The drivers and levers of deforestation

Written By: 
Daisy Ouya
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Logging, mining, construction and farming are some of the leading causes—or drivers—of the deforestation being witnessed throughout the developing world. These activities differ in scale, place and time, and they are changing even as efforts to combat forest loss gather pace.  But underlying these visible drivers are numerous influences that are less immediately apparent, including social, cultural and political issues, which are also shifting in time and space.

This complexity means that combating deforestation, which is claiming more than 13 million hectares annually, demands a holistic approach that integrates sound data and science, strong planning, social equity, and good governance.

In a packed hall of over 150 participants, Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), moderated a Discussion Forum of Forest Day 6 that explored the complex relationships between and among deforestation drivers. The session delved into the options available to individual countries to reduce their CO2 emissions through maintaining forest cover, while at the same time meeting their development aspirations.

Two of the speakers at the forum came from Indonesia and Brazil, two tropical countries whose rich forest cover supports global environmental functioning.

 “Indonesia is a unique, mysterious and diverse country; large enough to take responsibility to empower the climate change debate, yet fragile enough to be endangered at the same time,” said keynote speaker Heru Prasetyo, Secretary of Indonesia’s National REDD+ Task Force.

He took the audience through the compelling findings of multi-stakeholder Fishbone analysis of the drivers of deforestation carried out in Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, the study found that at the core of the problem lay planned and unplanned conversion of forest. But it also revealed that weak natural-resource-management planning was a major underlying factor. In response, Indonesia is carrying out a concerted holistic campaign to address both the visible and underlying factors that drive deforestation in the country.

In the palm oil, timber and mining industries, which are front and center of the Indonesian deforestation debate, two key social drivers are to blame, said Heru.

“A development paradigm that says ‘grow, grow, grow; exploit, exploit, exploit,’ together with supply-and-demand dynamics, both locally and globally, that are driven by the growth of middle-class-income people, with more people entering a demanding lifestyle characterized by consumption and wastefulness.”

The country has chosen to apply a “collaborative restrain and reform” approach to address the drivers of deforestation.

“In Indonesia, deforestation and development, which are often seen as opposing forces, are being tackled using a holistic model that includes addressing the underlying issues driving deforestation: these include land tenure, institutional strengthening, and governance” said Heru. Current data and accurate, trustworthy maps are critical to dealing with deforestation, he added.

“If you don’t have data and maps that you can trust, deforestation will continue,” he said.

To address this lack of reliable data, since 2010 Indonesia has embarked on a national mapping exercise that aims to produce a single, accurate, and up to date natural resources map of the country, the world’s largest archipelago. Citizen journalism, through which anyone can look at the land-use maps and comment on them, is being applied. Mapping teams verify the truth on the ground and correct the maps as needed.

“We are trying to improve our data integrity every day. We want to make Indonesia’s maps among the world’s most trustworthy references,” said Heru.

Indonesia is engaging stakeholders, particularly mining and oil companies, to identify the “underground” deforestation drivers, said Heru. And the country is working with communities to strengthen their forest management in order to protect the forest boundaries that are being encroached.

Furthermore, Indonesia is working with rubber plantation owners to gradually convert monoculture hybrid plantations into agroforestry systems, in order to build system resilience that will allow the plantations to withstand climate-change-related shocks. “An agroforestry approach means that a rubber plantation produces not just latex, but many other products, including locally important fruits like durian,” he said.

Doug Boucher, director of the Climate Research and Analysis arm of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the face of deforestation has changed dramatically in the last decade. Some of the drivers that had a major role in the 20th century have diminished dramatically. And the drivers are different in different parts of the world. For instance, cattle ranching and soybean cultivation—leading deforestation drivers in South America—are of minor concern in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Today, he said, drivers are tied to the global economy and markets, population growth, and urbanization, so countries need to be agile enough to cope with these shifts.

Tasso Azevedo, former director of the Brazilian Forest Service and currently a forest and climate change consultant and social entrepreneur, said that the shifting and changing of drivers of deforestation has been vividly witnessed in the Amazon Basin Forest in Brazil, where for decades illegal logging was the bête noir of forest conservation.

“One of the things we have learnt is that illegal logging was just part of a larger problem of deforestation.” The Amazon’s deforestation now stands at half a million ha, down from 2.7 million ha in 2004.

“In fact, infrastructure development, led by the government itself, is the main driver of deforestation right now,” he said.

Brazil has adopted a novel “shame and pride” system, which seeks to make people appreciate forest care as an indicator of development, and take pride in it; communities feel proud of keeping forests standing and ashamed when deforestation occurs.

Meine van Noordwijk, ICRAF chief scientific advisor, was part of the expert panel at the forum. He said that beyond the drivers, we should be interested as well in “the workings of the ‘levers’ of the ‘deforestation bus,’ which will allow us to control its speed.”

“And we also need to know the direction the deforestation bus is headed before we can control it,” he said.

He added that it is critical to gather forest-cover data, but this depends on our definition of “forest”.

“Which trees, and whose trees count as forests; is it only the government’s? Let’s also start to think about the drivers of tree-cover transitions, and how we can get trees into the landscape that have benefits to people.”

The forum pointed to whole-landscape approaches as being essential to tackling deforestation, and the need to balance the supply of commodities with that to maintain the critical services of forests and trees to the planet’s functioning.

“We also need to change our mindset and look at the natural world as an asset, not just as a resource to be exploited,” said Heru.

“Furthermore, even as we focus on forests, it is supremely important to maintain peripheral vision so we do not lose sight of other critical ecosystems that support the planet, such as mangroves and coral reefs.”


Forest Day 6 was held on 2 December 2012, on the sidelines of the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP18) in Doha. The “Drivers of Deforestation: Exploring Regional Differences and New Patterns” discussion forum was hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

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