soy and beef are now high, and the exchange rate has been going up in the past few months, making it more profitable. These are the big factors that are leading to more deforestation.

e360: How does commercial logging factor into the deforestation problem?

Philip Fearnside: Timber extraction doesn’t come up in the numbers as deforestation. It’s not like clear-cutting in the northwestern U.S., where you cut all the trees and there is basically just bare ground left where there was forest.

Here you just take out the most valuable timber and most of the trees are left standing. So the satellite will show it as forest. Nevertheless, it is very important for deforestation, because logging is one of the big sources of money that pays for the people who deforest.

You’re selling timber and using the income to clear forest for cattle pasture or plantations. To get the timber out, you also need to build temporary roads that facilitate the entry of people who clear the forest for farms. There are various ways that logging speeds up deforestation.

e360: How much illegal logging is going on?

Philip Fearnside: A lot of the logging is illegal, there’s no question. But even if you follow all the regulations to the letter and log legally, it’s not sustainable, because of all sorts of loopholes that have been put into the regulations.

Some companies are granted concessions on federal or state land. To qualify, loggers have to come up with a forest management plan. With forest management, the idea is that you divide up the forest into parcels and you take the big trees out of one parcel one year and out of another in another year. After thirty years you come back to the first parcel and the trees will have grown back and you take out the big ones – so that’s the idea, you just keep on going round and round and this will be sustainable.

So theoretically, you are going to sit there for 30 years doing nothing, with no income before you harvest it again. But nobody is going to do that. Nothing obliges people to do this forever. So you say you’ve changed your mind, you’ve decided to clear it for pasture.

’If you keep clearing the Amazon, you’ll end up with there being a permanent drought’

Other people just sell the land off. Is it likely that the new owner is going to sit there for 30 years waiting for the new forest to grow back? It’s just not going to happen. You have these loopholes that have been inserted in the law, so that all of the logging that is happening – on paper it is all sustainable, but in practice it really isn’t.

e360: What impact has this kind of logging had on the forest?

Philip Fearnside: For one thing, selective logging makes the forest much more vulnerable to forest fires, because there are all of those dead treetops drying out in the forest. People driving around with a bulldozer in the forest wind up killing many other trees.

You’ve opened up the canopy, so you have more sunlight coming in, more wind coming in to the forest and drying things out. It makes it much more likely to catch fire, and sets a degradation cycle into motion that ends up destroying the forest after a while.

e360: Isn’t global warming also contributing to the fire problem? Is fire something new in Amazonia?

Philip Fearnside: Over the centuries, there have been occasional forest fires. Studies looking at charcoal in the soil have shown that there have been four mega forest fires in the past 2000 years, so it is more or less one every 500 years. But now fires are happening far more often, generally during big El Niño years. El Niño leads to drying, especially in the northern part of the Amazon. It happened in 1982, 1997, and 2006. We had destructive forest fires in the northern part of the Amazon.

Now we have another phenomenon that has increased even more quickly than El Niño – though El Niño has increased a lot – called the Atlantic Dipole. El Niño is caused by warming of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean.

The Atlantic Dipole is a warm patch of water in the tropical part of the North Atlantic. It results in drought and forest fires in the southwestern part of the Amazon, in Acre state and neighboring areas.

This happened in 2005, and then five years later again in 2010. You have water warming in this part of the Atlantic that has traditionally been [cooled] by a lot of dust in the air, much of it coming from the deserts in Africa and industrial pollution in Europe.

The dust has functioned as a kind of shield – some of the radiation from the sun hits these dust particles instead of hitting the water. With global warming, you have more rain globally and that is cleaning the air of the dust, so more of the sun’s energy is actually reaching the water and warming it up in that part of the Atlantic, and it leads to droughts in the western Amazon.

e360: The Amazon forest is said to create its own climate. Transpiration from the trees creates clouds, which in turn produce rain. What impact does cutting the forest have on rainfall?

Philip Fearnside: You know, there is a big drought now in Sao Paulo. It’s not something that you can conclusively pin on deforestation. But a lot of the water in Sao Paulo comes from the Amazon. It’s water that has been recycled through the trees, so if you cut [the forest] down and turn it into a cattle pasture, that water isn’t going to go to Sao Paulo anymore, it is going to flow straight into the Amazon River, [then] into the Atlantic.

People driving around with a bulldozer in the forest wind up killing many other trees

If you keep clearing the Amazon, you’ll end up with there being a permanent drought, not just a one-year thing. You’re not going to have that transport of water vapor to Sao Paulo. It will have a big impact all the way down to Argentina. Argentina is very worried about deforestation in the Amazon.

