The Year of Zero Deforestation Commitments, 2014
The Year of Zero Deforestation Commitments, 2014

2014 could be classified as “The Year of the Zero Deforestation Commitment”. During 2014, nearly two dozen major companies, ranging from palm oil producers to fast food chains to toothpaste makers, established policies to exclude palm oil sourced at the expense of rainforests and peatlands.

Other recurring rainforest-related themes in 2014 included palm oil, Indonesia, the role indigenous and local communities play in maintaining forest cover, forest restoration, and new approaches to forest monitoring.

In list form, here are five big storylines for the year:
Spread of zero deforestation policies
Improvements in forest monitoring, including Global Forest Watch
Two steps forward, one step back for forests in Indonesia
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon resumes its downward trend
Growing recognition of the role local communities have in curbing deforestation
Of course those represent only a tiny portion of what happened in the world of tropical rainforests in 2014.

The following includes some of the noteworthy rainforest-related stories from the past year. We can’t include everything, so feel free to highlight stories we missed via the comment section at the bottom of the post. We also haven’t touched on sub-tropical, temperate, or boreal forests.

Reviews from past years: 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2009

Rainforest in Australia. All photos by Rhett A. Butler.

The year of the zero deforestation commitment

After Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), the world’s biggest pulp and paper producer, and Wilmar, the largest palm oil company, established comprehensive zero deforestation policies in 2013, there was good reason to believe the trend would continue into 2014. However few could have foreseen the acceleration in the rate of adoption: 2014 may go down in history as a tipping point for cutting rainforest destruction from commodity supply chains.

Most of the zero deforestation policies established in 2014 applied specifically to palm oil, a commodity that over the past twenty years has become one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in Southeast Asia. Companies ranging from Johnson & Johnson to Mars Inc to palm oil producer Musim Mas committed to sourcing safeguards for the edible oil, which is widely used in processed foods, cosmetics, and cleaning products.

Key elements of these policies include traceability, adhering to standards set under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), respecting local communities’ right to reject plantation expansion onto their traditional lands, and barring palm oil produced via conversion of high carbon stock lands and high conservation value areas. The safeguards effectively make peatlands and tropical forests — both secondary forests and old-growth forests — off-limits to new oil palm plantations.

By the end of 2014 more than 85 percent of palm oil production was under some sort of zero deforestation policy, according to the Forest Heroes campaign, which brokered several commitments.

However it wasn’t only palm oil companies that committed to end rainforest destruction. In what may be the most far-reaching policy to date, agribusiness giant Cargill extended its zero deforestation commitment across its entire $135 billion commodity business, including sugar, soy, cattle, and cocoa. Cargill’s announcement was the centerpiece of the New York Declaration on Forests, a document signed by dozens of companies, non-profit organizations, and governments that pledges to halve tropical forest loss by 2020 and end it altogether by 2030.

Several companies also committed to address their deforestation legacy. APP quelled some of its most prominent critics — including WWF, Rainforest Action Network, and Greenomics — by announcing it would work to conserve and restore an area equivalent to its plantations: one million hectares. The Indonesian forestry giant also hired Rainforest Alliance to audit its compliance with its forest deforestation policy.

Not all the news was upbeat though. As companies moved from talk to action, the complexities of implementing zero deforestation policies became more apparent. For example, zero deforestation pioneer Golden-Agri Resources found itself at odds with local communities that wanted no part of its forest conservation program. It was also challenged by Indonesian laws that effectively make forest conservation within its concessions illegal. Meanwhile Wilmar’s sprawling web of suppliers at times posed problems for the palm oil giant to comply with its pledge, although it vowed to work with suppliers to bring their practices in line with its policy.

Environmentalists also made it clear that not all zero deforestation policies are created equal. The policy established by Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd (APRIL), APP’s largest competitor, was immediately criticized by green groups for allowing continued conversion of natural forests. The issue came to a head in June after photos revealed its affiliate was clearing deep peat on an island off Sumatra. In response, APRIL said the logging was ‘in line with its Sustainable Forest Management Policy’ because the area wasn’t found to be of high conservation value.

Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others also hit out at parallel, industry-led push to establish a definition for high carbon stock (HCS) forests. Pressure eventually led the five companies involved with that effort — Asian Agri, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) Berhad, Musim Mas Group and Sime Darby Plantation — to adopt a moratorium on clearance of potential high carbon stock areas until the HCS analysis was complete. Musim Mas later partnered with The Forest Trust (TFT), which set the criteria adopted by GAR and Wilmar. Kuala Lumpur Kepong’s (KLK) policy wasn’t welcomed as warmly.

Governments were slow to support the trend. Malaysian palm oil industry bodies stepped up attacks on zero deforestation policies, calling them unnecessary and a new form of colonialism, while companies in which the Malaysian government had large stakes were generally viewed by environmentalists as laggards in committing to zero deforestation.

Carnegie Airborne Observatory map showing carbon in along the main stem of the Amazon in Peru. All images courtesy of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory/Greg Asner
Carnegie Airborne Observatory map showing carbon in along the main stem of the Amazon in Peru. All images courtesy of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory/Greg Asner

Remote sensing and forest monitoring

In what may one of the biggest developments in forest monitoring since the launch of Landsat more than 40 years ago, World Resources Institute unveiled Global Forest Watch, a platform that maps a wide range of forest data. The system effectively extends a bi-monthly forest disturbance alert system — similar to what has been implemented so successfully in Brazil — around the world, allowing anyone with Internet access to see where deforestation in happening shortly after it occurs. Global Forest Watch also has data on concessions, conservation areas, fire, and other forms of land use.

In September, a study documented tree loss within “intact forest landscapes” (IFLs), finding that 104 million hectares of such forests were degraded — mostly by logging, fragmentation, and agricultural conversion — between 2000 and 2013. Boreal regions had nearly half their IFLs degraded during that period, while the Amazon lost 25 percent of its undisturbed area. The research took more than a decade, but the data is now available via Global Forest Watch.

In October, researchers announced a global map of the world’s forests in the year 1990, enabling accurate comparisons between past and current deforestation rates. That data is expected to be eventually be incorporated into Global Forest Watch.

A satellite-based assessment found that 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been destroyed since 1973. The research, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, showed that just over a quarter of Borneo’s lowland forests remain intact.

A study proposed a new approach to survey uncontacted tribes using Google Earth.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution created a high-resolution carbon map of Peru.

Closer to the ground, excitement about conservation drones continued to grow. Beyond researchers, activists, and hobbyists, Cargill became the first company to announce its intent to use drones to monitor compliance with its zero deforestation commitment. Brazilian agencies said they are planning to use drones to map properties and monitor forest cover as they move to step up enforcement of the country’s Forest Code.

An innovative forest threat detection system launched its pilot project after raising more than $150,000 on Kickstarter. Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a San Francisco-based non-profit startup, will install its real-time alert system at sites in Cameroon, Brazil, and Panama. In Cameroon, a network of 30 RFCx devices — recycled from old Android handsets — is expected to monitor 10,000 hectares or nearly 40 square miles of rainforest, listening for audio signals associated with logging and poaching.

Annual deforestation rate in Indonesia

Indonesia

2014 was another exasperating year for fans of Indonesia’s forests, but there was reason for guarded optimism as the year closed.

The year began with a bang when a court in Aceh fined a palm oil company $30 million for illegally clearing an area of protected peat forest. The company appealed the precedent-setting case, which was widely viewed as a test of Indonesia’s resolve in protecting its forests. Environmentalists however scoffed at the “light” sentence for the director who oversaw the illegal activity.

Aceh continued to be in the spotlight for its proposed revision of the spatial plan that governs land use across the province, which is the most forested in Sumatra. Scientists again warned that opening up forests to mining, logging, and conversion to plantations put Aceh’s biodiversity and people at risk.

A series of studies revealed the extent of the devastation of Indonesia’s forests. A paper published in Nature Climate Change found that natural forest loss in Indonesia is rising and now outpaces that in the Brazilian Amazon. All told, the country lost more than 6 million hectares of primary forest between 2000 and 2012, most of which occurred in Sumatra and Kalimantan. A separate study found that 45 percent of Indonesia’s forest loss between 2000 and 2010 occurred within industrial concessions. That research highlighted the significance of concession areas in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve biodiversity: 30 percent of Indonesia’s forest carbon stock exists within logging, fiber, oil palm, and mining concessions. Another paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports concluded that Indonesia’s forest lands are so degraded in Sumatra that they burn whether or not there’s drought. To cap off the forest destruction news, in August the government said it will press forward with plans to clear 14 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2020.

