Deforestation: are we finally able to get in control?

Farmforce – 5. May 2021. By Knut RandAbi Høier Hoel

At face value, it seems deforestation remains out of control: over the last three decades alone we have lost 1,78 million km2 of forest, roughly the size of Libya, to human destruction of forests and trees. However, in this bleak reality, there are signs leading us to a clear path where we can stop this dangerous development and get in control now.

Deforestation refers to the decrease in forest areas across the world that are lost for other uses such as agricultural croplands, urbanization, or mining activities.

A clear link between agricultural expansion and deforestation

It is estimated that over half of the tropical forests worldwide have been destroyed since the 1960s. Of this amount, 80% of deforestation is linked to the expansion of agriculture, with land being cleared to make way for grazing animals and to grow crops. These individual crops and farm animals often require minimum amounts of space to produce viable harvests or animal by-products. Furthermore, many of these farms are family-run with 90% of cocoa, for example is produced by small-holder farmers with only about one to two hectares of land. As a result, tracking agricultural goods from a specific farm to a precise producer is a key step to controlling deforestation.

What has been done so far?

Over the last decade, there have been several public institutions declaring commitments to stop deforestation in their supply chains, but the real question begs how successful these commitments have been. The data says too little of an impact so far:

Although the Rainforest Alliance and other non-profit organizations have created certification programs that certify farmers who provide proof of deforestation-free production in efforts of pushing companies to buy only from certified producers, major organizations like Greenpeace maintain that such certification programs have not been a success. In its annual report, Greenpeace shows companies continue to fail to meet their commitments to exclude deforestation from their supply chains, stating that too many certification schemes do not address core issues such as destruction of ecosystems and violations against Indigenous lands.

So, what makes us look at the future with more optimism now?

Governments are beginning to take concrete motions to take matters into their own hands. New legislation from the EU and UK are coming with clearer demands of what is expected of a company in compliance with environmental laws to ensure deforestation is excluded from organizations’ supply chains and means of enforcing the law. Most notably, compliance laws such as the UK Environment Bill (Nov. 11 2020) – Schedule 16   and the Commission proposal for EU regulations, currently planned for the second quarter of 2021, assume stringent policy measures in force by 2023. Both proposed legislations are based on due diligence to ensure sustainable and deforestation-free supply chains for products placed on the market.

Looking at the UK Environmental Bill specifically, sanctions due to non-compliance might result in:

  • Fixed monetary penalties
  • Discretionary requirements
  • Stop notices and enforcement undertakings

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So, why has this not been done before?

Creating and introducing legislation can be quite complex. Implementing regulations in farming to efficiently monitor and maintain deforestation-free supply chains are hindered by two main factors:

  • Lack of access to relevant and critical data
  • Lack of traceability systems for monitoring and reporting

Conducting an audit of compliance without easy access to data and the supporting monitoring tools is very costly.

In the last years, some agricultural traders have adopted the use of digital systems with features such as tracing support, enabling them to track the crops from a specific farm to the production site. Such a system has GPS data, which utilizes satellite images to not only form a Polygon map of the farm, but also detect the changes of forest and trees in that specific polygon. By including a buffer zone around the farm and monitoring changes at regular intervals, an organization/company can control its supply chain and can prove traceability by this data documentation.

In addition, these systems can also register all the transactions of crops being sold and purchased per farmer, so if a farmer suddenly starts producing much more than last season, he or she must explain how that has happened. This limits his or her ability to illegally farm at another location within the rainforest.

These kinds of tracing systems have now reached a good maturity level, and with the support from satellite images being more and more detailed and Artificial Intelligence helping us interpret when something is suspicious, monitoring deforestation continuously at a farm level is now a very real capability. With such system support making traceability and data collection possible without too much manual labor, it makes sense now to introduce legislation where due diligence is efficiently and accurately included.

In natural botany, a tree is a perennial plant with an elongated stem, or trunk, supporting branches and leaves in most species.

In summary

Technology is an enabler in monitoring the supply chain from farm to producer, and the interpretation of satellite data makes it possible to monitor changes down to an individual farm and its surroundings to prevent and monitor deforestation.

When paired with legislation that requires accountability on companies to buy from suppliers that are monitoring, documenting, and auditing for deforestation, it really makes a difference! The signs towards the path of deforestation-free farming are there. Now, it is just a matter of how quickly we choose to read and follow them.

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