19 April 2007 Edition

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International : Nearly 40,000 hectares of forest vanishing every day

Oil or biofuels, we are doing it all wrong

If oil exploitation has proven controversial and environmentally devastating, it seems that the exploitation of biofuels may not be of any benefit for the environment. The commercial growing of African palm, used to produce biodiesel, has become one of the main causes of deforestation in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.
Nearly 40,000 hectares of forest vanish every day, driven by the world’s growing hunger for timber, pulp and paper, and ironically, new biofuels and carbon credits designed to protect the environment.
So, the push for the use of biofuels may be causing more harm than good, as deforestation puts far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire world’s fleet of cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined.
“We call it ‘deforestation diesel’,” said Simone Lovera, managing co-ordinator of the Global Forest Coalition, an environmental NGO based in Asunción, Paraguay.
Oil from African palm trees is considered to be one of the best and cheapest sources of biodiesel and energy companies are investing billions in acquiring or developing oil-palm plantations in developing countries. Vast tracts of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries have been cleared to grow oil palms, which has become the world’s number one fruit crop, well ahead of bananas.
Biodiesel offers many environmental benefits over diesel from petroleum, including reductions in air pollutants, but the enormous global thirst means millions more hectares could be converted into monocultures of oil palm. Again, this is driven by the corporative approach to the production of alternatives to oil. This approach allows multinational companies to control the production and export of biodiesels – and the pricing of the product – instead of allowing for local production of different bio-diesel alternatives that may be less harming for the environment, such as rapeseed oil, in the case of Ireland.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s report State of the World’s Forests 2007 released at the beginning of March reports that globally, net forest loss is 20,000 hectares per day – equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris. However, that number includes plantation forests, which masks the actual extent of tropical deforestation, about 40,000 hectares (ha) per day, says Matti Palo, a forest economics expert who is affiliated with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica.
“The half a million ha per year deforestation of Mexico is covered by the increase of forests in the U.S., for example,” Palo told IPS.
The main problem when it comes to control deforestation is that national governments provide all the statistics, and countries like Canada do not produce anything reliable. Canada has claimed no net change in its forests for 15 years despite being the largest producer of pulp and paper.
On the other hand, the push to gain Carbon credits that allow states not to deal with their most contaminating industry has meant the increase of plantation forests. These are nothing like natural or native forests. More akin to a field of maize, plantation forests are hostile environments to nearly every animal, bird and even insects. Such forests have been shown to have a negative impact on the water cycle because non-native, fast-growing trees – such as pine and eucalyptus – use high volumes of water. Pesticides are also commonly used to suppress competing growth from other plants and to prevent disease outbreaks, also impacting water quality.
Similary, the cultivation of maize, sugar cane or other crops to produce Ethanol, the substitute for petrol, is having a major impact on the environment in developing countries. As Western farmers switch to these crops, their counterparts in developing countries clear more land in nearby forest to increase the food crops abandoned by US and European partners.
Deforestation, even in remote areas, could be easily stopped. All it takes is access to some low-cost satellite imagery and governments that actually want to slow or halt deforestation. Costa Rica has nearly eliminated deforestation by making it illegal to convert forest into farmland. Paraguay enacted similar laws in 2004, and then regularly checked satellite images of its forests, sending forestry officials and police to enforce the law where it was being violated. “Deforestation has been reduced by 85 percent in less than two years in the eastern part of the country,” Lovera noted.

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