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Forces against deforestation

As trees fall in the tropics, Nelson researchers cultivate solutions

March 15, 2013

Every day we damage our lungs. 

Careless behavior, pollutants and fire can cause irreversible harm. 

This isn’t a public service announcement about the dangers of smoking, but a warning about the health of the world’s tropical forests. 

“Scientists often refer to the Amazon as the lungs of the earth,” says Holly Gibbs, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies, referring to the tropical forests of South America. “It converts a significant amount of the world’s carbon dioxide into oxygen.”

Holly Gibbs
Holly Gibbs

In all, the tropics – spanning Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Central America and South America – contain nearly half of the world’s forests.

These ecosystems deliver fresh air, but they also help prevent climate change. During photosynthesis, trees and other vegetation soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide – the most important global warming gas emitted by human activities. 

“Tropical forests store more than 340 billion tons of carbon, which equals 40 years’ worth of worldwide fossil fuel emissions,” Gibbs says, citing her work monitoring carbon stocks and emissions on a global scale.

But this carbon storage can be reversed. When forests are cleared and trees decay or burn, the carbon previously stored in trunks, limbs, leaves and roots – amounting to half of a tree’s weight – is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. 

Plot by plot, the effects add up. Deforestation has historically accounted for about 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, equal to the transportation sector. Among the top emitters of carbon dioxide globally earlier this decade – China and the United States, followed by Brazil and Indonesia – the latter two countries’ emissions are almost entirely from deforestation. 

“If we clear tropical forests, then we’re accelerating climate change, because nearly all that stored carbon is burned and emitted,” Gibbs says, “just the same as burning gasoline to fuel our cars, or burning coal to operate industry or provide electricity.” 

While the rate of deforestation is slowing worldwide – and is partially offset by gains in forested areas – conversion to agricultural land is still driving a global net loss of forests. 

According to a recent satellite-based survey by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, from 1990-2005 the planet lost an average of 4.9 million hectares of forest a year. That amounts to a net loss of nearly 10 hectares, or 25 acres, per minute. In the tropics, net losses were notably higher, averaging 6.9 million hectares of forest a year – equivalent to about 40 percent of the area of Wisconsin.

“Tropical forests store
more than 340 billion
tons of carbon, which
equals 40 years’ worth
of worldwide fossil fuel

On a regional and local scale, the effects are amplified. Studies show that deforestation can also reduce precipitation, raise the ground surface temperature and, as the landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, increase the potential for fires to claim even larger swaths of land. It also lessens biodiversity in the tropics, home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species.  

Gibbs says it has become increasingly clear that tropical forests must be factored into any climate change mitigation strategy as “globally important carbon storehouses.”

But what are the most effective ways to reduce tropical deforestation and forest degradation?  And how can the livelihoods and rights of indigenous people who depend on the forests also be protected?

Gibbs is one of several Nelson Institute researchers studying these issues, often traveling to the equator to investigate the drivers of deforestation and possible solutions.  


One strategy to answer the global deforestation challenge is a commodity-based solution known as REDD.

Short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, REDD gained momentum at the 2005 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the annual climate negotiations between delegates from nearly 200 U.N. member countries. Since then, it has attracted more than $7 billion in international investment and is one of the most advanced components of recent climate treaty negotiations.

Amazon forest
While the rate of deforestation is slowing worldwide,
conversion to agricultural land is still driving a global
net loss of forests. Photo credit Sara Tzunky.

Through REDD, developed countries pay developing countries to keep their forests standing. By creating financial value for the carbon stored in forests, developing countries have an incentive to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to development. Taking the concept a step further, “REDD-plus” – the form of REDD typically supported today – incorporates conservation, sustainable management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. 

While REDD is the most high profile of policy mechanisms being advanced to halt deforestation, it is also highly controversial. In the tropics, a variety of land tenure arrangements – how a society allocates the rights to use, control or transfer land – makes REDD’s implementation complex at best. At worst, it puts forest-dependent communities at risk of being unfairly burdened and losing rights to more powerful interests.

Many of the world’s most carbon-rich and biodiverse forests are in areas where land ownership is unclear, contested or insecure. 

While these lands are often managed by local and indigenous people who live in and derive their livelihoods from the forests, most individuals or communities do not hold legal title to the land. 

