What’s the challenge?

How can we best conserve the world’s rainforests in the face of pressures from the palm oil industry, timber trade, and biofuels?

The Eliasch Review into deforestation

Gordon Brown and Johan Eliasch launched the Eliasch Review into deforestation on 14 October 2008 . It was an independent report to government, that focused on ways to lead effective reductions in forest carbon emissions,in order to stabilise greenhouse gases, and the money required to do this successfully.

The review suggested:

1     Urgent action to tackle the loss of global forests must be central to future international climate change deal in Copenhagen 2009.
2     CO2 stabilisation rates are not achievable without action
3     International climate change deal should aim to halve deforestation emissions by 2020 and make forest sector carbon neutral by 2030
4     Include forestry sector in global carbon markets, which will lower costs of reducing global carbon emissions
5     Developing countries will need substantial support for capacity building to prepare for entry into forest credit scheme

And identified key drivers of deforestation

  • Forests are perceived to be worth more to landowners cut down than standing – the cost of lost forest carbon are not reflected in the price of products made from converted forest land
  •  The increase in biofuels are adding pressure for forest clearance
  • Tax breaks and subsidies in many rainforest nations
  • Increasing pressure for timber and agricultural land


  • 6-13%: Estimates of the world’s land surface area covered by rainforests
  • 4 years: The predicted future length of time in which rainforest destruction alone will release more carbon into the atmosphere than every flight from the dawn of aviation until 2025
  • 1 in 4: The number of purchases from pharmacies, in countries such as Britain, that contain an active ingredient derived from a tropical forest species
  • 17%: Global emissions that forestry produces – this is more than the global transport sector
  • $12 trillion: Estimated total damage cost of forest loss for the global economy

Sources: The Stern Report 2006, IPCC, Rainforest Foundation, Eliasch Report, October 2008


225 species of amphibian live in the Amazon along with 18,000 varieties of plants, 434 species of mammals,   239 reptile species, and more freshwater fish and primates than anywhere else on the planet. 200 tree species are found in a single hectare of rainforest. An estimated 20-30% of the world’s fresh water is contained in rainforests.


Why are rainforests important?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of rainforests is the role they play in maintaining Earth’s life-support systems. These essential environmental services include absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing oxygen, cycling essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, regulating temperature and precipitation and protecting watersheds from soil erosion.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of national, international and non governmental organisations have been established to promote rainforest conservation.

But throughout this period rainforests have often been highly undervalued and the ecosystems that forests help to maintain, such as the water cycle and soil fertility have not generally been recognised.

International focus and support for forests related issues has been inconsistent over the last couple of decades. Warren Evans, Director of Environment at the World Bank, notes that there was a brief major focus in the late 1980s – early 1990s, during which considerable funding went into the forest sector and rural development issues relating to forest protection.

The recent realisation that deforestation is one of main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions has since helped to raise the international significance of rainforests.

In 2006 the Stern Review was published. This report, commissioned by the Chancellor, is the most comprehensive review ever carried out on the economics of climate change. One of the main conclusions of the review was the importance of reducing deforestation and highlighting the essential role of rainforests in combating climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that emissions from rainforest deforestation in the 1990s were 1.6b tonnes of carbon per year. This is 20% of global man-made CO2 emissions; more than the global transport sector combined.

The launch of both the HRH Prince Charles’ Prince’s Rainforest Project (October 2007) and The Eliasch Review on behalf of the UK government (October 2008), have aim to highlight the global importance of rainforests in mitigating climate change. Such initiatives highlight the vital role that rainforest conservation must play in future global climate deals.

The next UN Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) is to be held during December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark. This conference will set the path for the successor to the Kyoto Protocol’s targets in 2012 and create a new global deal on climate change.

Rainforests are also widely known to provide a habitat which sustains as much as 50 percent of the species on Earth, as well as supporting a great number of diverse and unique indigenous cultures.

This unparalleled biological diversity acts as a natural reservoir of genetic diversity offers a rich source of products including medicinal plants and high-yield foods.

Why haven’t we succeeded so far?

Previous attempts to tackle the destruction of the world’s rainforests have often focused on the symptoms of deforestation and not the drivers of forest loss. These drivers are often closely linked.

