Deforestation "Part of the solution lies in international trade".

6.6 billion hectares of forest will have been lost by 2022, 4% more than in 2021, according to a report published by some twenty environmental organizations and research institutes, just a few days before COP 28 in Dubai. Alain Karsenty, economist at the Sens laboratory, sheds light on the geopolitics of wood.

Tarcisio Schnaider -

To begin with, what is the international definition of a forest?
There are lots of them! The European regulation on deforestation, adopted in May 2023 and due to come into force at the end of 2024, adopts the definition of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), i.e. 10% forest cover over a minimum area of 0.5 hectares. Oil palm plantations, fruit tree plantations and agroforestry areas are not considered forests.

Which countries are most affected by deforestation?
Brazil has long held the record for deforestation, although it has been on the decline since the return of Lula. Then there's the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bolivia, where agribusiness is booming, and Indonesia, where deforestation has fallen sharply in the last 4-5 years. There's also the issue of megafires, which are affecting Australia, Canada and Russia in unprecedented proportions, as well as Brazil, Indonesia and Bolivia recently (read : The cold forests are burning!).

What are the main drivers of deforestation in South America?
Extensive cattle farming and soybean cultivation. The latter has been declining since 2008, following a moratorium on Amazonian soy purchases imposed by major international agrifood companies. Since then, production has moved south to the Cerrado, a vast region of savannah rich in biodiversity, which is being converted on a large scale to soy monocultures.

Is deforestation a more recent phenomenon in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
Deforestation in the DRC has increased sharply in the last ten years or so, with the country losing half a million hectares of primary forest every year. Farming practices are extensive: farmers cultivate a plot of land for 3 or 4 years, and when its fertility diminishes and the field is overrun with weeds, they leave it fallow and cut down a new forest. It's a system that has worked for millennia with a small, stable population. But with a 3% population growth rate - the population doubles every 25 years in the DRC - fallows are getting shorter and shorter, leaving no time for a secondary forest to establish itself. There is also a land issue at stake: in Africa, as in Amazonia, the development of land through cultivation legitimizes a claim to ownership.

Is this production destined for export?
Brazil consumes a large part of its deforestation through the beef it produces. As for soybeans, they are sent to China and Europe to feed cattle, which raises the question of our economic models. In Africa, 80 to 90% of deforestation is due to small-scale subsistence farming: cassava, corn, rice, beans, bananas, etc. Palm oil produced in Africa supplies local markets. This is domestic consumption, with the exception of cocoa from Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Cameroon, which is exported to Europe, and coffee from East Africa.

What's the situation in Asia?
Deforestation is declining sharply because there are no forests left, or the last ones are in mountainous areas where it is not profitable to plant oil palms or rubber trees. Over the last ten years or so, palm has been overtaken as the main driver of deforestation by trees planted for paper pulp, which is exported all over the world. Plantations of fast-growing trees such as acacias and eucalyptus are considered forests by the FAO. They therefore do not appear in "net" deforestation figures. Yet these plantations, which are destined to be clear-cut, are replacing degraded natural forest, which could regenerate by offering a high level of biodiversity (see : Recent changes in forest policy and land use in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo: are they truly transformational?Alain Karsenty, October 2022).

The charcoal used for cooking is in the background just about everywhere...
Yes, it's the main cooking energy in many regions. Today, we're talking about sustainable charcoal with eucalyptus or acacia plantations so that people don't cut down natural forests, but with the health problems associated with charcoal, won't the real solution be to stop using it, at least in urban areas? Alternatively, bio-ethanol, liquefied natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, or hydroelectric power - I'm thinking of the famous Inga 3 dam in the DRC, which could power part of Africa...

We haven't yet mentioned Russia...
... which deforests enormously to supply China with wood. The forests of the DRC are made up of thousands of species, only a few of which are marketed. This means that only one to three trees per hectare are harvested. In Russia, the forests are less diverse, with two or three species that are all marketable, leading to clear-cutting. There's also a lot of urban sprawl and megafires.

And where does France stand in the geopolitics of wood?
We import a lot of softwood because our industrial system is ill-suited to our hardwood forests (read : We're not going to wood anymore), which are under-exploited and very fragmented. We don't have the money to invest in industrial facilities, so one solution has been for private landowners to plant the famous Douglas fir all over the place. This has met with strong opposition from society, because of the monoculture, clear-cutting, risk of fire and transformation of the landscape...

How much deforestation is currently linked to exports?
Estimates put the figure at 20-25%, so part of the solution lies in international trade and imported deforestation. The question is: how do we tackle the causes of deforestation? How do we reform land tenure, agriculture and energy? (Read : European regulation of imported deforestation: the limits of an undifferentiated approachAlain Karsenty, 2023).

Which country is the largest importer of timber?
China, by far (see : Chinese forestry companies in West AfricaAlain Karsenty, October 2022). It imports wood from Asia, Africa, New Zealand, Russia, Germany and France, and often re-exports it to Europe in the form of processed products. China has a population of 1.4 billion, and its domestic needs are enormous. The Vietnamese and Indians have also become major buyers on the international market.

So China is set to play a major role in the future of the world's forests?
Yes, and they're aware that a global wood shortage is looming, so they're starting to take a serious interest in the sustainability of the resource. For them, it's a way of securing their supply, and that's good news for the forest, because they're the masters of the game.

Read the rest of this interview " The term carbon offset is scientifically absurd "on the University of Montpellier website.

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