Rather, most tropical forests are considered property of the state, sometimes with competing or overlapping claims from interests such as logging and mining. Thus, identifying who controls a particular forested area, whom to reward with REDD financing and how to enforce the arrangement must be approached with caution.

Who owns what?

For REDD to work fairly and effectively and for it to have a lasting impact, many experts say, clear and secure land tenure with attention to the rights of local forest-dependent communities is critical. 

“When you go to developing countries, and especially places where you have carbon-heavy, biologically rich forests, there is uncertainty and even violence about who owns what,” says Lisa Naughton, a professor of geography and past director of the Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center. “It’s not just a side issue. If you’re going to figure out how to govern these areas and steward them sustainability, you need to resolve who owns what.” 

Lisa Naughton
Lisa Naughton

Clarifying land tenure “is a messy, political, slow process,” according to Naughton, involving local government, indigenous federations, environmental lawyers and other third parties, and must be considered as part of the cost of REDD. 

When policy makers frame REDD as a quick, cheap solution, or reward carbon storage above all else, she says, it risks harming the forests and the local poor. Attempts to clarify land tenure have sometimes heightened conflict in a community, or resulted in confusing documents or false promises that strip people of their access to land.

“There are many examples of how putting power and money into this forest carbon initiative can, in fact, be bad news for local communities and even bad news for biodiversity,” according to Naughton.

While giving people land rights doesn’t always mean they’re going to maintain the forest, she says, “one thing we can be sure of is: as long as there’s forest and no one really knows who it belongs to and who’s going to make money off it, that’s associated with rapid deforestation.” 

“We’re trying to point out those risks and set up processes,” she continues. “Our group is saying, tread carefully and realize that this isn’t going to be quick or cheap if it’s going to be fair, and we shouldn’t do it if it’s not going to be fair.”

Hot-button issues

Though global consensus has yet to be reached on how to implement REDD, the initiative has progressed faster than other areas of climate change mitigation – namely, cuts in fossil fuel emissions by richer countries. 

That the international community “is doing basically nothing about fossil fuel emissions” remains the elephant in the room, according to Naughton. 

“It’s a hard path to walk,
but rapid and careless
deforestation is neither
good for the climate,
nor for biodiversity, nor
for local people.”

“The worst-case scenario is that affluent, high-emitting countries don’t make any sacrifices in our lifestyle or our economy, but use our power and our money to stop deforestation in a way that is against the interests of the local poor who are not emitting much in the first place.”

In spite of its drawbacks, Naughton says REDD has focused attention and resources on a complex set of issues, in the name of forest carbon. 

“It’s a hard path to walk, but rapid and careless deforestation is neither good for the climate, nor for biodiversity, nor for local people,” she continues. “If we can connect some of the funding that’s moving toward REDD with other meaningful goals, like strengthening land rights and keeping forest on the landscape, then it could be worth all the effort.” 

Growing problem

For Holly Gibbs, understanding the drivers of deforestation is also critical to solving the problem. 

Gibbs was heavily involved with REDD in its early stages, but her research has evolved to take a broader look at the causes of deforestation and how they vary across the tropics and time.

“In the biggest picture, I work to reconcile forest conservation, food security and economic development,” she explains. “We’re focused on human-environment interactions and how people use land.”

Over the last 30 years, developed countries have either stabilized or reduced their total agricultural land, amounting to a four percent net decrease. Tropical countries, however, have seen an 11 percent increase in agricultural land, and the trend is expected to continue.

“We have a world that wants so much more from our land base. When we think about where mounting demands for food, feed and fuel will come from, it will come from tropical countries,” Gibbs says.

“When we think about
where mounting demands
for food, feed and fuel will
come from, it will come
from tropical countries.”

When agriculture expands in the tropics, it comes at the expense of forest. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gibbs found that from 1980-2000, more than 80 percent of new agricultural land came from clearing tropical forests to make room. 

And in the tropics, she says, “forests don’t typically become a house or furniture. Trees are often just burned in place, so all that stored carbon is emitted to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.” 

Gibbs, who received her Ph.D. in 2008 in Land Resources, now studies these issues through the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. 

She’s found that over the last 10 to 15 years, the main driver of agriculture-related deforestation in much of the tropics is no longer poverty, it’s profit. 