Drivers of deforestation differ between continents, countries and even within countries themselves. For example in Africa, deforestation occurs due to logging, mining, shifting cultivation and fuel wood harvesting. In areas of Indonesia, the dominant drivers are logging and expansion of palm oil plantations. While in South America, a combination of large scale farming to supply global markets, logging, mining and subsistence agriculture all contribute to the disappearance of forests.

Today, deforestation is increasingly driven by a growing worldwide demand for different globally-traded commodities, including soy, palm oil, beef and timber. The problem is being made worse by the recent increase in demand for biofuels across the world.

A key failure to date has been to not fully understand the critical role of indigenous people in forests and their systems of tenure rights and control over there local environment. In rainforest countries such as Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, people living in forest regions have extremely low rates of legal rights to their land.

Indigenous peoples

It is often overlooked that most of the world’s tropical rainforests are inhabited, and have been for thousands of years, by indigenous peoples who depend on the forests for their livelihoods.

Most indigenous people depend on small-scale agriculture for food and medicinal plants. Using a practice called shifting cultivation, most indigenous peoples living in the rain forest clear small plots to plant gardens for food and medicine. Sometimes they clear the land by burning the forest, known as slash-and-burn agriculture.

Indigenous peoples have relied on these agricultural methods for thousands of years. In the past, the abandoned plots were allowed to regenerate for many years before they were cleared and farmed again. These traditional shifting cultivation practices did not significantly damage the rain forest because the rain forests were so vast and populations of indigenous peoples relatively small.

In the last half of the 20th century, indigenous tribes became vastly outnumbered by colonists migrating to the region. Attracted by seemingly unoccupied land, small-scale farmers and cattle ranchers threaten the survival of indigenous peoples and their rain forest habitat.

Logging, mining, and oil and gas extraction have also significantly reduced the size of rainforests around the globe, and as the forests shrink, indigenous peoples are forced to compete for the limited land that remains.

In this competitive environment, even the once-sustainable agricultural practices of indigenous peoples can cause significant damage to the fragile rain forest ecosystem.

The timber trade

Simon Counsell, Director of Rainforest Foundation UK, claims that both international and national policies have resulted in rainforests essentially being carved up into one of two uses: either (1) strict protection for nature or (2) use for industrial exploitation for timber.

He believes that industrial scale timber exploitation is not a sustainable way of managing forests and the belief that it might be is based on the ‘use it or lose it approach’. If the forest isn’t valued for careful and selective timber extraction, then the forest will be simply cut down and used for farmland.

The overwhelming majority of forest areas used for long term timber extraction are now no longer forests, a practice that Simon Counsell describes as ‘only being sustainable until it’s gone’.

There is concern that in the haste to address climate change, we rush into what might superficially appear to be quick fixes to the problem of rainforest destruction that might make matters worse.

Vast sums of money, from the introduction of global carbon credit schemes, are predicted to be raised to help manage and sustain rainforests. Both Simon Counsell and Senator Marina Silva fear that the money will not find its way to local communities where it is needed, instead being consumed by central bureaucracies in these countries.

What can we do differently?

Many millions of people rely on rainforests for their livelihoods

Simon Counsell believes in the short term it is important to support a diverse set of approaches, especially practical efforts on the ground and securing land for local communities and helping them establish sustainable livelihoods. He maintains that we need to ‘explore some alternatives to the binary paradigm of strict conservation or industrial logging’. Senator Marina Silva, former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, agrees that it is ‘important to find ways of dealing with the underlying problems of land tenure and the poverty’ that family communities have to endure.

Developed nations must help governments to reform their forestry policies, change the rules of forest ownership while rooting our corruption. Legally protected indigenous areas in Brazil in the past have proved to strengthen the countries’ own ability to conserve their own rainforests land. These regions have shown greatly reduced rates of deforestation.

Warren Evans, maintains that while rainforests are vital to tackling issues of climate, it is important to look at the bigger picture and realise the multiple benefits of forests.

To achieve significant reduction in rates of deforestation, we must understand and tackle the underlying causes rather than simply focus on the symptoms. The causes can often be as a result of rural poverty, but can also result from decisions of governments on agricultural policy and mining policy outside the forestry sector.

