Everyday products like beef, soy and palm oil already are widely blamed for spurring massive losses of the world's tropical forests. These products are also frequently linked to clearing that takes place in spite of local laws enacted to protect these forests.

But a new report from the environmental nonprofit Forest Trends for the first time attempts to quantify exactly how much of the world's illegal deforestation takes place to make way for palm oil plantations, cattle ranching, soy cultivation and other agricultural commodities.

The research team concluded that between 63 and 75 percent of global deforestation between 2000 to 2012 took place to make way for commercial agriculture. Of this, the authors found, 36 to 65 percent was illegal—the result of fraudulent licenses, destructive clearing techniques or other activities formally prohibited—but often overlooked—by local governments. Forest Trends estimates that the international trade of such products is worth an estimated $61 billion each year.

Forest Trends' President Michael Jenkins said in an interview that he has long known that commercial agriculture had a role to play in illegal deforestation, but "the scale of it was more than we were expecting."

In Paraguay, for example, which has lost 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of its forests between 2000 and 2012, an estimated 79 percent of this was due to agro-conversion, mostly for industrial soybean plantations, the report states. More than 42 percent of this conversion was illegal, Forest Trends alleges.

In Indonesia, which has long struggled to rein in illegal forest clearing used to make way for lucrative oil palm plantations, Forest Trends estimated that 80 percent of forest clearing for commercial agriculture is illegal.

Major zero-deforestation commitments may not work
To slow this trend, the report includes an extensive list of recommendations for companies, sustainability certification bodies and countries that import commodities linked with deforestation. But strengthening governance and law enforcement in the countries where the illegal deforestation is taking place is key, Forest Trends asserts.

Without strong action by nations that produce oil palm, beef, soy and other commodities, the proliferation of ambitious zero-deforestation commitments made by companies like Wilmar International Ltd. will likely fall short of saving the world's tropical forests, said Sam Lawson, the report's lead author.

"The problem is that those companies, if they decide to be sustainable and legal, they're having to compete with companies that aren't even legal," Lawson said. "The price differential is huge, so it's harder to persuade companies to go beyond legal if they're having to compete with illegal."

Forest Heroes Chairman Glenn Hurowitz, who helped craft Wilmar's widely heralded zero-deforestation commitment, said that while he's "not convinced that cutting down the forests actually creates an economic advantage for a company," he agrees that good governance would go a long way toward halting illegal deforestation.

"I'm the first one to recognize that [zero-deforestation commitments] are a midterm solution and that governments really need to step up and take responsibility for protecting forests over the long term," Hurowitz said.

It's important to note that the term "illegal" is sometimes a difficult one, especially in developing nations; the report states that "the laws and regulations in many countries are often complex, conflicting, out-of-date, or riddled with gaps and vague language, leading to common complaints that 'everything is illegal' and thus rendering efforts to increase enforcement impractical."

In 2012, for example, Brazil made significant changes to its Forest Code that granted amnesty to some farmers operating on illegally cleared land (ClimateWire, June 22, 2012).

Jenkins acknowledged that this made accurately documenting the scale of the problem a challenge.

"In so many countries, you've got really complex regulations and sometimes very contradictory regulations, and so you have illegality taking place at a number of different scales," he said.

'It's almost impossible to be legal'
Despite the intricacies of the issue, environmental economist Jonah Busch at the Center for Global Development thought the report's conclusions were sound.

Forest Trends' analysis used a review of scientists' best estimates for illegal deforestation driven by agriculture, Busch said in an email, although these estimates are undeniably rough in some cases. The group's conclusions were based on "a mix of careful published scientific analyses, other researchers' best guesses, and their best guesses," wrote Busch, who was not involved in producing the report.

But, he added, "there's not really a better way to get these numbers at present. ... [I]t looks like really impressive work given the paucity of standardized data on the topic."

Lawson said he thinks the complexity of laws in developing countries is no excuse for companies engaged in illegal deforestation; the report even makes the ambitious recommendation that the private sector "refrain from engaging in such projects in countries where it is not possible to ensure legality."

"The principal companies that are involved in this conversion in places like Brazil or Indonesia are very large, often stock exchange-listed companies with ... hundreds of millions of dollars and whole massive teams of lawyers," Lawson said.

And according to Jenkins, the difficulty in determining whether a forest was illegally cleared in some cases is another reason nations need to improve governance on this issue.

"The challenge comes when [companies] are operating in a setting like Indonesia or parts of Brazil, where it's so complicated it's almost impossible to be legal," Jenkins said. "We need to simplify those systems so you can have regulatory environments that can be monitored where businesses that are well-meaning can actually be engaging in legal activity."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500