The pessimism about Indonesia’s forests is becoming entrenched among Indonesian youths, according to a survey of nearly 250 kids in villages in rural Kalimantan.

The plantation sector — especially oil palm — continued to be major driver of deforestation in Indonesia. A report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that the sector is facilitating large-scale illegal logging. Meanwhile a government audit found that plantation and timber companies in Riau are failing to meet fire prevention and control standards, directly contributing to the polluting haze that plagues the region on a regular basis.

The Indonesian coal sector continued to ramp up operations, raising fears that Indonesia’s plan to reduce deforestation by cutting deforestation will be undermined by more coal production. One project, a joint venture between BHP Billiton and PT Adaro, will cover 350,000 hectares, or about five times the size of Singapore.

Another energy project sparked widespread outrage from green groups. In March, word spread that local government officials on the island of Aru had turned over 480,000 hectares to 28 companies held by PT. Menara Group, a plantation conglomerate. 76 percent of the area consisted of natural forest. Converting the area to sugar plantations would cut Aru’s forest cover by half, from 730,000 ha to 365,000 ha. Public outcry over the plan spurred the government to suspend the licenses less than a month later, but the project could be resurrected since Indonesia’s moratorium has an exemption for energy projects.

Efforts to ramp up performance-based compensation for reducing deforestation under the REDD+ program showed signs of life. Heru Prasetyo, the head of the REDD+ Agency, moved forward on implementing the program, including setting reference levels for measuring reduction in deforestation. Indonesia’s first approved REDD+ project, Rimba Raya, not only stayed in business, but said it intends to scale up operations.

A number of officials were arrested for forest-related corruption. Two notable cases included the former governor of Riau Province, who got 14 years for illegally granting permits, and a senior police officer who may have laundered $128 million in proceeds from illegal fuel and timber smuggling. In the latter case, civil society groups lamented the two-year sentence as “too light”.

After much prodding by rights groups, the Indonesian government said it will verify ownership of 66.3 million hectares of disputed forest land by the end of 2015. Indigenous communities hope the Recognition and Verification of Rights scheme (PPH) will help them secure title to traditional lands, thereby making land grabbing more difficult.

Central Kalimantan will set up palm oil monitoring system as part of its commitment to reduce deforestation 80 percent by 2020.

An Indonesian activist won the coveted Goldman Prize for his efforts to fight illegal logging, forest encroachment for palm oil production, and a policy that would open up vast swathes of an endangered ecosystem for mining and industrial plantations in Aceh.

Haze from peat fires in Sumatra peaked in March, once again straining diplomatic relations between Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. In response to the ongoing problem, Singapore’s parliament approved fines for companies — both foreign and domestic — that are responsible for causing haze.

Environmentalists continued to criticize APRIL for its forestry practices, including clearing Sumatran peat forests. Meanwhile Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) continued to win unexpected accolades for its zero deforestation policy, which grew to include a forest restoration commitment. Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources, Cargill, and Asian Agri won over some critics when they joined the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, Kadin, in asking the Indonesian government to adopt and enforce policies that protect forests and peatlands.

The Jokowi era began. Civil society was hopeful that the new Indonesian president would strengthen forest commitments made by his predecessor. Jokowi got off to a fast start, shaking up officialdom by merging the powerful Ministry of Forestry with the underpowered Ministry of Environment and appointing Siti Nurbaya, a civil servant, as its head. Jokowi’s administration then announced a new moratorium on logging concessions and indicated that it would audit the licenses of plantation companies found to be clearing peatlands. In November, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) questioned the former Minister of Forestry in a corruption case.

Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 1988-2014.
Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 1988-2014.