There are also connections to North America and other parts of the world as well, so deforestation would have some effect on rainfall in North America in important agricultural areas in the Midwest, for example.

e360: Recently re-elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has pledged to push rural development. What impact might this agenda have on the Amazon forest?

Philip Fearnside: You have the so-called PAC, the five-year plan for the acceleration of growth. Dilma is known as the mother of the PAC. It consists of a list of projects, building roads and dams and so on, projects that will lead to more deforestation.

The most dramatic case is the proposed BR 319 Highway, which would link Manaus in the center of the Amazon with the arc of deforestation in the south, where 80 percent of the deforestation has occurred, along the southern and eastern edges of the forest.

If the actors in the arc of deforestation – companies, individuals – move out of that region into the rest of the forest, it changes everything. It isn’t just that one road; a series of side roads that are planned will open up that big block of intact forest in the western Amazon.

Once you build a road like that a lot of what happens is no longer under the government’s control – people moving into the forest and so on. The government may go after them, but it usually ends up legalizing what has happened.

e360: So what needs to be done to bring deforestation under control?

Philip Fearnside: Some effective measures include taxing land speculation, stopping subsidies and fiscal incentives for development that leads to deforestation, greatly reducing road building, and ending the practice of allowing pasture as an ‘improvement’ for establishing land tenure.

The government also needs to have much tighter controls on major development projects. And an important part of any solution is to pay rural populations a stipend for preserving forests and the ecosystem services they provide, like watershed functions and storing carbon.

If the government doesn’t start enacting some of these measures soon, the forests of Amazonia will be lost.

e360: Are you pessimistic?

Philip Fearnside: It’s very important not to get fatalistic about this. There is a tremendous tendency with the Amazon to say the problems are so great, the forest is going to be cut down no matter what you do, so you might as well worry about something else. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe it. The opposite is also true: If you say deforestation is down, nobody does anything either. So it’s very important that you keep focused on the problem.

There are lots of groups working in Brazil putting pressure on the government to change course. Brazil is a very diverse place, including the Brazilian government. Even though most of what is going on is pushing for more deforestation, you have 39 different ministries and thousands of people in the government, and that includes many people who are very concerned about these things. So it’s important not to become fatalistic.

This article first appeared on the Yale Environment 360 website.

Curbing destructive palm oil plantations brings together strange bedfellows

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Palm oil plantation in Sabah, Borneo. Lian Pin Koh under a Creative Commons Licence

September brought good news for the world’s forests, with the unveiling of the New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Climate Summit.

The Declaration, which pledges to end global deforestation by 2030, was signed by 130 countries, including the US, Germany, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps most significantly, it was also backed by commitments from 40 major food corporations to eliminate palm oil grown on deforested land from their supply chains.

That’s a big deal, given that palm oil has been the single largest driver of tropical deforestation in recent years.

When the medical establishment deemed trans-fats heart-unhealthy in the mid-1990s, demand for the supposedly more benign palm oil soared, increasing nearly six-fold since the year 2000.

Palm oil is now used in nearly half of all foods on supermarket shelves, added to everything from breakfast cereals to margarine to potato chips. It is also an ingredient in shampoo, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste and laundry detergents, and is used as a feedstock for biofuels.

Palm oil is cheap. It is the highest yielding oil crop in the world, and the most abundant. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that every hour, an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared to make way for new palm oil production — mainly in Indonesia, the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

At this breakneck and still accelerating pace, 98 per cent of the Indonesian rainforest will be gone by 2022 and along with it, one of the greatest remaining biodiversity treasure troves on Earth.

The palm oil boom has been a disaster for the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the clouded leopard, the pigmy elephant and countless lesser known endangered species, whose homelands are rapidly being converted to large-scale plantations.

It has also been catastrophic for the climate. Indonesia is currently the third largest carbon polluting country in the world, trailing behind only China and the US.

Over 85 per cent of the nation’s emissions come from forest destruction, which releases carbon stored in trees and ancient peatland swamps into the atmosphere.

Once cleared, the peatlands dry out and are often set on fire, smoldering for months or even years, and transforming the greatest carbon sinks on the planet into leading carbon dioxide emitters.

These fires were also responsible for the dangerous haze that caused work in Singapore and southern Malaysia to grind to a halt for weeks during June and July of 2013.

