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Forces against deforestation, continued

Growing problem

For Holly Gibbs, understanding the drivers of deforestation is also critical to solving the problem. 

Gibbs was heavily involved with REDD in its early stages, but her research has evolved to take a broader look at the causes of deforestation and how they vary across the tropics and time.

“In the biggest picture, I work to reconcile forest conservation, food security and economic development,” she explains. “We’re focused on human-environment interactions and how people use land.”

Over the last 30 years, developed countries have either stabilized or reduced their total agricultural land, amounting to a four percent net decrease. Tropical countries, however, have seen an 11 percent increase in agricultural land, and the trend is expected to continue.

“We have a world that wants so much more from our land base. When we think about where mounting demands for food, feed and fuel will come from, it will come from tropical countries,” Gibbs says.

“When we think about
where mounting demands
for food, feed and fuel will
come from, it will come
from tropical countries.”

When agriculture expands in the tropics, it comes at the expense of forest. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gibbs found that from 1980-2000, more than 80 percent of new agricultural land came from clearing tropical forests to make room. 

And in the tropics, she says, “forests don’t typically become a house or furniture. Trees are often just burned in place, so all that stored carbon is emitted to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.” 

Gibbs, who received her Ph.D. in 2008 in Land Resources, now studies these issues through the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. 

She’s found that over the last 10 to 15 years, the main driver of agriculture-related deforestation in much of the tropics is no longer poverty, it’s profit. 

From the 1970s through the 90s, small land holders or family farmers cleared forest to produce food and other crops for local markets and subsistence. But since then, many of these family farmers have been displaced by multinational agribusinesses.

“They’re not always literarily cutting the trees down, but they’re financing and incentivizing deforestation,” Gibbs explains. “So on one hand, we’re seeing much larger swaths of forest cleared and much more intensive use of that land. But on the other hand, it opens the door to a whole new type of conservation – what I call demand-side conservation.” 

Making demands

While REDD uses financial incentives to prevent deforestation, demand-side tools rely on globalization and market pressure. 

Tractor in field in Brazil
Gibbs studies demand-side tools that reduce the
drivers of agriculture-related deforestation in the tropics.

For example, Brazil and Indonesia – two critical areas for forest conservation – are now deeply connected to global markets for soy, oil palm and beef and thus responsive to market signals. What this means for conservation, Gibbs explains, is that industry oversight and purchasing power can be leveraged to make operations more sustainable. 

One of Gibbs’ emerging research projects, supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is examining two specific demand-side conservation tools in which multinational grain traders, large beef processors and other businesses alter their practices to avoid forest clearing.

In the first of these demand-side conservation levers – multi-stakeholder roundtable groups – an industry comes together in coordination with non-governmental organizations, retailers and producers to police and protect itself. Through a safety-in-numbers approach, Gibbs says, the roundtables are transforming how industry operates.

All of the major commodities that are heavily traded from the Amazon – soy, palm oil, beef, sugar, leather and biofuels – have stakeholder groups aimed at governing the industry and developing standards and criteria. 

“What my research is showing is these efforts are addressing the drivers of deforestation for the first time,” Gibbs says. 

A second form of demand-side conservation is zero-deforestation agreements, or trade embargos, in which an industry, retailer or producer agrees to not buy a commodity from newly deforested lands.

Such agreements typically evolve in response to a consumer campaign against a company, often initiated by an activist organization. Large retail brands are sensitive to consumer pressure – something non-governmental organizations, and in particular Greenpeace, have capitalized on.

“These demand-side efforts
are revolutionizing industries
in a remarkably quick way.
We’ve seen a huge shift.”

“Through embarrassing and dramatic ad campaigns, Greenpeace has moved these industrial and retail giants to change their business practices,” says Gibbs. “And when they change, it affects the entire supply chain, all the way down to those farmers on the ground clearing forest.” 

In 2006, for example, all of the major U.S. and Brazilian soy traders came together in response to pressure from McDonald’s and Burger King, which were first targeted by Greenpeace, and agreed to have zero deforestation in their soy supply chain in the Amazon. The industry set up a monitoring system to ensure no deforestation was occurring, which now allows for a better understanding of all land use dynamics.

Facing similar pressure, the major cattle producers and meatpackers of Brazil – a major exporter of beef and leather – approved a zero deforestation agreement in 2009 after it was revealed that cattle raised on deforested land were being used for leather by major global retailers and shoe brands, and for beef sold by mainstream grocers. Each participating cattle company now has a monitoring system in place, and Gibbs says rancher and meatpacker behavior has improved “by leaps and bounds.”

Direct effect

That these demand-side initiatives address the drivers of deforestation gives them an advantage over REDD, according to Gibbs.

“That’s been one of the major criticisms of REDD – that it provides funding that goes through government, which may or may not reach the people that are actually doing the clearing,” she explains. “These demand-side efforts are directly going after the companies that control the deforestation dynamics.”