Brazil

The biggest news out of Brazil in 2014 was a drop in Amazon deforestation for the twelve months ended July 31. Data from the National Space Research Institute (INPE) showed that 4,848 square kilometers of forest — an area about the size of the state of Rhode Island or the country of Brunei — was cleared between August 2013 and July 2014, a decline of 18 percent compared to a year earlier.

A study published in Science estimated that the drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has prevented 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to the savings that would have been achieved by taking all cars off American roads for three years. Another paper credited targeted law enforcement via Brazil’s green municipalities programs for reducing deforestation by 10,653 square kilometers between 2009 and 2011.

In other upbeat news for forests, the Brazilian soy industry extended its deforestation moratorium another 18 months. The moratorium, which was established in 2006 after a high-profile Greenpeace campaign, bars conversion of forests in Brazilian Amazon for soy production. Independent analysis has shown it to be highly effective — just prior to the moratorium, soy accounted for roughly a fifth of recent deforestation, while today its share is less than one percent.

A group of governments and donors put up $215 million to fund ARPA, Brazil’s network of protected areas in the Amazon. The money will fund ARPA — which includes over 90 parks and covers 51 million hectares — for 25 years.

Not all the news out of Brazil in 2014 was positive however. There were worrying signs that deforestation may be on the rise: data from Imazon revealed a sharp increase in the rate of clearing. Brazil’s INPE was silent on the issue.

New research argued that most of the low hanging fruit in the fight to stop deforestation are now gone and Brazil’s gains to curbing forest loss won’t likely be sustained without new mechanisms for encouraging landowners to participate.

Meanwhile a severe drought parched southern Brazil, emphasizing the risks associated with climate change and deforestation in the Amazon.

In October, Brazil established new protected area larger than Delaware. But enthusiasm for that was offset by a Conservation Biology study that found the government had stripped protected status from some 5.2 million hectares. A separate study by Imazon found that areas which have had their protected status removed or reduced have experienced a sharp increase in forest loss thereafter. Furthermore, the pace of new protected areas establishment is slowing and proposed legislation could open some existing parks and reserves to mining and dams.

In late December, Senator Katia Abreu was named Agriculture Minister. Environmentalists call Abreu “Miss Deforestation” or “The Chainsaw Queen” for her support for agribusiness and efforts to loosen environmental laws.

And finally an analysis of the Forest Code revision passed in 2012 concludes that up to 400,000 square miles of native grassland could be converted for industrial agriculture.

Forest peoples

2014 was a noteworthy year for indigenous and forest dependent peoples.

Several studies and reports lent support and raised further awareness of the role local and indigenous communities play in managing and protecting forests. For example, a report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) argued that securing the legal rights of indigenous and local people to 450 million hectares of forest may be one of the most cost-effective ways to slow deforestation.

A study published in Carbon Management estimated that 52 percent of the Amazon’s forest carbon is contained in indigenous territories.

A series of high-profile murders of indigenous leaders thrust forest peoples’ rights into the spotlight. Another Rights and Resources Initiative report warned that natural resource extraction deals run a particularly high risk of exacerbating conflict with local communities.

In March indigenous leaders from around the world signed The Palangkaraya Declaration on Deforestation and the Rights of Forest Peoples to urge governments to uphold traditional users’ rights.

DRIVERS OF DEFORESTATION

Palm oil

Beyond the zero deforestation trend, the palm oil sector attracted a lot of interest.

A number of reports from NGOs exposed forest and peat clearing by palm oil companies, including strategies to evade zero deforestation policies. Concern grew about potential oil palm expansion in the tree’s native West and Central Africa, as well as India, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Latin America. But plunging prices in November and December dampened some investor enthusiasm for the crop.

A paper published in Nature Climate Change warned that emissions from palm oil are even worsen than conventionally believed due to associated methane release.

The U.N. signed an agreement with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote eco-certified palm oil as part of the broader effort to conserve biodiversity.

Agriculture

A study published in October estimated that four commodities produced in eight countries are responsible for a third of the world’s forest loss. The culprits aren’t surprising: the commodities include beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products (including timber and paper).

But some were optimistic that deforestation to produce these commodities could be waning. A report published by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA), a group of philanthropic organizations working to slow climate change, detailed the recent movement to push companies to adopt zero deforestation policies. Another report, by the Climate Disclosure Project, argued that reducing deforestation is good for business. There was also growing recognition that forests offer food security relative to conversion for industrial plantations and cash crops.

