How consumers in rich countries are driving global deforestation

The consumption of coffee in Europe leads to the destruction of forests in countries like Vietnam, pictured here. Lutz Jaekel / laif

A coffee in the morning, a candy bar in the afternoon, a steak for dinner, all contribute to deforestation in tropical regions. The growing demand for certain imports in rich countries like Switzerland is destroying vast areas elsewhere that have a crucial role to play in containing global warming.

This content was published on June 11, 2021 – 09:00

“It’s easy to look at farmers, foresters and countries where deforestation is happening and wish they’d stop. But they respond to the global market. We buy their soy for our burgers and salmon, and their palm oil for our lipstick, ”writes Daniel Moran of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, on the Carbon Brief website.

While wooded areas generally increase in industrialized countries, including in SwitzerlandExternal link, deforestation is relentless in the countries of the South. Paradoxically, he even intensified since 2014External link, the year in which governments, businesses and organizations pledged to put the brakes on it. More than half of the losses are due to commercial agriculture, and most land conversions for agricultural purposes violate national laws and regulations.


Soybean, corn, cotton and coffee crops in the Bahia region, Brazil. Broker.com

Millions of hectares lost per year

In 2020, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of forest, a 12% increase from 2019, according to recent data from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch. Some 4.2 million hectares lost – more or less the area of ​​Switzerland – concerned old-growth forests, which are particularly important ecosystems for CO2 absorption and biodiversity.

Globally, Brazil has lost the largest area of ​​old growth forest, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bolivia.

Since the 1990s, big business and landowners have played a major role in the destruction of forests around the world, says David Kaimowitz, who heads the Forest and Farm Facility, a United Nations initiative for the food and agriculture (FAO). And a growing proportion of deforestation is due to the exploitation of a small range of staples, including palm oil, soybeans and beef, he told the online newspaper. MongabayExternal link.

This observation was confirmed by a recent studyExternal link Posted in Nature magazine, which claimed that the origins of deforestation also lie in the choices and habits of consumers in industrialized countries.

Four trees per person

If you live in one of the economically advanced countries of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain and the United States), you can take credit for the destruction of some 3.9 trees per year. somewhere in the world, according to the Nature study.

The consumption of cocoa in Germany, for example, “poses a very high risk to the forests of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana,” says Nguyen Tien Hoang, lead author of the study. Deforestation on the coast of Tanzania is directly linked to the demand for agricultural products such as sesame seeds and cotton in Japan; the consumption of fruits and nuts in the United States has an impact on the forests of Guatemala; while the coffee drunk in Italy depends on the destruction of the woods in Vietnam.

“Rich countries only encourage deforestation,” says Nguyen Tien Hoang, based at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan.


Sacks of cocoa beans at the port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Since independence in 1960, the African nation has lost 90% of its forests to agriculture and in particular to cocoa crops. Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

In a separate AnalysisExternal link, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) comes to the same conclusions: in 2017, imports from the European Union caused 16% of all deforestation linked to global trade, indirectly leading to the loss of 203,000 hectares of rainforest. The EU is only overtaken by China (24%), while the United States (7%) and Japan (5%) have a smaller impact.

The European countries with the largest environmental footprint are Germany, Italy and Spain, while the Netherlands ranks first in terms of deforestation per capita.

WWF analysis indicates that while deforestation is due to a range of activities – from mining to road building and the logging industry – the main cause is commercial agriculture, which clears land for culture and breeding. About 80% of tropical forest loss is due to the production of just six raw materials:


Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

The impact of Swiss imports

Switzerland also has its share of responsibility. While the country represents only 0.1% of the planet’s population, it accounts for 3% of world cocoa production and 2% of CoffeeExternal link production, says WWF.

A quarter of Switzerland’s total ecological footprint is in countries with a high to very high risk of deforestation, poor government management or inadequate workers’ rights, the study notes.

“The effects of imports of Swiss raw materials on deforestation in the world are considerable”, explains Romain Devèze, raw materials expert at WWF.

Silvie Lang of the NGO Public Eye says Swiss responsibility goes beyond imports. “Switzerland is the world’s main agricultural trading hub and is home to many of the biggest companies in the sector: one in three coffee or cocoa beans is traded by Swiss companies,” she told SWI swissinfo. ch.

Transparency, traceability

To reduce deforestation linked to international trade, raw material supply chains must be examined, says WWF, which calls for better product traceability.

A pilot project to trace the origin of products was launched in 2020 in Brazil, with the participation of several large multinational soybean trading companies. But achieving full traceability is difficult, as this article from SWI swissinfo.ch explains:

Lang from Public Eye also wants more transparency and traceability. “Consumers, politicians and sometimes even businesses themselves don’t know where products come from,” she says. Stricter legislation is needed in industrialized countries, she said, while stricter enforcement of laws protecting workers and the environment is needed in producing countries.

As the EU contemplates a ban on raw materials produced by deforestation – a bill will be introduced this summer – Switzerland has a rather “weak” regulatory apparatus based on voluntary compliance and dialogue, Lang says. “No Swiss law prohibits us from drinking coffee imported from illegally cleared territory.”

No consequence

In November 2020, a popular initiative on corporate responsibility – which would have forced Swiss companies to respect human rights and international environmental standards not only at home but also abroad – narrowly lackExternal link pass. While most voters nationwide were in favor, he failed to win the majority of townships. The failure of this initiative paved the way for an indirect counter-proposal which was adopted by parliament.

This latest proposal, which was put out for public consultation until July 14, asks less than the initiative: no new standards, but rather new requirements, including due diligence on child labor and extraction. minerals in conflict zones. “The counter-proposal is clearly insufficient. Compliance with the requirements will not be monitored and breaches of the duty of care will have no consequences, ”complains Lang.

Switzerland, she insists, needs a set of clear and binding rules to ensure that its companies do not pollute or destroy the environment in the countries of the South. Otherwise, with its weak legislation, “Switzerland will again lag behind” compared to the rest of Europe.

Translated from the Italian by Terence McNamee; edited by Domhnall O’Sullivan


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