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Sustaining the World’s Forests

  • Larry J. Schweiger, President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Conservation
  • Jan 12, 2012
THE WORLD'S FORESTS ARE VITAL for our future. They scrub carbon dioxide from our air while replenishing oxygen. They also are critically important for sustaining global biodiversity, providing habitat for myriad plant and animal species worldwide.

Today tropical forests—the most biologically diverse forests of all—are in trouble. Every second, nearly half an acre of tropical forest falls victim to fires, chain saws or bulldozers. And every day, the loss of these forests contributes as much global warming pollution to the atmosphere as does the entire global transportation sector.

In Brazil—which harbors more tropical rain forest than any other country—cattle production is the leading driver of deforestation. A recent Brazilian government report found that livestock pastures have replaced 62 percent of all cleared areas in the nation’s Amazon region. As the world’s largest market for Brazilian beef and importer of 45 percent of all Brazilian leather, the United States can play a powerful role in stemming this tide of destruction.

To combat deforestation in the Amazon, NWF and other environmental groups are collaborating with Brazil’s largest meatpackers to help the industry implement zero-deforestation strategies. These meatpackers work with more than 25,000 large Amazonian ranches that sell directly to importers as well as buy and sell cattle from hundreds of thousands of smaller ranches. The meatpackers are now mapping and monitoring forests on all ranches they purchase cattle from in the Amazon. They need to do more, but progress is under way.

In another encouraging sign, NWF has convinced the Brazilian Sustainable Cattle Working Group to adopt a policy of zero deforestation as long as economic incentives are available, and the Federation now is working with the organization to find a source of such incentives. The working group includes members from cattle ranching associations, meatpackers, retailers, banks and major Brazilian environmental organizations.

With Greenpeace, NWF also has helped the international Leather Working Group incorporate a requirement for “traceability” into its guidelines for responsible purchasing. The requirement means that each hide available for sale can be traced back to a ranch where no deforestation has taken place since October 2009. Though the system so far audits only about 10 percent of the world’s exported leather, the group deserves credit for its willingness to address this enormous threat. Group members include the makers of popular shoe brands such as Timberland, Nike, IKEA and Adidas.

To establish certifiable, sustainable-forestry practices in woodlands worldwide, NWF has been deeply involved with the Forest Stewardship Council, designed to create a free-market mechanism for sustaining viable forests. Since its inception in 1994, the council, which is active in 80 countries, has certified more than 366 million acres of forests as sustainable and awarded more than 23,000 certificates for both forest management and successful tracking of forest products from point of origin to final product.

Based on experience with the council and with the Leather Working Group, NWF has helped foster several market-oriented certifications for agricultural commodities that affect deforestation. These include those offered by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Despite such progress, deforestation remains a threat to our common future. We recognize that the public sector alone cannot protect forests; indeed, evidence shows that even when financial resources are sufficient, governments in many regions are not nimble enough to get money on the ground fast enough. We must try all promising approaches, including working with the private sector. In short, we must encourage the recognition that forests are worth more alive than dead—that the carbon capture, biodiversity protection and benefits such as clean water that forests provide are worth more than degraded pasture or palm oil operations.

To improve forests here at home, NWF is the official partner and U.S. leader of Trees for the 21st Century, a program that encourages companies and communities to plant trees in the spirit of the late Wangari Maathai. A beloved Kenyan conservation and human rights leader, she created the Green Belt Movement, which has resulted in the planting of millions of trees. You can help, too. To find out how, visit www.nwf.org/trees. To learn more about NWF’s work to protect tropical forests, see www.nwf.org/deforestation. 

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