Still there remain plenty of reasons to worry. Forest Trends claimed that nearly 50 percent of tropical deforestation for commercial agriculture between 2000 and 2012 was illegal.

Logging

Several studies highlighted the conservation value of selectively logged forests, while urging protection of unlogged forests. A meta-analysis published in Current Biology argued that some researchers have been underestimating the impacts of selective logging on certain species groups. Another paper, published in Tropical Conservation Science, found that selective logging in Vietnam is still affecting forests 30 years after it occurred.

Implementing reduced impact logging across 4 million square kilometers of existing timber concessions could boost biodiversity, argued a paper published in Current Biology.

Carbon emissions from logging in tropical forests may amount to 16 percent of emissions from outright forest clearing, estimated a study published in Environmental Research Letters. The research counted carbon from timber extraction, collateral damage to surrounding vegetation, and logging infrastructure like roads and skid trails.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that illegal logging is an important source of revenue for terror groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

The rosewood market continued to boom, driven by demand for luxury furniture in China. Madagascar, one of the sources of high quality rosewood, promised to crack down on logging and trade, but within 3 months Singapore made the largest-ever interception of Malagasy rosewood — some 29,000 logs — raising doubts on Madagascar’s resolve.

Infrastructure and forests

Tens of billions of dollars continued to be pumped into large-scale infrastructure projects that could have detrimental impacts on forests.

Several studies warned about the danger of large-scale dam-building across the Amazon basin, including flooding, increased deforestation, poor economic returns, displacement of river-dependent communities, and ecological impacts. Activists continued their campaigns, including an appeal delivered during climate talks in Lima.

Nevertheless, Brazil moved forward on the controversial Belo Monte dam in the state of Pará and dams in the Tapajos basin, although bidding for the Tapajos project was subsequently delayed into 2015.

Nicaragua kicked off its own controversial infrastructure project, the Gran Canal. Scientists and environmentalists said the project would be an economic boondoggle, in addition to having potentially devastating ecological impacts.

Roadfree, an initiative led by Member of the European Parliament Kriton Arsenis, gained more prominence over the year. Roadfree aims to keep wilderness areas free of roads.

A study published in Biological Conservation found that 95 percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs on land less than 5 kilometers from a road or navigable river.

ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION

Ecosystem services and forest ecology

The value of ecosystem services afforded by forests figured prominently in the news in 2014.

A landmark paper published in Nature Climate Change reviewed teleconnections research that links changes in forest cover to local and regional rainfall patterns. The study argued that unchecked deforestation in the tropics could have significant impacts on agriculture as far away as the United States, China, and Europe.

Several studies documented long-term ecological changes in the Amazon rainforest. A June Ecology paper presented several ecological shifts in Amazonian forests, including faster growth and death rates of trees, increased biomass accumulation, and proliferation in vines. An October study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reported that parts of the Amazon rainforest are getting considerably less rain, leading trees to absorb less carbon. Another PNAS study, as well as a paper in Global Change Biology, warned that fires are reducing the ability of forests in some parts of the Amazon to store carbon.

Growth in forests may not be keeping pace with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, argued a study published in Nature Geoscience. The study — based on tree ring data — reached the surprising conclusion that despite a 40 percent rise of atmospheric CO2 levels since 1850, the growth rate of tropical trees has not increased.

A Global Change Biology study asserted that eliminating deforestation, peatlands and forest degradation, and forest fires in the tropics could reduce global carbon emissions by two billion tons a year, or nearly a fifth. But those results were contested by other researchers, also writing in Global Change Biology.

Fragmentation of forests globally may release 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, estimated a study published in Nature Communications.

Trees in the rainforests of Borneo have faster growth rates than those in the Amazon, according a study published in the Journal of Ecology.

Haze from forest fires in Indonesia may be having impacts on marine ecology, argued a Global Change Biology that urged further study on the issue.

Hunting can put the survival of some trees at risk by wiping out key seed dispersers, found research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

A study took the first comprehensive look at carbon storage in Amazonian peatlands. It found that half the Peruvian Amazon’s carbon is found in a single peat swamp.