We must realise that many strict rainforest protection schemes are likely to prove unsustainable in the long term. Many countries have relied on international aid programs for support and increasingly aid agencies are unwilling to enter in open-ended funding arrangements. Experience has tended to show that once funding for these strictly protected areas stops the land quickly collapses into its former endangered state.

Senator Marina Silva belives that the big challenge is how we utilise the areas of rainforest already opened in an intensive way. In the Amazon we have 160,000 square kilometres of cleared land already abandoned or semi-abandoned. Areas are used for five or 10 years, the land is exhausted and people move further into the forest. If we utilise technology to manage pasture land and recover degraded areas, we can double our production capacity without cutting down a single tree.

Panel discussion

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 22 October 2008 to discuss the issue.

Senator Marina Silva, Former Environment Minister, Brazilian government
Senator Marina Silva was born in 1958 in a community of rubber tappers in the western state of Acre, Brazil. In 1996 she shared a Goldman Environmental Prize. Appointed as Brazilian environmental minister in 2003, Marina has garnered national and international acclaim as a champion of environmental and social causes, fighting for poverty alleviation, sustainable development, biodiversity protection and indigenous rights. In 2007 the United Nations Environment Programme named her a “Champion of the Earth. The Senator recently resigned from her post as environmental minister in May 2008, citing “the growing resistance found by our team in important sectors of the government and society” as the reason for her resignation



Warren Evans, Head of Environment, World Bank
Warren Evans is a key spokesperson for the World Bank on environmental issues. He joined the World Bank in July 2003. From 1988 to 2003, he held technical and managerial positions at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) based in Manila, Philippines, where his last position was as Director for the Environment and Social Safeguards Division

Prior to that, Mr. Evans worked on environmental issues in developing countries included serving as advisor to the Thai National Environment Board from 1978–81, and as Managing Director of an international environmental consulting firm based in Asia from 1982–87




Simon Counsell, Director, Rainforest Foundation UK
Simon Counsell is the Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation UK. He has been on the front line of campaigns to protect the world’s forests for two decades. Before joining the Rainforest Foundation in 1996, he led international consumer and public awareness campaigns for Friends of the Earth. In July 2006, he was appointed Chairman of Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland.







Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer, adviser and commentator and one of the UK’s best known environmentalists. For the last 25 years he has spent most of his time seeking change toward a more sustainable society at local, national and international levels; from providing ecology and conservation experiences for primary school children, to making the case for new recycling laws, to orchestrating international campaigns for action on rainforests and climate change.

Tony Juniper currently works as a special adviser to The Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project and with the Cambridge University Program for Industry, where he is a Senior Associate. He is a member of advisory panels with the British Council and the Ecologist and BBC Wildlife magazines. The Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project

In 1990 Juniper joined Friends of the Earth, where he maintained a strong public presence for the organization in the UK and internationally. He was widely recognized for his work in elevating environmental issues, and for example in 2005 Country Life named him number 25 out of the top 100 most influential figures shaping the countryside in the UK.

Initially he led the tropical rainforest campaign, both in the UK and internationally. From 1993 he took forward the organisation’s work on biodiversity. In 1998 he became Policy and Campaigns Director at Friends of the Earth, and in this job played a leading role in many campaigns, including on GM crops, world trade policy and climate change.

From 2003 to 2008 he was the organization’s director in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. From 2001 to 2008 he was also elected Vice Chair of the 70-strong network of national organizations that comprise Friends of the Earth International. He contributed to many of Friends of the Earth’s most important achievements including legislation enacted to protect the UK’s finest wildlife habitats, new laws to require more recycling and policy changes in the transport and farming sectors.

Other titles by Tony Juniper include the companion volume to the BBC series Saving Planet Earth (2007), How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take To Change A Planet? (2007) and Spix’s Macaw: The Race To Save The World’s Rarest Bird (2002). He regularly contributes to The Guardian and blogs on Comment is Free at the Guardian website. Tony Juniper is a regular contributor on radio and TV.



Further reading

Deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, Geography Directions

Demand for rubber, deforestation and the threat to tropical biodiversity, Geographical Magazine, April 2015

Global trade and deforestation, Geographical Magazine, November 2014

Timber, deforestation and the challenges facing conservationists, Geography Directions