The Forest Trends group estimates that between 2000 and 2012, 80 per cent of forest destruction in Indonesia was illegal, occurring outside the bounds of the concessions that the government has set aside for commercial development.

Palm plantations were responsible for three-quarters of this illegal deforestation.

In 2007, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a campaign to persuade Cargill – the largest exporter of palm oil into the US, and one of a handful of traders that dominate the industry – to stop buying oil grown on newly cut forests and peatlands.

When Cargill refused to budge, RAN changed its strategy and began targeting the company’s clients, the so-called ‘snack food 20,’ which includes corporations like Hershey’s, General Mills, and Kraft.

This new tactic paid off. Some of the high profile brands began demanding that their suppliers get serious about deforestation.

And in September, Cargill announced a sweeping no-deforestation policy and endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, joining other major palm oil traders, including the Singapore-based Wilmar and the Indonesian company Golden Agri-Resources.

The two leading pulp and paper companies in Indonesia, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited and Asian Pulp and Paper, have followed suit with their own commitments.

Over half of the ‘Snack Food 20’ have also joined the no-deforestation pledge, including Mars, Nestle, Kellogg’s and Unilever. These companies have also agreed to drop suppliers who produce palm oil on stolen and misappropriated lands, or that use forced or child labor.

‘The last few months have seen a welcome race to the top,’ Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said in a press release. ‘Consumers have sent companies a clear signal that they do not want their purchasing habits to drive deforestation and companies are responding.’

But there are still some notable holdouts. The food and beverage giant PepsiCo has not yet committed to protecting worker and community land rights. Kraft, Heinz, Nissin Foods and Campbell’s Soup have offered no credible public commitment to change their palm oil procurement practices. 

Malaysia-based commodity trader Kuala Lampur Kepong and Singapore-based Musim Mas have likewise refused to make commitments concerning palm oil practices.

Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director at RAN, called on investors in these laggard companies to ‘put pressure on them to address these gaps.’

In an interview, Tillack added that, even amongst the cooperating companies, ‘most still lack comprehensive, time-bound implementation plans.’ They also have yet to develop credible grievance mechanisms to allow NGOs, labor groups, and indigenous communities in Indonesia to raise complaints when they observe instances of noncompliance.

Traceability will play a key role in implementing no-deforestation policies in Indonesia.

Fortunately, Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and support system, has used satellite imagery to create a multilayered, interactive map of Indonesia’s forest lands – a valuable tool for increasing transparency throughout the supply chain.

Using this map, GFW is currently advising Unilever about which of its mills are more likely to be engaged in illegal activities like burning and deforestation; information that Unilever will then use to conduct investigations on the ground.

‘We supply the data which companies use to better manage their supply chains, and NGOs use to look for violations and issues to focus on,’ said Elizabeth Baer, GFW’s global commodities manager.

‘We think it’s amazing that advocacy has worked and driven these companies to make such ambitious commitments – the pace of change is unlike anything that I’ve seen before in my career. But it’s incredibly challenging for these companies to make good on their pledges within the time frame they’ve promised. So there is a lot of effort, a lot of resources and brainpower being poured in to help them do so.’

In addition to tracking developments on the ground, GFW is negotiating with both food corporations and NGOs to hammer out basic ground rules and definitions for the no-deforestation pledge — like what constitutes a ‘forest,’ and how conflicts between all of the various stakeholders are to be adjudicated and resolved.

Some environmental groups remain wary of corporate motives, and plan to carefully monitor the developments on the ground in Indonesia to make sure that the public commitments don’t end up as exercises in ‘greenwashing and delay,’ as one recent RAN blog put it.

The jury is still out on whether the New York Declaration on Forests will halt the bulldozers that are clearing Indonesia’s magnificent rainforest.

Nevertheless, Tillack is guardedly hopeful: ‘In the last 12 months, we’ve seen an unprecedented shift toward adopting responsible palm oil production standards. But the devil is in the details, and now it is time to put these commitments into action. We’ll be working hard to hold companies to account to insure that they are implementing their pledges.’

This article first appeared on Earthisland.org

Why are they targeting the Sufis?

Remember the bombing of the Buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan in north central Afghanistan in 2001? The Taliban destruction of these massive archaeological monuments dating back to the sixth century has become emblematic of the cultural and religious intolerance of radical Islam.

What is less well known is that fanatical elements have done equal damage to Islam’s own religious heritage. Not only have Shi’a and Sunni partisans bombed each other’s mosques in countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, but Sufi places of worship are under attack throughout the Islamic world.