Mountain forests may store a lot more carbon than previously believed.

Less than 15 percent of natural intact vegetation is left in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Click image to enlarge

Restoration and reforestation

There was progress toward the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020. During climate week in September, DRC, Uganda, Guatemala, and Ethiopia pledged to restore 34 million hectares of mostly forest land. That commitment was followed in December by a 19 million ha pledge by six additional Latin American countries and regional organizations. But some were skeptical that those numbers would actually be realized.

A team of researchers identified 125 million hectares (309 million acres) of land suitable for agricultural expansion that won’t come at the expense of tropical forests. The study argued that shifting agricultural expansion away from forests to these ‘degraded lands’ would avoid 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would be released were they converted for plantations, pasture, and croplands.

A longstanding environmental pariah until it established a zero deforestation policy in February 2013, Indonesian forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper surprised green groups when it committed to protect and restore a million hectares of forest across Indonesia. The pledge, which represents an area equivalent to the total plantation area from which it sourced pulp in 2013, was immediately welcomed by WWF, which until the announcement had remained one of APP’s staunchest critics.

Global conservation

The once-a-decade World Parks Congress was held in Australia, bringing together conservationists, policymakers, and business leaders to assess the status of global conservation efforts. Some used the event as an opportunity to berate Australia for backpedaling on environmental commitments, but most of the focus was on how to make conservation more effective. Marine conservation garnered a large share of the attention.

Ahead of the congress, a plethora of studies and reports were published, including a comprehensive look at “protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement”. That research, published in the Journal of Biological Conservation identified 543 instances of PADDD occurring in 375 protected area across 57 countries. Another paper, published in Nature, found that only 20-50 percent of the world’s land and marine protected areas are meeting their conservation goals. Only 3 percent of the world’s oceans are protected, far short of the 10 percent target for 2020.

Forest finance

The U.N. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program plodded along despite lack of progress on a binding framework to address climate change. Analysis by Forest Trends found the global market for REDD+ credits expanded significantly in 2014, with a halving in price ushering in more demand. Overall, the REDD+ market rose 140 percent by value and 260 percent by volume.

A report warned that REDD+ could fail if it doesn’t find more near-term support. The U.N. REDD program chimed in a month later with an appear for support, arguing that for less than seven percent of the money annually on fossil fuel subsidies, deforestation could be halved.

Two months later, the U.S. agreed to lend $134 million to the Althelia Climate Fund for REDD+ carbon conservation projects and “sustainable land use” initiatives like ecotourism and agroforestry. The funds aim to mitigate risk of backing such projects, which have suffered from a lack of a market for carbon emissions reductions credits. USAID will cover up to half of the fund’s losses if a market fails to materialize.

Norway continued with its largesse, providing performance-based funds for reducing deforestation to Liberia and Peru. The Nordic country also issued a frank assessment of the International Climate and Forest Initiative’s effectiveness. Norway has pledged more than $3 billion to tropical forest conservation since 2008.

Governors from 13 states pledged to reduce deforestation 80 percent by 2020 provided rich companies step forward with adequate levels of financial support.

Amazon rainforest canopy in PeruAmazon rainforest canopy in Peru.

REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS

Peru

In December, Peru hosted U.N. climate talks. While the conference produced little of substance, the host country’s social and environmental challenges — including its rising deforestation rate and ongoing violence against indigenous people and environmentalists — were thrust into the spotlight.

On the conservation front, Norway and Germany pledged more than $300 million to support forest conservation in Peru.

Scientists created an extremely high resolution carbon map of Peru’s forests, creating a baseline for measuring change in forest cover and associated emissions. The research concluded that nearly a billion tons of carbon in Peru’s rainforests is at risk from logging, infrastructure projects, and oil and gas extraction.

A study published in Scientific Reports found that nearly 70 percent of officially inspected logging concessions in Peru have had their permits canceled or are under investigation for major breaches of forestry laws. The findings confirm earlier investigative work by NGOs concluding that timber laundering in rampant in the country.

And finally, in July, Peru passed a new law that weakens the Ministry of Environment and reduces penalties for breaking environmental regulations. Environmentalists decried the measure.