“I can talk about the positive sides of REDD – it has the world’s attention focused on deforestation and it has evolved science dramatically in terms of our ability to measure carbon stored in trees and understand land use trends and drivers. But it has not changed things thus far in any major way,” she continues. “These demand-side efforts are revolutionizing industries in a remarkably quick way. We’ve seen a huge shift.” 

For the first time in Brazil, forest remained standing while production increased rapidly.

“It’s the first time that there were incentives and pressure to increase yields rather than simply expand,” she says. “Now there are reasons to invest in fertilizers and in improving the lands to produce more.”

Gibbs interviews oil palm plantation owners in Malaysian Borneo
Holly Gibbs interviews oil palm plantation owners
in Malaysian Borneo. Producers of the major
commodities traded from the Amazon are now
altering their practices to avoid forest clearing.

From 2004-12, deforestation rates in Brazil dropped by 75 percent, going from the highest ever recorded to the lowest. Credit is due to a confluence of factors, Gibbs says: demand-side conservation agreements, REDD and its perception that land owners will receive money to leave forest standing, and low profitability for soy and cattle during global economic downturns. 

But as profits from Brazilian soy and cattle rose to extremely high levels during the recent U.S. drought, the trend remained positive for forest conservation. 

“Brazil’s cattle ranchers and soy farmers can make more money now than they could in a long time, and they still haven’t increased the rates of deforestation,” Gibbs says, “indicating that this combination of domestic pressure, outside organization pressure and changing macroeconomics have significantly altered business practices for these two sectors.”  

Environmentally, Gibbs says, the best-case scenario would be to have much more efficient, optimized use of land to meet global demands while reducing supply chain waste and deforestation. But producers need to be able to sustainably increase yields – something currently lacking in the equation. 

“As we push for a reduction in deforestation, we also need to be jumping ahead,” she says. “It will be critical that we watch that pathway closely to avoid unintended consequences. If these tools are effective, we transform how the industries operate and how agriculture is occurring.”

Give and take

In the end, Gibbs says, perhaps the closest thing to a perfect solution for tropical deforestation is some combination of carrots and sticks, where the financial incentive of a carbon initiative like REDD provides the added motivation to comply with a demand-side request. 

That kind of synergy seems to hold promise. REDD is meant to address the full landscape of deforestation, whereas demand-side efforts target a single industry. Each could potentially reduce the monitoring costs of the other. 

And because a carbon market is unlikely to compete with more profitable commodities like soy and oil palm, Gibbs says, demand-side efforts could target those latter markets, “while REDD could come in and capture a much broader swath, fundamentally changing how the whole country plans and manages its agricultural and forest landscapes.”

In the meantime, REDD remains in perpetual negotiation and many questions remain. Naughton believes the Nelson Institute is especially well suited to find answers, with researchers working at all scales, from understanding indigenous peoples’ rights to examining land use change and global carbon dynamics.

“This kind of issue, where we’re trying to make a more effective and more just system of rewarding folks for saving forest, takes the expertise both of someone with local proficiency and someone who can connect the big picture,” she says.

Speaking of REDD

To better understand the role of land governance within forest carbon management programs, in October 2011 the Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center (LTC) and Department of Geography hosted a two-day workshop in Madison. Thirty researchers and on-the-ground practitioners from a range of countries prioritized for REDD presented the results of pilot projects and discussed the social and environmental impacts.  

Lessons about Land Tenure, Forest Governance and REDD+
View the report produced from the
REDD workshop in Madison (PDF) »

Several Nelson Institute alumni working on the frontlines of tropical forest conservation were part of the workshop: Amy Duchelle (Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development M.S. ’03), Margaret Holland (Land Resources M.S. ’04, Ph.D. ‘09), Arlyne Johnson (CBSD M.S. ’93, LR Ph.D. ‘00), and Brian Robinson (Environment and Resources Ph.D. ‘11). 

Case studies from the workshop were compiled into a 112-page report, produced by the UW Cartography Lab, to help guide policy makers in improving the equity and efficacy of REDD. Results were also shared at the 2011 U.N. climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, and a set of complementary research papers were prepared for a forthcoming special issue of the peer-reviewed journal World Development.

“The Nelson Institute, in this exercise, is doing what it is so wonderful at – acting like a network,” says Lisa Naughton, a professor of geography and past LTC director who helped to lead the workshop and co-edited the resulting publication with Cathy Day, a Ph.D. candidate in geography.

The workshop and publication were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development under a five-year, $5 million grant secured in part by Matt Turner, a professor of geography and former LTC director, and Adrian Treves, associate professor of environmental studies.

Through the grant, LTC is also working with several research partners to study the interface between environment, government and poverty, with REDD becoming a focus of this work.

“Instead of just saying these things almost never work and they usually are really risky for the poor; rather, this cluster of folks and my colleagues said, yes, REDD is complicated and it’s risky – here are some lessons and here’s why,” says Naughton. “So, can this kind of effort be made responsible? What would it look like? What would you do to try to make the money flow to the rightful owners in a more responsible way?”  

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