World leaders promise an end to the ‘chainsaw massacres’ causing deforestation at COP26

More than 130 world leaders, responsible for more than 90% of the world’s forests, have committed to work together to end and reverse deforestation — a major driver of climate change — by 2030.

But the non-binding pledge made at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, “fails to meet the urgent moment we are facing and cannot be taken seriously”, according to Robin Averbeck, the forest programme director at the Rainforest Action Network

By Friday, 131 countries had signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, including Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which account for 85% of the world’s forests.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the “unprecedented” agreement as the first major achievement of the summit, saying it would end “the great chainsaw massacre” with the biggest ever commitment of public funds for forest conservation and much more still to come from the private sector.

Among the financial commitments to protect and restore forests is $12-billion of public climate finance to support action in developing countries, including restoring degraded land and tackling wildfires, while at least $7.2-billion of private sector funding has been mobilised. 

Just days after Indonesia, the largest exporter of palm oil, signed the declaration, its environment minister rejected the view that the country had agreed to end deforestation. “Forcing Indonesia to [reach] zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” Siti Nurbaya Bakar said, according to the Australian Financial Review on Thursday.

The declaration emphasises the critical and interdependent roles of forests of all types, biodiversity and sustainable land use in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals.

“We need governments, corporations, and the financial sector to end deforestation, stop the degradation of forests and natural ecosystems, and respect the land rights of local and indigenous communities immediately, not in 2030,” Averbeck said.

The United Kingdom and all the other countries already committed to halting deforestation by 2020, under the United Nations sustainable development goals. 

“A 10-year extension is acceptance of failure and a likely path to catastrophic climate change,” Averbeck said.

The Glasgow declaration follows the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, where governments committed to halving deforestation by 2020 and halting it by 2030.

“They failed to meet the 2020 target and are off track for the 2030 target so far,” said Jo Blackman, the head of forests policy and advocacy at Global Witness

According to Global Forest Watch, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover in 2020. Of this, 4.2 million hectares — an area the size of the Netherlands — occurred in humid tropical primary forests, which are vital for storing carbon and safeguarding nature. The resulting carbon emissions from this loss of primary forest is equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars.

A Nature study published earlier this year showed how the role of the Amazon, the planet’s largest tropical forest, as an important carbon sink is in decline because of deforestation — largely driven by cattle ranching as well as soy and palm oil production — and climate change.

Although the Glasgow declaration has an impressive range of signatories from across forest-rich countries, large consumer markets and financial centres, “it nevertheless risks being a reiteration of previous failed commitments if it lacks teeth”, Blackman said.

According to the UN, in the past decade roughly 40 times more finance has flowed into destructive land-use practices rather than forest protection, conservation and sustainable agriculture.

The financial support pledged at COP26 to protect forests, Blackman said, is dwarfed by the flows of private finance to “forest-wrecking” companies. 

Global Witness’s recent analysis found that banks and investors in the UK, European Union, United States and China ploughed $157-billion since the Paris Climate Agreement into agribusiness firms linked to tropical deforestation and associated human rights abuses, netting an estimated $1.74-billion in income.

Many of these banks have no deforestation policies, have committed to align with the Paris goals or are signatories of the soft commodities compact that commits banks to helping to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 in their financing of palm oil, timber products and soy.

Blackman said as long as destructive agribusinesses and global financial institutions continued to fuel and make money from global deforestation without consequence, “these precious ecosystems, carbon sinks and homes to forest communities will keep on being razed and burned at alarming rates”.

Survival International says it welcomes genuine attempts to support the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and the recognition of them as the best guardians of their territories, but has several concerns about the forest pledge.

“The devil is likely to be in the detail as much will depend on how this money is controlled and spent,” the head of its conservation campaign Fiore Longo said. “It will be important to see how much of the financial commitment is new money, and how much is intended just to set up forest carbon offset projects which have historically consistently failed.” 

Forest offset projects, she said, are a “dangerous diversion”, allowing the global north to keep on polluting and over consuming while indigenous lands are stolen for afforestation and offset projects.

Longo feared the new $1.5-billion fund to protect the world’s second-biggest tropical forest in the Congo Basin would mean more protected areas in a region where “the wide-scale abuses of indigenous peoples in the name of conservation is already well known and documented”.

With significantly more signatories, and substantial public and private finance backing it, the new pledge is an important step forward in recognising the value of forests for nature, climate and people, to reverse the ongoing, disastrous loss of primary forest around the world, said Dr Noëlle Kümpel, the head of policy at BirdLife International.

“But whether it succeeds where previous voluntary pledges have failed depends on immediate and concrete improvements in transparency, governance, participation and human rights, and focusing on protecting what intact forest we still have left,” Kümpel added.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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