Ecuador

Ecuador was again in the news for the wrong reasons in 2014.

After failing to secure international support for a proposal to bar oil drilling from Yasuni National Park, Ecuador approved drilling permits in Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) block. Approval was granted despite environmentalists’ efforts to hold a national referendum on the issue.

Petroamazonas, a subsidiary of the state oil company, wasted no time, building a massive access road in breach of its agreement do to roadless oil extraction in the park. Satellite data showed an increase in the number of forest disturbance alerts in the region.

José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a Shuar indigenous leader who was battling a mining operation, was murdered just days before he was supposed to present at climate talks in Lima.

Also in December, the Ecuadorean government returned aid money provided by Germany after a German delegation attempted to visit Yasuni to gauge the impact of oil drilling. The delegates’ travel visas were canceled.

Other Latin American countries

Bolivia announced an ambitious plan to scale up food production, raising fears that the country’s skyrocketing rate of deforestation could further accelerate. President Evo Morales said energy exploration in Lliquimuni would move forward in January 2015, potentially ushering in a new wave of oil and gas development in the Bolivian Amazon.

Researchers reported that a single Chinese logging company, Bai Shan Lin, now controls about 1.4 million hectares in Guyana.

Gold mining continued to expand across the Guiana Shield, according to a report from SarVision. Gold mining also continued to chew up forest in the Peruvian Amazon.

Colombia released its first annual assessment on deforestation, reporting a drop in forest loss. The government said 120,933 hectares of natural forest was cleared between January and December 2013.

A paper in Science argued that Mexican drug policy has inadvertently affected forests in Central America, with stronger drug laws driving deforestation in areas with weaker governance.

Satellite data showed that two nature reserves in Nicaragua lost nearly a quarter of their forest cover since 2000. Illegal colonization was blamed.

Malaysia

Malaysia remained an enigma for environmentalists.

On one hand, groups backed by the government stepped up rhetoric on palm oil, attacking environmentalists and companies that established zero deforestation policies. Unsurprisingly, Malaysian companies lagged behind those based in other countries in the push to clean up palm oil supply chains. Local authorities continued to strip forest reserves of their status to covert them for industrial plantations. Deforestation remained high during the year, according to preliminary data from NASA satellites.

On the other hand, there were signs out of East Malaysia that forest conservation may be gaining ground at high levels. Sabah set aside an additional 203,000 hectares of protected forest reserves, boosting the Malaysian state’s extent of protected areas to 21 percent of its land mass. At the same time, there was a notable shift in messaging out of Sarawak, long an environmental outcast for large-scale destruction of its forests and abuses against its indigenous peoples. In November, Sarawak’s new chief minister called the state’s logging sector ‘corrupt’ and seemed to indicate an intent to clean it up. Meanwhile a book detailing corruption by Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, Sarawak’s former chief minister and current governor, was allowed to be sold openly in bookstores in the country. And a study published in PNAS found that Malaysian citizens want their government to spend more to conserve forests.

Finally, in a November op-ed, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad called for limits on legal logging, which he said was destructive as currently practiced.

PNG

In June, Papua New Guinea canceled 77 Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs), a controversial land grant that allowed clear-felling of forests for industrial agricultural development, potentially at the expense of local communities. Land allocated to SABLs amounted to 10 percent of PNG.

A report by Chatham House estimated that 70 percent of logging in PNG is illegal.

Local activists and scientists continued to sound the alarm about a plan to log Woodlark Island.

Elsewhere in Asia

Brunei announced it will limit agriculture to 1 percent of its land mass, preserving much of the rest for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Unlike neighboring Sarawak and Sabah, very little of Brunei’s forest cover has been logged or converted for plantations. Most of its economic activity is tied to offshore oil and gas deposits.

Myanmar implemented a ban on raw timber exports. The move came as the once reclusive country began to open up to foreign markets and investment, raising concerns among environmentalists that trade liberalization could spur increases in its high rates of deforestation and illegal logging.

India’s top court canceled more than 200 coal field leases after allegations that they were granted corruptly.