From the 1970s through the 90s, small land holders or family farmers cleared forest to produce food and other crops for local markets and subsistence. But since then, many of these family farmers have been displaced by multinational agribusinesses.

“They’re not always literarily cutting the trees down, but they’re financing and incentivizing deforestation,” Gibbs explains. “So on one hand, we’re seeing much larger swaths of forest cleared and much more intensive use of that land. But on the other hand, it opens the door to a whole new type of conservation – what I call demand-side conservation.” 

Making demands

While REDD uses financial incentives to prevent deforestation, demand-side tools rely on globalization and market pressure. 

Tractor in field in Brazil
Gibbs studies demand-side tools that reduce the
drivers of agriculture-related deforestation in the tropics.

For example, Brazil and Indonesia – two critical areas for forest conservation – are now deeply connected to global markets for soy, oil palm and beef and thus responsive to market signals. What this means for conservation, Gibbs explains, is that industry oversight and purchasing power can be leveraged to make operations more sustainable. 

One of Gibbs’ emerging research projects, supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is examining two specific demand-side conservation tools in which multinational grain traders, large beef processors and other businesses alter their practices to avoid forest clearing.

In the first of these demand-side conservation levers – multi-stakeholder roundtable groups – an industry comes together in coordination with non-governmental organizations, retailers and producers to police and protect itself. Through a safety-in-numbers approach, Gibbs says, the roundtables are transforming how industry operates.

All of the major commodities that are heavily traded from the Amazon – soy, palm oil, beef, sugar, leather and biofuels – have stakeholder groups aimed at governing the industry and developing standards and criteria. 

“What my research is showing is these efforts are addressing the drivers of deforestation for the first time,” Gibbs says. 

A second form of demand-side conservation is zero-deforestation agreements, or trade embargos, in which an industry, retailer or producer agrees to not buy a commodity from newly deforested lands.

Such agreements typically evolve in response to a consumer campaign against a company, often initiated by an activist organization. Large retail brands are sensitive to consumer pressure – something non-governmental organizations, and in particular Greenpeace, have capitalized on.

“These demand-side efforts
are revolutionizing industries
in a remarkably quick way.
We’ve seen a huge shift.”

“Through embarrassing and dramatic ad campaigns, Greenpeace has moved these industrial and retail giants to change their business practices,” says Gibbs. “And when they change, it affects the entire supply chain, all the way down to those farmers on the ground clearing forest.” 

In 2006, for example, all of the major U.S. and Brazilian soy traders came together in response to pressure from McDonald’s and Burger King, which were first targeted by Greenpeace, and agreed to have zero deforestation in their soy supply chain in the Amazon. The industry set up a monitoring system to ensure no deforestation was occurring, which now allows for a better understanding of all land use dynamics.

Facing similar pressure, the major cattle producers and meatpackers of Brazil – a major exporter of beef and leather – approved a zero deforestation agreement in 2009 after it was revealed that cattle raised on deforested land were being used for leather by major global retailers and shoe brands, and for beef sold by mainstream grocers. Each participating cattle company now has a monitoring system in place, and Gibbs says rancher and meatpacker behavior has improved “by leaps and bounds.”

Direct effect

That these demand-side initiatives address the drivers of deforestation gives them an advantage over REDD, according to Gibbs.

“That’s been one of the major criticisms of REDD – that it provides funding that goes through government, which may or may not reach the people that are actually doing the clearing,” she explains. “These demand-side efforts are directly going after the companies that control the deforestation dynamics.”

“I can talk about the positive sides of REDD – it has the world’s attention focused on deforestation and it has evolved science dramatically in terms of our ability to measure carbon stored in trees and understand land use trends and drivers. But it has not changed things thus far in any major way,” she continues. “These demand-side efforts are revolutionizing industries in a remarkably quick way. We’ve seen a huge shift.” 

For the first time in Brazil, forest remained standing while production increased rapidly.

“It’s the first time that there were incentives and pressure to increase yields rather than simply expand,” she says. “Now there are reasons to invest in fertilizers and in improving the lands to produce more.”

