Global Agribusiness is Devouring the World’s Last Forests. We Need Local Food Systems, Now.

Gaurav Madan

An excavator works on an acacia plantation in Riau, the Indonesian province that lost 22% of its primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Mongabay News and is repub­lished here under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

It was the mid­dle of the after­noon in one of the world’s largest metrop­o­lis­es when the sky went black. Thou­sands of miles away, tens of thou­sands of fires raged, plung­ing Sao Pao­lo into dark­ness. For some, the black­out of Brazil’s largest city was a sign of humanity’s destruc­tive course. A month lat­er, across the globe in Indone­sia, entire vil­lages were swal­lowed by blood-red skies. Reports likened the Mars-like scenes to some­thing from an apoc­a­lyp­tic film.

Last year in Brazil, fires set by ille­gal log­gers and ranch­ers – and encour­aged by neo-fas­cist Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro – were the worst in a decade. The burn­ing Ama­zon sparked inter­na­tion­al protests and con­dem­na­tion. Over 40,000 fires rav­aged the lungs of the earth, blaz­ing the path for soy and cat­tle pro­duc­tion to expand ever deep­er into the forest.

In Indone­sia, palm oil com­pa­nies that rou­tine­ly drain peat­lands and raze forests were once again guilty of burn­ing large swaths of land for plan­ta­tions. One report stat­ed that 900,000 peo­ple suf­fered res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems caused by smoke from the blazes.

All told in 2019, near­ly 10,000 square miles of forests were destroyed between the Ama­zon and Indone­sia. The impacts have been dire: increased green­house gas­es emis­sions, greater encroach­ment on Indige­nous Peo­ples’ lands, and fur­ther destruc­tion of endan­gered species habitat.

Annu­al for­est fires are dri­ven by the indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion of agri­cul­tur­al com­modi­ties such as palm oil, soy, beef, and pulp and paper. These indus­tries are respon­si­ble for 80% of defor­esta­tion world­wide – the sec­ond largest cause of the cli­mate cri­sis. Agribusi­ness is also rou­tine­ly linked to gross human rights vio­la­tions. A 2019 study found that on aver­age, more than three land and envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers were mur­dered every week. Agribusi­ness was the sec­ond dead­liest sector.

Unfet­tered access to an infi­nite sup­ply of cheap­ly avail­able goods has become a hall­mark of mod­ern West­ern life. We want all the things – and we want them now. We have become accus­tomed to buy­ing dis­pos­able goods that we know won’t last, throw­ing them away, and then buy­ing more. But is a steady stream of burg­ers, bath soaps, and body but­ter worth the price of an increas­ing­ly volatile and unliv­able planet?

Deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

This pho­to shows defor­esta­tion for soy pro­duc­tion in the Boli­vian Ama­zon and Cha­co. (Pho­to by Rhett A. Butler)

Sci­en­tists rec­og­nize the need to stem defor­esta­tion. They give us a decade more to take deci­sive action to avert the worst aspects of cli­mate cri­sis. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, cor­po­rate vol­un­tary com­mit­ments and attempts at reform have fall­en short.

In 2010, the Con­sumer Goods Forum – a con­sor­tium of the world’s largest retail com­pa­nies – pledged to achieve zero-defor­esta­tion in their sup­ply chains by 2020. Ten years lat­er, some of the world’s most rec­og­niz­able con­sumer brands will fail to meet their own dead­line, while defor­esta­tion con­tin­ues at an alarm­ing pace. From 2014 – 2019, glob­al tree cov­er loss increased by a dis­turb­ing 43% with an area of tree cov­er the size of the Unit­ed King­dom is lost annu­al­ly. At this rate, the world’s rain­forests will be wiped out with­in a century.

With the world’s pop­u­la­tion set to reach near­ly 10 bil­lion by 2050, there is a very real need to ensure uni­ver­sal access to healthy food, while also reduc­ing pover­ty. Agribusi­ness has pro­claimed itself essen­tial to meet­ing these needs. But the real­i­ty is 80% of the world’s food is grown by indi­vid­ual or fam­i­ly farm­ers – not mega-cor­po­ra­tions pro­duc­ing palm oil for junk foods or soy­beans for cat­tle feed. In the Glob­al South, agribusi­ness­es reg­u­lar­ly promise local com­mu­ni­ties the moon in exchange for their land. But plan­ta­tion com­pa­nies’ guar­an­tees of devel­op­ment are often fleet­ing and false.

Last month, palm oil com­pa­ny Gold­en Veroleum Liberia laid off a tenth of its work­force due to unsus­tain­able loss­es” and the falling price of palm oil. In Indone­sia, Ind­o­food, a sup­pli­er of palm oil to inter­na­tion­al brands such as Pep­si­Co and Proc­ter & Gam­ble, laid off hun­dreds of work­ers amidst the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. Both plan­ta­tion com­pa­nies – like much of the sec­tor – have long his­to­ries of human rights abuses.

If this wasn’t bad enough, this year’s fire sea­son may be worse in the Ama­zon and will hit the forests of South­east Asia once again. And with the world fight­ing a pan­dem­ic, there are legit­i­mate fears that the result­ing haze from these fires will com­pli­cate res­pi­ra­to­ry ill­ness­es linked to Covid-19.

The indus­tri­al mod­el of agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion has failed. This per­haps shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing for a sys­tem pred­i­cat­ed on envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion and human rights abus­es. Indus­tri­al plan­ta­tions demand access to hun­dreds of thou­sands of hectares of land, which are over­whelm­ing­ly owned and man­aged by local com­mu­ni­ties. These ances­tral lands are often forcibly – and vio­lent­ly – grabbed to pro­duce the ingre­di­ents for the every­day goods we casu­al­ly buy.

If the ongo­ing pan­dem­ic has shown us any­thing, it’s that we can­not remain behold­en to bro­ken sys­tems. Vol­un­tary cor­po­rate com­mit­ments have failed. It’s time to rein in the indus­tries devour­ing the world’s last stand­ing forests. This requires reg­u­la­tion: halt­ing agribusi­ness expan­sion and trans­form­ing our food sys­tems away from mono­cul­ture plan­ta­tions toward local, regen­er­a­tive mod­els of agroecology.

As for us? If we want to avoid black­outs and blood-red skies, it’s time we end our addic­tion to end­less con­sump­tion and real­ize our future is tied to the fate of the planet.

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