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Developing countries often outsource deforestation, study finds

In many developing countries, from Chile to Vietnam, forest restoration efforts have been offset by the population's growing demand for timber and agricultural products harvested elsewhere.

Patrick Meyfroidt Reforestation in Vietnam

The rapid net gain in forest area in Vietnam since the early 1990s has been accompanied by an increase in timber imports from neighboring countries, a significant fraction of these imports being illegal.

In many developing countries, forest restoration at home has led to deforestation abroad, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The authors say their findings could have significant implications for ongoing efforts to protect the world's remaining forests, which are disappearing at a rate of more than 32 million acres  per year – an area roughly the size of England.

"Reducing deforestation is an international priority, given its impacts on carbon emissions and biodiversity," said study co-author Eric Lambin of Stanford University and the University of Louvain in Belgium. "However, our study found that strengthened forest-conservation policies and economic expansion often increased the demand for imported timber and agricultural products, which contributed to deforestation abroad."

In the study, Lambin and co-authors Patrick Meyfroidt  (University of Louvain) and Thomas Rudel (Rutgers University) analyzed the relationship between reforestation at the national scale and the international trade in forest and agricultural products between 1961 and 2007.  The researchers focused on six developing countries – China, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, India and Vietnam – that underwent a shift from net deforestation to net reforestation during that period. 

Exporting deforestation

In five of the six countries (India being the exception), the return of native forests was accompanied by a reduction in timber harvests and new farmland, thus creating a demand for imported wood and agricultural products.

"For every 100 acres of reforestation in these five countries, they imported the equivalent of 74 acres of forest products," said Meyfroidt, a postdoctoral researcher at Louvain and lead author of the study. "Taking into account their exports of agricultural products, the net balance amounted to 22 acres of land used in other countries."

During the past five years, the net land-use displacement increased to 52 acres of imported agricultural or forestry products for every 100 acres reforested, he added. That is, for every acre of reforested land, a half-acre was used elsewhere, including countries like Brazil and Indonesia, which together accounted for 61 percent of deforestation in the humid tropics between 2000 and 2005.

Glass half full

"If local forest protection merely shifts forest-conversion pressure to natural forests elsewhere in the world, we will not achieve a net gain for nature at a global scale," Lambin said. "However, this study does not imply that the effort of these countries to protect their forests was useless, but that international trade in wood and agricultural products can decrease the global environmental benefits of national forest-protection policies. The glass is half full, not just half empty."

Meyfroidt pointed to several ways that countries could work together to reduce deforestation abroad, including:

  • Strengthening international cooperation on issues related to deforestation and land use.
  • Integrating trade data in international negotiations on environmental issues.
  • Integrating environmental degradation data in international trade rules.
  • Promoting certification systems that provide businesses and consumers with accurate information about sustainable forest products.

According to the authors, the study has important implications for the Dec. 5 meeting of the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) in Cancun, Mexico.

"The REDD mechanism that is under negotiation should include guardrails to assure that countries that commit to decrease their rate of deforestation do not export their deforestation," Meyfroidt said.

Eric Lambin is a professor of environmental Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, and a professor of geography at UCLouvain.

Thomas Rudel is a professor of human ecology and of sociology at Rutgers.

The research was funded in part by a European Union Seventh Framework Programme Grant.

Media Contact

Mark Shwartz, Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 723-9296, mshwartz@stanford.edu