Gibbs interviews oil palm plantation owners in Malaysian Borneo
Holly Gibbs interviews oil palm plantation owners
in Malaysian Borneo. Producers of the major
commodities traded from the Amazon are now
altering their practices to avoid forest clearing.

From 2004-12, deforestation rates in Brazil dropped by 75 percent, going from the highest ever recorded to the lowest. Credit is due to a confluence of factors, Gibbs says: demand-side conservation agreements, REDD and its perception that land owners will receive money to leave forest standing, and low profitability for soy and cattle during global economic downturns. 

But as profits from Brazilian soy and cattle rose to extremely high levels during the recent U.S. drought, the trend remained positive for forest conservation. 

“Brazil’s cattle ranchers and soy farmers can make more money now than they could in a long time, and they still haven’t increased the rates of deforestation,” Gibbs says, “indicating that this combination of domestic pressure, outside organization pressure and changing macroeconomics have significantly altered business practices for these two sectors.”  

Environmentally, Gibbs says, the best-case scenario would be to have much more efficient, optimized use of land to meet global demands while reducing supply chain waste and deforestation. But producers need to be able to sustainably increase yields – something currently lacking in the equation. 

“As we push for a reduction in deforestation, we also need to be jumping ahead,” she says. “It will be critical that we watch that pathway closely to avoid unintended consequences. If these tools are effective, we transform how the industries operate and how agriculture is occurring.”

Give and take

In the end, Gibbs says, perhaps the closest thing to a perfect solution for tropical deforestation is some combination of carrots and sticks, where the financial incentive of a carbon initiative like REDD provides the added motivation to comply with a demand-side request. 

That kind of synergy seems to hold promise. REDD is meant to address the full landscape of deforestation, whereas demand-side efforts target a single industry. Each could potentially reduce the monitoring costs of the other. 

And because a carbon market is unlikely to compete with more profitable commodities like soy and oil palm, Gibbs says, demand-side efforts could target those latter markets, “while REDD could come in and capture a much broader swath, fundamentally changing how the whole country plans and manages its agricultural and forest landscapes.”

In the meantime, REDD remains in perpetual negotiation and many questions remain. Naughton believes the Nelson Institute is especially well suited to find answers, with researchers working at all scales, from understanding indigenous peoples’ rights to examining land use change and global carbon dynamics.

“This kind of issue, where we’re trying to make a more effective and more just system of rewarding folks for saving forest, takes the expertise both of someone with local proficiency and someone who can connect the big picture,” she says.

Speaking of REDD

To better understand the role of land governance within forest carbon management programs, in October 2011 the Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center (LTC) and Department of Geography hosted a two-day workshop in Madison. Thirty researchers and on-the-ground practitioners from a range of countries prioritized for REDD presented the results of pilot projects and discussed the social and environmental impacts.  

Several Nelson Institute alumni working on the frontlines of tropical forest conservation were part of the workshop: Amy Duchelle (Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development M.S. ’03), Margaret Holland (Land Resources M.S. ’04, Ph.D. ‘09), Arlyne Johnson (CBSD M.S. ’93, LR Ph.D. ‘00), and Brian Robinson (Environment and Resources Ph.D. ‘11). 

Case studies from the workshop were compiled into a 112-page report, produced by the UW Cartography Lab, to help guide policy makers in improving the equity and efficacy of REDD. Results were also shared at the 2011 U.N. climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, and a set of complementary research papers were prepared for a forthcoming special issue of the peer-reviewed journal World Development.

“The Nelson Institute, in this exercise, is doing what it is so wonderful at – acting like a network,” says Lisa Naughton, a professor of geography and past LTC director who helped to lead the workshop and co-edited the resulting publication with Cathy Day, a Ph.D. candidate in geography.

The workshop and publication were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development under a five-year, $5 million grant secured in part by Matt Turner, a professor of geography and former LTC director, and Adrian Treves, associate professor of environmental studies.

Through the grant, LTC is also working with several research partners to study the interface between environment, government and poverty, with REDD becoming a focus of this work.

“Instead of just saying these things almost never work and they usually are really risky for the poor; rather, this cluster of folks and my colleagues said, yes, REDD is complicated and it’s risky – here are some lessons and here’s why,” says Naughton. “So, can this kind of effort be made responsible? What would it look like? What would you do to try to make the money flow to the rightful owners in a more responsible way?”