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Forces against deforestation

As trees fall in the tropics, Nelson researchers cultivate solutions

Winter/Spring 2013 | By Meghan Lepisto

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.” 


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