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A comprehensive new analysis released on Thursday September 11, says that nearly half of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture. The study also finds that the majority of this illegal destruction was driven by overseas demand for agricultural commodities including palm oil, beef, soy, and wood products. In addition to devastating impacts on forest-dependent people and biodiversity, the illegal conversion of tropical forests for commercial agriculture is estimated to produce 1.47 gigatonnes of carbon each year—equivalent to 25 percent of the EU’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions.
Forest Trends, an NGO that works in conservation of forests, says that there are currently 179 contracted, ongoing or concluded large-scale land deals for commercial agriculture or forestry plantations in East Africa with an aggregated current area of 4 million hectares under contract. According to the NGO, Southeast Asia is the only region with a greater number of such deals.
The report entitled ‘Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations’ states that although commercial agriculture is a less important cause of deforestation in the East African region, it is increasingly becoming a big contributing factor.
“We’ve known that the production of agricultural commodities is a principal driving force behind deforestation, but this is the first report to show the outsized role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide,” said Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends, a Washington-based NGO that published the report.
“Increased agricultural production will be necessary for food security and to meet the demand of the emerging global middle class. However, the world must also wake up to the scale of how much of this agricultural production is taking place on land that has been illegally cleared. Urgent action is needed to help countries where these agricultural products are being grown, both for governments to enforce their own laws and regulations, and for businesses aiming to produce commodities legally and sustainably.”
Industrial forest plantation development, cotton plantations and the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane are mentioned as cash crops that are contributing to deforestation in different parts of the region.
According to the report, although there are no systematic studies or data, case studies from Uganda and Tanzania shows that the kinds of illegalities seen in other regions are being replicated during large-scale land conversion for agricultural and timber plantations in East Africa.
In Uganda, the country’s first commercial oil palm plantation project has been mired in controversy. The development, a 40,000 ha joint venture involving (among others) the Ugandan government and international oil palm giant Wilmar, is located on the Kalangala islands in Lake Victoria.
Around 7,500 ha have been planted so far. The development, which was estimated to have destroyed 3,600 ha of forest by May 2013 and is also converting small farmers’ land, has been accused of violating numerous local laws.
There have also been many controversial “land-grabs” in recent years for the planting of biofuel feed stocks in the East African region. The report states, In Tanzania, for example, during the global bio-fuels boom of 2005 to 2008, more than 200,000 ha of land was leased to foreign companies for the planting of biofuel feed crops such as sugarcane and jatropha.
Many of the projects are located within the East African Coastal Forests, an eco-region regarded as a globally important conservation priority. The Tanzanian government has admitted that these industrial plantations have become an increasingly important driver of deforestation in the country.
The report puts several points as recommendation to ease the pressure of massive land deals on the environment. Some of the recommendations are making sure companies comply with all national laws when developing new commercial agricultural and timber plantation projects in forested countries as well as when purchasing products, purchase and trade only commodities that are legally produced and traceable back to their source.