Deforestation is a Heavy Lift For Poorer Nations

Workers sort logs for a customer at a timber yard in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2016.Associated Press/Photo by Achmad Ibrahim, file

About 10 percent of the world’s rainforests are in Indonesia, making it a key signer of the international pledge to end deforestation by 2030, announced at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. But just days after signing with more than 100 other countries, Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar tweeted that the pledge was “inappropriate and unfair.” She went on to state that completely ending deforestation was at odds with Indonesia’s economic development.

The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, backed by nearly $20 billion in public and private funding, makes six commitments for countries to work toward “fighting climate change, delivering resilient and inclusive growth, and halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation.”

Although the United States is a signer, the pledge is mostly aimed at ending deforestation abroad, which occurs at the scale of millions of hectares per year. Combined, countries that signed the pledge represent about 90 percent of the world’s forests—and they include Indonesia, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the world’s tropical forests are found. The declaration lacks an action plan and doesn’t list milestones for ending deforestation, nor does it indicate consequences for signatories that renege on their commitment—a problem that has beset past pledges.

People cut down forests typically to produce cropland, to make wood and paper products, and for commercial-scale soybean and palm oil production. Forests eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide, but when trees are cut down and decompose, they release this carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Mahendra Siregar, Indonesia’s vice foreign minister, explained to Reuters that Indonesia believed it was pledging to attain sustainable forest management, not to end deforestation, by 2030. The country is right to question the fairness of halting deforestation, according to founder Marc Morano.

“This is a new form of colonialism,” he said. “Essentially, it’s the white wealthy Western world telling people of color, the developing world, that they can’t develop the way we did.” Much of Indonesia outside of the Java region is undeveloped. Since 2015, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has dedicated billions of dollars to infrastructure projects in underdeveloped regions such as Papua. These include building roads, bridges, irrigation systems, and healthcare facilities.

Indonesia’s continued economic development relies on some level of deforestation. Accounting for 40 percent of the world’s edible vegetable oil, palm oil is the linchpin of Indonesia’s economy. And shifting away from palm oil use is no quick fix. An efficient crop, palm oil is produced on less than 6 percent of the total land used globally to produce vegetable oils. Replacing palm oil with an alternative such as sunflower or coconut oil would require 4-10 times more land.

Robert Hefner, an energy entrepreneur and consultant, argues that developing nations can only limit deforestation with access to cheap, reliable electricity, making fossil fuels their best option. Poorer nations depend on wood, a fuel source Western countries haven’t relied on since the mid-1800s. Billions of people cook and heat their homes with biomass, including wood, animal dung, and crop waste. Not only does this practice contribute to deforestation, but the indoor air pollution it causes kills nearly 4 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization. “That is 2,667 percent more deaths than attributed to climate change every single year,” noted Hefner.

Morano says deforestation is a legitimate concern, but he points to other ways to mitigate its effect besides a complete ban. He cites work done by Robin Chazdon, a researcher in tropical forest restoration, to explain sustainable forestry: Forests can regenerate naturally when smaller swaths are cleared. Within a few years, the same plant and animal species from unlogged areas move into these cleared areas.

Rather than pledging billions of dollars that may never succeed in stopping deforestation, Morano suggests, world leaders would be better off sending a team of advisers into developing countries to help optimize both land preservation and economic growth.

By Heather Frank

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