Forestry and agriculture in developing countries: is sustainability achievable in cost-driven markets


Mr Simon-Alexandre Chicoine, Business Development Manager,
Asia Plantation Capital

The role of the forestry and agriculture industries is closely linked to several of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Now more than ever, we need to find ways to preserve one of the oldest forms of life on our planet: our forests.

Borneo, the Amazon and Equatorial Africa, the 3 largest ecosystems on Earth are under heavy duress and massive human-based deforestation. This creates issues that, in many cases, cannot be reversed once started: including the dissolution of indigenous communities, loss of biodiversity ecosystems, loss of wildlife, soil erosion and increased desertification.

The 140 million year olds ecosystem of Borneo's rainforests is currently disappearing for forestry projects linked to pulpwood and palm oil. Natural rainforests are being torn down to make way to plantations, which are built on the traditional and customary lands of its indigenous population, most of the time without their consents. The impact of the world's demand of palm oil brings a harsh reality to the natives communities of the coveted lands: namely intimidation, arrests, and in some cases deaths. Cases of activists being kidnapped, beaten and killed, to protect their lands from takeovers and deforestations are sadly not uncommon practices. In terms of job opportunities, palm oil plantations are linked to child labor and abuse of workers.

The disappearance of natural rainforest habitats has also put a lot of pressure on its other inhabitants: its wild life. In many instances, species are wiped out before they are discovered. There is a threat of mass extinction when an ecosystem's biodiversity is compromised. Substantial loss of primary forests will result in numerous extinctions across many groups (mammals, insects, trees, plants). One of the faces of the Indonesia wildlife, the orangutans have lost 90% of their natural habitats and their survival relies heavily on captive breeding programs and animal rescue centers.

Palm oil is the 2nd most important oil in the modern consumer society after petroleum. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 85% of global productions and 20% of the world's forests are on indigenous lands. This has put a lot of pressure on the rural communities to preserve their lands as their lifestyle can stand in the way of international commodity markets. Another point of daily life duress, the construction of road systems to transport harvested palm oil creates clouds of pollution, covering local habitats in dust.

Recently, banks and snack food giants have come under the microscope of NGOs in regards to their involvement in deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil. For example, Greenpeace slammed HSBC in its report Dirty Bankers, while the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) points the finger at PepsiCo with its report Profits over people and the planet. While emerging markets seek economic development and external investors, they may place jobs and investment above protecting the environment. Over time, Indonesia has turned into the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, behind the USA and China.

The 2nd ecosystem in jeopardy, the Amazon, has a completely different problem causing its deforestation being cocaine and money laundry. Roads are being built to facilitate the movement of coca. 95% of all deforestation takes place within 5kms of a road, with paved roads causing 5 times more deforestation than unpaved ones. Money laundering is done by purchasing forests and turning them into agricultural lands and luxurious real estate: whether or not these are functional or deserted remains to be seen. In Columbia, indigenous people can’t access some lands crucial for their fishing and hunting needs. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) are intimidating the locals and there is a pending case of a Columbian Delegate of the United Nations who has been kidnapped and the matter is still unresolved.

The 3rd ecosystem under duress, Equatorial Africa, is facing deforestation for one major reason: wood being used for fuel. In Nigeria, kerosene is the main source of energy but it is expensive and not always made available. 60% of the population uses wood as fuel instead, bringing the carbon emission from deforestation to 87%. Affordable and clean energy in developing countries should levitate the need to rely on primitive and polluting raw materials.

In conjunction with protecting our forests, it is imperative to better serve the lands we use for agriculture ventures, to avoid long-term contamination and soil erosion. We face the danger of our lands becoming unsafe and unusable. Developing countries are tempted by internal and external investors, but a better financial future does not always equate with better living conditions. Under the Belt & Road plan, Chinese based companies are persuading their neighbors to open their markets. In South East Asia, Laos has been under the scope of Chinese investors for banana plantations, to supply China's market. Locals have been offered work and financial development which helps pay for their children schooling and access to better food. In return though, the use of pesticides is reported to cause illness to workers and to pollute water sources. The use of paraquat is banned by the European Union, but locals cannot read instructions on pesticides containers as they are in different foreign languages. With a rise in complaints from locals, the Laos government has not renewed the farming lands for the banana plantations. Chinese investors are now fleeing to Cambodia and Myanmar for similar projects.

When consumer goods are created for foreign markets and when countries relies heavily on foreign investments, there is a clear sign that the well being of developing countries are in the hands of others. Foreign ventures in forestry, agriculture and plantations need to rethink the exploitation of lands for short-term gains vs long-term losses. It is imperative to better treat our forests and lands which the local communities depend and which the local wildlife and biodiversity call home.