This article comes from the Special Issue Sciences et Avenir magazine n ° 201 dated April / June 2020.
Plinio Sist is an ecologist specializing in tropical rainforests, director of the Forests and Societies research unit at CIRAD. He gave an interview to Sciences and the Future.
Sciences et Avenir: Where is deforestation in the world?
Plinio Sist: It has accelerated dramatically since 2016. Over the period 2010-2018, the loss of forest area has increased by 25% compared to the previous decade. In Brazil, where it had fallen by 80% between 2004 and 2012, deforestation had then experienced a real slowdown. But last year, a sad record was set in the Amazon, in part because of the summer fires: nearly a million hectares destroyed. And in the Congo Basin, long spared from massive deforestation, the loss of natural forest has more than doubled, reaching an average of 460,500 hectares per year between 2010 and 2018.
Why do we deforest?
For nearly thirty years, 5 million hectares of forests have been lost each year, mainly due to their conversion to agricultural land or industrial plantations. Most of this deforestation occurs in tropical regions. Pastures in the Amazon, cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast or palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia… But it is not only the work of the large landowners or the agro-industry. In Africa, for example, small farmers also need land. Also involved: overexploitation of wood. With the current cutting and harvesting cycles, the regeneration capacity of the Amazon rainforest is not sufficient to rebuild stocks. In Indonesia, we even cleared natural forests to make plywood!
Does the globalization of trade have its share of responsibility?
Combating deforestation requires moving out of our production and consumption system as well as our growth model, to opt for environmental rather than economic objectives, to change indicators to take into account the impact of degradation of natural environments on our quality of life. Political will is fundamental: we have seen it in Brazil where, for eight years, the government had succeeded in slowing down deforestation in a spectacular way, by acquiring the means of control (satellite surveillance) and repression (fines to violators of the law). But with President Bolsonaro, we returned to a vision of development dating from the 1970s …
Can we fear the disappearance of forests?
I am not very optimistic. It has been thirty years that I have observed the disappearance and degradation of tropical forests, thirty years that I have defended sustainable management and that I have heard fine speeches from politicians … I had hoped that Brazil would show the way, but our political cycle is not going in the right direction: elections bring to power extremist leaders who make disastrous decisions. The investments devoted to the protection of tropical forests are unfortunately not up to the stakes. The example of the Bonn Challenge speaks volumes: launched in 2011, its objective is the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. More than 60 countries are committed. But for lack of money, little action was taken.
What should be done to stop this process?
If we consider forests as a global public good, it is urgent to give ourselves the means of our ambitions, urgent action for forests in the name of “environmental globalization”. It is necessary both to preserve the last tropical forests and to initiate ambitious forest restoration programs in order to reverse the process of soil degradation… In other words, to progressively move from an extensive agriculture, greedy in space and in factors. production, intensive agriculture based on agro-ecological practices, thanks to which the inhabitants of the areas concerned will no longer need to encroach again and again on the forest. This can only be successful at the scale of a territory and in consultation with the local population. We must train farmers, ask them to give up ancestral practices: this is a real paradigm shift.
Interview by Eliane Patriarca