Who takes advantage of deforestation?

Who takes advantage of deforestation?

The answer to this question is not, for sure, the economy of local communities. This statement, which may seem trivial, is the result of an in-depth joint study by the University of Cambridge and the Imperial College, published in 2009 in the journal Science. The study, focused on Brazilian Amazonia, considered life expectancy and per capita income at different stages of deforestation. Amazonia is one of the least developed regions in Brasil – explains Ana Rodrigues, leader of the reseach team - and people often assume that substituting forests with fields and grazing lands is necessary and acceptable in order to satisfy the requests for development that arise in the region. The researchers wanted to find out if this assumption does actually make any sense. The outcome is that the sudden availability of resources- land, timber, minerals- brings about higher incomes, services, deeper access to education and healthcare, and therefore a higher expectancy of life.  However, once the process of deforestation is over, the multinationals leave the exploited areas and head towards new virgin forests;  loggers, miners, farmers and breeders move accordingly. The quality of life of  local populations gets back to the levels prevailing before the deforestation, because timber runs out and the fertility of land declines. To sum up, deforestation is not able to sustain growth in the long run, while the deleterious environmental damages are permanent.
In this business there are indeed more benefited  players: logging multinationals, often advantaged by corrupted  local Governments.

In the past, in fact,  lands and related resources were often patrimony of local communities, whose survival had heavily depended upon forests for millemnia.  Only in recent times they were declared property of the State: this is for instance what happened in Indonesia in the Seventies. This setting is not a priori negative, and could instead theoretically offer a guarantee. Unfortunately the Indonesian Government –sadly not the only black sheep- proved more interested in abundant , often illegal profits rather than in environmental protection and the safeguard of indigenous populations. Indeed, it has sistematically sold wide forestal areas to industrial giants that produce paper and palm oil. Populations are of course not called to express their opinion when such choices are made: they are usually just forced to abandon their homes, and their rebellions are violently suprressed by “security” forces.
Once obtained the concessions, deforestation, especially in tropical areas, is often practiced with the slash-and-burn method: trees are cut, and what remains –a rich underbrush- is set on fire. The resulting ash fertilizes the soil, but only for a short period. After a few years, it becomes unproductive, and another area is cleared. The habitat of the undergrowth is, instead, forever gone. The situation is even worse in countries like Indonesia, where the soil is made of peat, substance that, when exsiccated, releases carbon dioxide (CO2), responsible for the green house effect. The systematic change of use of land, converted from forests to agricultural fields, accouns for about one third of the total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

This widespread illegality, which produces in this sector a yearly turnover of 150 billion dollars according to the OCSE, is not only an economic loss for exporting countries; it negatively affects the International markets (for example in the case of money laundering), and, furthermore, it produces a dumping effect. In fact the abundance on the market of low-cost timber discourages a sustainable utilization of forests, since it would imply higher costs and therefore result in non-competitive products.
It is obvious that a precise political will is needed to face the global gigantic problem of deforestation, in both exporting and importing countries. The European Union has been moving in this direction, voting in 2011 a ban on the import of illegal timber. However, Greenpeace denounces that, when it comes to application, rules are not so hard-and-fast.
But what can we do as consumers? It is mainly a matter of awareness. For instance, when we buy a wooden piece of furniture, distinguishing between pine-wood and birch, ash-wood and oak should not be our only concern. There is, in fact, a certified wood and a non-certified one. On all products that come from trees, from wardrobes to paper, we can find two types of certifications, released by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) respectively. The concession of this guarantee implies an engagement in a socially and ecologically  sustainable management of forestal resources, which means maintaining biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions at the local, national and global levels, without harming other ecosystems.

What is clear is that, as inhabitants of this planet, we will be all harmed by short-sighted environmental policies, unable to see beyond short-term interests: “Imagine if trees gave off Wifi signals: we would be planting so many trees, and probably save the planet too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe”.

Valentina Rutigliano