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Most nations are promising to end deforestation, but skeptics want proof

Cattle graze on land burned and deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil. Brazil is among the nations that have signed a pledge to protect forests.
Andre Penner
Cattle graze on land burned and deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil. Brazil is among the nations that have signed a pledge to protect forests.

A pledge to halt and reverse deforestation around the world turned into one of the biggest, flashiest announcements at last month's UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. By the time UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the stage to make the case for forests — "these great, teeming ecosystems, trillion-pillared cathedrals of nature" — 110 countries had signed up. Since then, the total has grown to 141.

Supporters of the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use include Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, and most nations of Africa. Together, they control 90 percent of the world's forests. They are pledging to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.

But as Johnson hustled out of the room, an indigenous activist from Chad named Hindou Ibrahim took the podium to sound a note of skepticism.

"Some governments and companies, including in this room, are responsible for deforestation and land-stealing in many areas," she said.

Beautiful speeches are worthless without action, Ibrahim said. She told them that she will be waiting to see what governments and private companies actually accomplish in the coming year, before the next big next big climate meeting.

Frances Seymour, an expert on tropical forests at the World Resources Institute, says that Ibrahim's skepticism is justified. Similar promises have been made in the past, most prominently the New York Declaration on Forests, which 40 countries and dozens of private companies endorsed in 2014. Yet in recent years, millions of acres of tropical forest have been cleared in the Amazon and in Africa.

Yet Seymour says there are some reasons to hope that this latest set of pledges might produce better results.

New tools to protect forests

For one thing, anti-deforestation activists have dramatically improved their ability to detect deforestation quickly, through satellite monitoring. "We can see where it's happening, almost in real time, to a pretty fine scale," she says.

They understand much more clearly the forces behind deforestation, and how to stop it, she says. In some places, like Brazil, there are clear economic incentives at work, based on expanding agriculture. People seize and clear land, claiming it as their own, in order to re-sell it for cattle grazing and soybean farming.

Brazil actually showed the world how to deal with this, she says. About fifteen years ago, a new administration launched a campaign that included enforcing laws against such land-grabbing.

"They started impounding logs, impounding cows that were being grazed on illegally forested land," Seymour says. The government also recognized forested areas where indigenous people live as protected areas.

Now, she says, it's possible to "see the boundaries of indigenous territories from space, because they are very effective forest stewards."

Seymour says that deforestation dropped by about 80 percent while those policies remained in place. It only surged again when a new administration took over and dropped forest protection as a priority.

Brazil has signed this latest anti-deforestation pledge. Asked whether she trusted Brazil's current government to enforce it, Seymour paused for several seconds.

"We would need to see a course correction to have any confidence that this is going to make a difference," she said finally.

Finding sustainable ways to end deforestation

In other places, Seymour says, the recipe for protecting forests is more complicated, such as "where deforestation is being driven by poverty. And that would be the case in much of Sub-Saharan Africa."

There, people are cutting down trees for firewood or to clear land for their own crops. Seymour says it would be morally wrong to ban this; they need help finding more sustainable ways to earn a living and feed themselves.

This latest pledge does have some money behind it. A dozen countries, including the U.S., promised $12 billion over the next four years to support indigenous communities, deforestation-free agriculture, and land restoration. Private companies have pledged an additional $7 billion.

Seymour says that at the moment, she and her fellow activists are having non-stop discussions about how to make sure that such pledges lead to meaningful action.

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Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.