In September, the world was shocked to learn that the US ambassador and three other Americans had been killed in an attack on a US Consulate in Libya. Few heard of the other violent events there later that month, which included the destruction of Sufi shrines in three Libyan cities.

In Tripoli, security forces watched passively as militants with bulldozers levelled the shrine of al-Shaab al-Dahmani, a venerated Sufi saint, in broad daylight. In Benghazi, on the other hand, locals fought back, killing three of the militants who were assaulting a holy place.

Perhaps we don’t hear much about these incidents because attacks on Sufis and Sufi sites have become routine, not just in Libya, but throughout the Islamic world. This past summer, Islamic militants in Mali demolished historical mausoleums, universities and libraries in the ancient Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, several of which were on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Sufi worship halls have also been turned to rubble in Iran, where the Islamic government has reportedly jailed and tortured thousands of Sufi practitioners for their unorthodox views. And in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak Sufi shrines have been torched and the Sufi chanting ritual called zhikr has been banned in some locations.

The deadliest attacks to date have occurred in Pakistan, including last year’s bombing of the Sakhi Sarkar shrine during the annual festival of the Sufi saint, in which 41 worshippers were killed. Meanwhile, in the former Soviet Republic of Daghestan, the Sufi leader Effendi Chirkeisky, along with six of his followers, was assassinated at the end of August by a female suicide bomber. Chirkeisky, a critic of Muslim extremism, had ironically been working to broker peace between warring Islamic factions.

For many here in the US, Sufism is associated with the ecstatic verse of the 13th-century mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, whose poetry in translation sells more copies than any living US poet. Rumi’s popularity derives in part from the fact that he taught that religion is less a matter of external observance than an intimate, personal relationship with God. This undoubtedly appeals to our American ideal of individualism and free-form seeking.

What many contemporary fans of Rumi may not realize is that Sufism in practice is more of a communal affair than a lonely quest. Moreover, the philosophy of Rumi and his fellow Sufis is very much alive today. It has spread to the distant corners of the Islamic world and beyond, and comprises many different orders, each with their own teachings and modes of practice.

Historically, Sufism was one of the great wellsprings of Islamic philosophy, and deeply influenced luminaries like the great Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and the 13th-century mystic thinker, Ibn Arabi. Some have credited Sufism’s open-minded approach to knowledge with the development of Islamic medicine and other sciences in the Middle Ages. Sufism’s influence on the literature, music, art and architecture of Islam is also immense, and it was a potent force in many of the political and social reform movements in the 19th century.

While nobody can say with certainty how many Sufis there are, they undoubtedly number in the millions in countries like Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan, and untold hundreds of millions of Muslims take part in Sufi ceremonies and festivals.

‘In the Islamic world,’ according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, ‘Sufism is the most powerful antidote to the religious radicalism called fundamentalism, as well as the most important source for responding to the challenges posed by modernism.’

Whirling dervishesThis pervasive influence may be why Sufis have been targets of the fundamentalist, who see their kinder, gentler form of Islam as a standing challenge to their own rigid orthodoxy. Sufi practices, such as the famous whirling of the Mevlevi dervishes in Turkey, first practiced by Rumi himself, employ music, dance and spiritual recitation to awaken the God who Sufis say is asleep in the human heart. Nothing could be further from the grim-faced puritanism of the Islamic fundamentalists who accuse the Sufis of being ‘idolaters’ and ‘pagans’. Sufis reply that they are hearkening back to the roots of Islam, which means ‘peace’.

I can attest to the power of Sufi practices to provide a glimpse of the ‘peace which passeth understanding’ which is at the core of all religious experience. For several years I attended the weekly zickr of a Turkish Sufi order in New York City. The chanting in Turkish and Arabic was co-ordinated with our movements and the flow of the breath to create a trance-like state which I found to be both subtler and more powerful and enduring than the drug experiences which I had pursued during college. Equally remarkable was the feeling of deep affection and fellowship which was served up along with the tea and Turkish sweets after the ceremony.

The Sufism that I know, while deeply Islamic in form, is universal in spirit. I think often of what our Sheikh, Muzzafer Effendi, told his Turkish followers when they asked him why he didn’t convert more American dervishes to Islam. ‘There are more than enough Muslims already,’ he replied. ‘What the world needs is more lovers of God!’

I would love to say this to the extremists who are bombing holy places and attacking Sufi practitioners.

Richard Schiffman is an American dervish in the Jerrahi order of Sufism. He is also the author of two religious biographies, and a poet and journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, the Guardian and on NPR.

Photo: James Gordon under a CC Licence