Deforestation is Where the Money is At

Brazil and Indonesia are heirs to some of the most biodiverse and extensive rainforests in the world. Yet they are also facing one of the fastest rates of deforestation, accounting for more than half of the world’s forest loss between 1990 and 2010.

As many can likely guess, this troubling trend is being driven largely be economic calculations: there is lots of money to be made from harvesting forest resources or making room for agricultural commodities.

As The Guardian reports:

The two countries handed out over $40bn (£27bn) in subsidies to the palm oil, timber, soy, beef and biofuels sectors between 2009 and 2012 – 126 times more than the $346m they received to preserve their rainforests from the United Nations’ (UN) REDD+ scheme, mostly from Norway and Germany.

“The fact that domestic subsidies for commodities that cause deforestation so vastly outweigh international aid seeking to prevent it shows we need a radical rethink”, Will McFarland, one of the report’s authors told the Guardian.

“By making the cost of producing these commodities cheaper, subsidies increase their profitability and make them more desirable to investors. That in turn artificially inflates their growth, and threatens the rainforests further. With subsides running at over 100 times that of forest aid, we should be urgently trying to reform this system.”

Indeed, there is no separating this trend from the global market. The Brazilian and Indonesian governments are responding to the financial incentives offered by a world hungry for these natural resources, especially among developed nations and rapidly growing economies like China’s.

This goes to show that conservation is an intrinsically global concern that must take into account the bigger picture — the pressures faced by poor countries seeking to life their people from poverty, the with ever-insatiable consumption patterns of wealthier nations, and the depredations of powerful private companies (and their political cronies) driven by short-term gain at any cost.

And while the world’s ecosystems are of vital importance to the survival of our species, they remain divided and governed by a range of different nations, each with their own agendas, political dynamics, and economic conditions. This raises very complex questions about how to protect environmental resources whose importance knows no boundaries, in a world order defined by sovereign states whose jurisdictions must be respected. By historical accident, Brazil and Indonesia, among many other nations, happen to have the “lung of the world” under their purview; are we to leave such precious resources to the whims of their governments? What can we do to incentive conservation?

To reaffirm the global scale of the problem, The Guardian pieces ends with mention of a McKinsey study finding that the world’s government have collectively spent over one trillion dollars subsidizing energy and food industries. This problem goes far beyond the policymakers of two emerging economies. The kind of perverse financial influence involved in this matter is going to make defending the less quantifiable yet far more valuable ecosystems of the world an uphill battle.

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