Should we expect from developing countries to end deforestation?

I’ve been writing and talking about deforestation on social media for the last five years and I’ve noticed a lot of disdain for developing countries who are cutting down their forests. Indonesia, Brazil, Congo etc. are often seen as some sort of villain states, mindlessly destroying some of the very last pristine forests left on Earth. But are we, “westerners” in a position to criticize them for exploiting their natural resources in an irresponsible manner when that’s precisely what we did. Most European countries have far lower percentage of forest cover, than these developing nations. And we’ve destroyed the vast majority of our pristine forests a long time ago. So isn’t it unjust or hypocritical to expect from these countries to preserve their forests?

A bad example

Wagging our finger at the countries where most of deforestation is currently occurring is understandable, but not very effective and it’s hypocritical in several ways. We already pointed out that we build our wealth upon the destruction of our own forests, and the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. It’s quite unfair to expect from developing countries to sacrifice the kind of fast economic and social development that we enjoyed. Unregulated capitalism is always going to result in faster economic growth, even if it exploits the labor of workers and destroys the health of the ecosystem. If they want to compete with us they have to play our dirty game.

Furthermore, global trade agreements allow us to export a large part of our environmental footprint. It’s easy to show how much progress we’re doing at home, while importing goods from countries with lower environmental standards. We buy their stuff, and then we blame them for making it. Our “clean” service economy works on phones and computers made in China, with raw materials extracted in Africa. Our food-supply is reliant on imported animal feed, meat and vegetable oils. The EU is the biggest economy in the world and the biggest importer of goods linked to deforestation. We might have stopped cutting our forests, but we’re paying other people to cut theirs.

The value of healthy ecosystems

Our economies benefit directly from the ecosystem services provided by the remaining healthy forests. Preserving the health of these forests and regrowing the ones that are lost is not just a moral issue, its a financial one as well. We benefit directly from the water forests transport toward the fertile lands that grow the crops destined for our markets. Forests also contribute to the stability of the global climate, which means that all countries benefit from less storms and droughts as well as from better trade.

Correcting the flaws of the market

Maybe the developing economies can justify their high emissions and their rampant deforestation rates by pointing out at our bad example, but pointing fingers at each other does very little to solve the crisis that we find ourselves in. It’s clear that we can’t afford to lose the rainforests and the boreal forests. And when I say we, I mean all of us. All people depend on the health of the ecosystem, obviously, the same goes for our economies.

Since we’re all benefiting from the health of the forests, we must all contribute to their preservation. If the market forces are incapable of recognizing the value of living ecosystems, governments need to step in and correct this. Rich countries have to create very strong financial incentives for developing countries to preserve and rejuvenate their forests. Unless preserving their forests becomes at least as lucrative as destroying them, we shouldn’t expect to solve the deforestation crisis. I’m not an economist, and I’m not sure how this should be achieved, but the solutions will certainly involve the taxation and regulation of destructive industries as well as unrepresented investments in the conservation and regeneration of forest ecosystems.

This shouldn’t be seen as economic aid that we engage in, because we’re so generous and kind. On one hand our actions are responsible for a very large part of the deforestation that we’ve seen in the last century and on the other hand we have direct social and economic interests in preserving the remaining forests.

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