West and Central Africa

Environmentalists stepped up campaigns against palm oil expansion into native forests in Central and West Africa. The controversial Herakles Farms project in Cameroon was a particular focus, with Greenpeace alleging that the company was illegally harvesting timber from the concession area.

Construction continued on Oyala, the new capital Equatorial Guinea is building in the heart of the rainforest.

West Africa made headlines for the ebola outbreak, which claimed thousands of lives and put up to $150 million to help Liberia reduce deforestation.

Scientists warned that Africa’s forests face a “tsunami” of mining interest, potentially putting biodiversity at risk. One of the projects that has been held up as a potential model for less damaging development — Zanaga iron ore mine — was challenged by logging near the concession area.

Logging operations in the region continued to be marred with controversy. Reports from Chatham House showed that illegal logging still plagues the region.

Under pressure by campaigners and an acclaimed film, SOCO International suspended oil exploration in DRC’s legendary Virunga National Park.

Primary rainforest in Imbak Canyon in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Primary rainforest in Imbak Canyon in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

OTHER FOREST-RELATED NEWS

Wildlife news

The wildlife poaching crisis extended into 2014. Elephants were the top target: conservationists estimated that 65 percent of the world’s forest elephants were killed for the ivory trade in the past decade.

Other research estimated the number of pangolins slaughtered for Traditional Chinese Medicine over the past decade: one million.

A Conservation Biology study warned that hunting may be a bigger threat to wildlife than logging in Malaysian Borneo.

On a lighter note, research published in the Proceedings of Royal Society B concluded that 30 hairs purportedly from Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the yeti, and other mystery apes actually belonged to well-known animals, including humans, raccoons, and cows.

Thousands of rainforest species were formally described for the first time. A list of some of the highlights is available here.

Scientists announced a new biodiversity record: some 287 amphibian and reptile species in a single park in Peru.

Entertainment

Rainforests figured in the world of entertainment during 2014.

Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a big budget TV series about climate change, won wide acclaim and an Emmy.

Virunga, a filmed directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, opened to rave reviews. Virunga focuses on the activity of SOCO International, a British firm that began exploring for oil within the UNESCO World Heritage site in April. Public outcry led SOCO to suspend exploration in June.

Google continued to use its various mapping products to promote on-the-ground conservation work. For example, in October, it released “Gombe Street View”, to highlight Jane Goodall’s work with chimps in Tanzania.

Paul Rosolie, a naturalist, became the object of scorn when the Discovery Channel released Eaten Alive, who promised to show Rosolie being consumed by an anaconda in the Amazon. After the debacle, Rosolie said Discovery misled him on the intent of the TV program, which he believed would be a nature documentary rather than an orgy of sensationalism.

Forest activism

Activists concentrated their forest campaigns on one of the biggest drivers of deforestation: plantation forestry. Palm oil was a particularly hot campaign area and one where there were significant gains in terms of companies committing to exclude deforestation from their supply chains. Once again Greenpeace captured much of the attention with reports, colorful advertising campaigns, and demonstrations, including a stunt at Procter & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters, which resulted in several arrests. Procter & Gamble subsequently adopted a zero deforestation policy. However one Greenpeace demonstration earned the group near-universal condemnation: unfurling a banner at Peru’s Nazca archeological site. Greenpeace later apologized.

Greens also opened up a new front on the pulp and paper sector, targeting dissolving pulp that is used in synthetic fabrics. There were indications that earlier campaigns targeting fiber use by the publishing had tangible effects, with most major U.S.-based publishers adopting sourcing safeguards to protect tropical rainforests, according to Rainforest Action Network.

Greenpeace conducted a stealth investigation into Brazil’s timber industry, finding strong evidence of legal permits being used to facilitate illegal logging. The investigation was based on surreptitiously tagging logging trucks with GPS locator beacons. The work prompted raids by Brazilian authorities on the logging operations.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an eco-certification body, passed a motion calling for greater protection of old-growth forests by including “intact forest landscapes” as “high conservation value” areas.

Environmentalists launched Wildleaks, a website that aims to give the global public a secure and anonymous platform to report wildlife trafficking and illegal deforestation.

This article was originally written and published by Rhett A. Butler, the head administrator for news.mongabay.com. For the original article and more information, please click HERE.

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