The World Lost Two Portugals’ Worth of Forest Last Year

The demand for beef, soy, and food made with palm oil is driving the devastation contributing to climate change and disappearance of wildlife.

(Photo: luoman/Getty Images)

Sep 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The planet last year lost enough forest to cover Portugal. Twice. An insatiable hunger for tofu, cookies, steak, and tires is fueling the devastation that resulted in the disappearance of 45 million acres of trees in 2014, according to a study released Wednesday.

(Photos: Courtesy World Resources Institute)

Researchers at Global Forest Watch, a monitoring network started by the World Resources Institute, found that more than half of the loss occurred in highly biodiverse tropical forests in West Africa, the Congo Basin, Madagascar, the Greater Mekong region, Paraguay, Uruguay, and other regions of South America.

Tropical forests are particularly at risk because they are “the most fertile and hold the most potential for industrial-scale agriculture,” said Rachael Petersen, a research analyst at Global Forest Watch.

These new zones of destruction now rival Brazil and Indonesia, two countries notorious for deforestation. In 2014, more than 62 percent of forest loss was found outside those countries, compared with 47 percent in 2001, according to satellite data analyzed by the University of Maryland and Google.

So why is this happening? In a word, commodities.

(Photos: Courtesy World Resources Institute)

“Globally, increasing demand for rubber and palm oil, expansion of soy farming and cattle ranching, and expansion of other agricultural commodities are driving deforestation in unexpected places,” the study’s authors wrote.

Cambodia, for example, recorded the world’s greatest rate of deforestation since 2001 because so many trees were cut to make room for rubber plantations.

The country lost four times the forest area in 2014 it did in 2001. “Researchers have established a strong correlation between forest loss in the Mekong and global rubber prices, indicating that as commodity prices increase, forest clearing will likely follow,” the study states.

Acceleration of Tree Loss

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Researchers attributed tree loss in West Africa to the expansion of palm oil plantations. Palm oil, the world’s most widely used vegetable oil, is found in many prepared foods, including cookies, chocolate, and other snacks.

The wholesale leveling of so many trees takes an enormous toll on the environment, Petersen said.

First there is habitat destruction. “Biodiversity is particularly important for wide-ranging species,” Petersen said. “The Mekong, for example, has some of the largest contiguous tiger habitat in the world, and tigers need those large patches of forest in order to survive. By constantly fragmenting our forests, we’re putting habitat for critical species in danger.”

Then there is climate change. Trees absorb and store huge amounts of atmospheric carbon. When they are cut down or burned, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

“Climate change is inherently linked to global deforestation trends,” Petersen said. In Brazil, tree loss accounts for 35 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, while in Indonesia deforestation is responsible for 75 percent of carbon spew.

Land clearing also hurts millions of poor people who rely on forests for their survival, Petersen said.

But there is hope amid the bleakness. Some countries have planted more trees than they cut down, though much of that growth has been on commercial plantations. Meanwhile, several multinational corporations have pledged not to buy palm oil produced on land illegally logged.

In April, McDonald’s announced a global commitment to eliminate deforestation in its supply chain by not sourcing beef, coffee, palm oil, and other products that result in the cutting of trees in environmentally sensitive areas. Other companies taking similar measures include Cargill, Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and H&M.

Another way to reduce deforestation is to place a financial value on the carbon stored in forests and “pay people not to cut them down,” Petersen said. That idea will be discussed at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December in Paris, she added.

It is difficult for individuals to determine whether their cookies or tires led to the destruction of forests. But resources are available. The Forest Stewardship Council, for example, certifies sustainably produced timber, paper, and pulp, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies that commodity.

The Rainforest Alliance, meanwhile, lists hundreds of sustainably made products. Consumers can look for the label bearing a small frog and the words “Rainforest Alliance Certified” and visit the group’s website to look up items and suppliers.

Finally, anyone can access the study data and use it to “look at their own backyards and hold policy makers accountable for the changes that they’re seeing,” Petersen said. “What’s happening in the forest is no longer this sort of black-box thing that no one can really monitor.”