One billion people worldwide rely on forests as living spaces. Illegal and legal deforestation endangers people’s livelihoods as well as social and economic structures. It also has a detrimental effect on the global climate. Prof. Dr. Daniela Kleinschmit, Professor for Forest and Environmental Policy at the University of Freiburg, discusses the causes and consequences of deforestation. She is co-editor of an international report on illegal logging and timber trading which was written on the initiative of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO).
Forests provide food and work, supply energy, act as air conditioning systems and pharmacies, provide shelter and are home to many species. In tropical countries, forests are also essential for the survival of many local populations. Tropical rainforests are among the largest CO2 stores in the world. 46 percent of the total terrestrial carbon is bound in above-ground vegetation. Tropical rainforests are also the most species-rich habitats, and as such are havens of biodiversity. More than two-thirds of all animal and plant species live here, some of which are endemic to certain rainforests. Each species has its specific function in the complex food network and thus stabilises the forest ecosystem.
Wood is the world's most important renewable raw material. It is environmentally friendly and can be used for materials and energy. As petroleum is becoming increasingly scarce and using it is detrimental to the climate, the world is striving for a bioeconomy in which forests become increasingly important as raw materials suppliers. If the bioeconomy is seen as an attempt to move away from fossil to renewable resources, the forestry sector, which has a long tradition in using wood, has in fact always been involved in bioeconomic activities.
The question is, how can forests be used as resources and what happens with the wood? If more and more new products are to be produced from wood, it is important to closely monitor the availability and sourcing of wood. When forest use increases due to higher demand, it has to be clarified whether this has a negative effect on other forest services.
"In Germany, there is currently no significant increase in the demand for wood as a result of new bioeconomy products," says Prof. Dr. Daniela Kleinschmit. She explains that this is also because the market for bioeconomic goods is only just emerging. Research into raw materials for the production of new materials, such as lignocellulose for bioplastics, is promising, but has not yet achieved a large market share. Kleinschmit’s team of sixteen is involved in land-use policy and specifically studies national and international forest policies and investigates nature conservation, climate, water and food policy. The researchers are particularly interested in bioeconomic issues related to the forestry and agricultural sectors and relevant to the transition towards biobased economies. They are looking into how the transition is being managed in European Union countries as well as how stakeholders and other interested parties perceive the bioeconomy.
In forest-rich countries such as Canada and Scandinavia, wood plays an important role as a resource in the development of the bioeconomy. This can lead to an intensification of wood use as the bioenergy field shows. Finland has developed an entirely wood-based bioeconomy. The country relies on bioenergy, biofuels and biorefineries. At the same time, "ecological" awareness is growing in many (industrial) countries and with it the market for wood fuels, either in the form of wood pellets or firewood. There is absolutely no guarantee that the wood increasingly used for energy generation has been sustainably produced.
According to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the main cause of rapid deforestation is illegal logging, which accounts for about 50% of deforestation activities in Indonesia and an estimated 90% in Papua New Guinea. Illegal logging is particularly rife in countries with large forest resources, low levels of prosperity and weak legal regulations. Statistically, a forest area as large as a football pitch disappears every two seconds. Since 1990, about 129 million hectares of forest have been cleared, the equivalent of South Africa in surface area. According to the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP, about 98 percent of the entire Indonesian forest will have suffered degradation or completely disappeared by 2022. Overexploitation and fire clearance often only leave behind small islands of forestland, where not all species are able to survive. Due to their slow growth, forests have a very long regeneration period: once they are damaged it takes decades for forests to become a functioning ecosystem again.
There is no internationally accepted definition of illegal logging. This is due to the complexity of the causes. Illegal means either violating valid law in the country of origin or international laws. The same applies to protected animal species or trees. Illegal logging also includes the purchase or sale of timber in violation of laws.
Converting forest into farmland by way of fire clearance is also illegal. In addition, there is a growing number of increasingly sophisticated international criminal networks. These are closely linked to other illegal activities such as the financing of drugs and war (“conflict timber”). Other issues include the poaching of wood by small producers, also referred to as informal wood logging. “A distinction needs to be made between a farmer taking two trees from a forest to fuel his stove and international cartels trading wood on the large scale,” says Kleinschmit. “The two are quite different, although both are illegal under national law.” Illegal wood logging is often the only source of income for small farmers, who have absolutely no way of obtaining wood legally due to poverty. In these cases, law enforcement is neither possible nor desirable. Together with IUFRO, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, an international consortium to which Kleinschmit belongs, has published an international report on illegal wood logging and timber trading on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership of Forests (CPF). The authors summarised scientific facts only and concluded that closer international cooperation was required in order to improve the situation.
A major problem is the conversion of forest into farmland or pastures for growing export goods such as soy and oil palm trees or providing grazing space for cattle. Around a third of illegally traded tropical timber comes from forests that have been illegally converted into farmland. This is most common in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Entire forest areas are being cut down to create eucalyptus plantations for pulp production and oil palm plantations for producing palm oil.
Forests are increasingly falling victim to the bioeconomy. Agrofuels produced from maize or palm oil lead to the same conflicts about the land for growing biomass as other land usages do. Rain forests or good agricultural land is used for producing industrial raw materials instead of food. Land seizures are the order of the day in areas where “energy forests” are created.
According to UNEP, the economic damage caused by illegal wood logging and trading is estimated at 152 billion US dollars per year. This has both negative and positive consequences for people who are dependent on forests. “Although I don't like to admit it, the effect on people who live there is not always bad,” says Kleinschmit. Some people regain access to the wood that they had previously lost and others are hired as workers.
Ecosystems are affected by the logging of primary forests. Only 40 percent of the primary forests are still whole and intact. Ecological quality decreases due to the degradation of the forests; the remaining sections of forest can no longer regulate water levels or hold the soil together. Natural catastrophes such as landslides and floods increasingly occur after heavy rainfalls as forests no longer serve as water reservoirs.
At the same time, forest destruction is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide as plants and animals are deprived of their habitat. The majority of endangered species live in tropical rainforests. Forest loss is also detrimental to climate protection. The carbon bound by the plants is released during deforestation.
The bioeconomy's increased demand for wood in forest-rich countries requires trade-offs, compromises and legal regulations. Examples of measures to promote sustainable forest management and counteract the illegal timber trade include the FLEGT regulation (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) and the HolzSiG ("Sicherungsgesetz", German timber trade protection act). These regulations aim to ensure the origins and legality of imported timber. "In some countries, you can buy a certificate when you buy timber," says Kleinschmit. However, strict regulations in certain countries cause markets to turn towards countries with lower standards. At the same time, the bioeconomy should also be seen as a new opportunity to use wood in a meaningful way. This requires the bioeconomy to develop across the different industrial sectors rather than being restricted to one country, one type of forestry or agriculture. Where can different types of land use be used optimally and sustainably? How can multiple usages in a circulatory economy be ensured for timber? There is still a lot of research to be done.