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Growth versus the environment: deforestation

Tom White

2nd July 2018

According to the article, at the end of the 1990s Brazil was losing 7,700 square miles of forest a year. Over the next 15 years loggers, ranchers, environmentalists and indigenous tribes battled it out—often bloodily—in the world’s largest tropical forest. Now the rate of deforestation has fallen by 70%. This matters because of Brazil’s size: with 5m sq km of jungle, it has almost as much as the next three countries (Congo, China and Australia) put together. And it might signal that the world could be near a turning point in the sorry story of tropical deforestation.

Here’s the bit that corresponds to the Kuznets idea mentioned above: typically, countries start in poverty with their land covered in trees. As they clear it for farms or fuel, they get richer and they attempt to recover their losses. This happens at different stages in different places, but the trajectory is similar in most: a reverse J, steeply down, then bottoming out, then up—but only part of the way. This is usually called the “forest transition curve”. Brazil seems to be nearing the bottom. The world may be, too. These views are controversial to some.

Several tropical countries at different points along the transition curve seem to be doing better (see diagram). At the top, the deforestation rate in the countries of the Congo basin, which have the largest remaining area of African forest, fell from an already-tiny 0.16% a year in the 1990s to 0.1% in the 2000s. They have not begun to slash and burn, as many feared was inevitable. Towards the bottom of the curve, Mexico has cut its deforestation rate even more than Brazil. On the upswing, India and Costa Rica are replanting forests they once cut down.

I read that there are perhaps two big reasons for the recent slowdown in tropical deforestation: easing of population pressures and big improvements in farming far from forested land. Apparently two of the influences most closely correlated with the loss of forests are population and proximity to cities (the third is proximity to roads). Dramatic falls in fertility in Brazil, China and other well-forested nations therefore help explain why (after a lag) deforestation is slowing, too. Demography even helps account for what is happening in Congo, where fertility is still high. Its people are flocking to cities, notably Kinshasa, with the result that the population in more distant, forested areas is thinning out. And the countries that have done most to slow forest decline also have impressive agricultural records.

Some of you might not be impressed with these claims. The situation is not good in Indonesia and Malaysia, who account for the vast majority of the world’s exports of palm oil. Environmentalists say the forests of South-East Asia have been massively damaged in order to grow this crop, and now investors are flocking to west Africa to secure land for rival plantations. Demand for palm oil, whose annual global production is valued at around $50 billion, is soaring; consumption may triple between 2000 and 2050. The oil is taken from the oil palm’s red fruit and is used in roughly half of all packaged supermarket products, from margarine and ice cream to shampoo and cosmetics. It is increasingly used as a biodiesel, too.

In Malaysia and Indonesia deforestation has increased carbon emissions and destroyed the habitat of rare breeds of animals such as orangutans. Africa faces similar problems. Environmentalists often complain that land has been “grabbed”. Weak land titles and hazy lines between customary and state ownership can result in local peasants being booted off their land and becoming impoverished. This is a big worry, taking us back to the start of this blog. “Of course we are worried about the ecological consequences (of the growing palm oil industry)” says one African, “but we have to grow the economy. We have to create jobs for our own people. How we do it sustainably is where we are struggling.”

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