Six Products in Your Holiday Shopping Cart that Drive Deforestation in Latin America

Approximately 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions originate from deforestation and forest degradation, which are no longer problems that can be discounted as local or rural issues. Whether burned, processed, or discarded, trees release immense amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, feeding global climate change. Nowhere is it more important to halt deforestation than in Latin America, whose forests store 49 percent of the carbon in the world’s tropical forests. In recent years, increasing urbanization, especially in Latin America, has separated the demand for the commodities driving this deforestation and degradation—beef, soy, palm oil, paper products, fuels, and precious metals—from the local farmers, ranchers, loggers, and miners who produce them. On a much larger scale, the most lucrative markets for these commodities are rarely still within the countries like Brazil that produce them, but instead are found in distant countries like the United States, China, or members of the European Union. The international corporate supply chains that use these commodities and profit from these markets, such as food, jewelry, furniture and energy companies, are therefore just as responsible for stopping this deforestation as local producers.

Below, we describe six common products that end up in shopping carts in the U.S. and other countries—especially around the holiday season—that can drive deforestation in Latin America.   

  1. Beef consumption has increased as global income levels have risen in recent years. Wealthier populations tend to demand food products higher up on the food chain, which also tend to be considerably more intensive to produce. In Colombia, deforestation is primarily driven by cattle ranchers, who regularly decimate tropical forests in regions of the Amazon. In fact, new pasturelands accounted for 40 percent of deforestation in Colombia in between 2000 and 2005, and by 2007, this represented six percent of the Amazon forest in the country. 
  2. Beyond just the feed used in large cattle farms, soybeans and their derivatives are central ingredients in most cooking oils, but also most processed foods including frozen desserts, and flavorful marinades that shoppers take for granted. Behind cattle ranching, soy is the second largest driver of deforestation in Latin America, representing 46.2 million hectares of production across the region in 2010. Deforestation from soy production in Brazil became such a problem that the country instituted a moratorium on increased production in the Amazon regions, leading to a 75 percent decrease in deforestation between 2005 and 2012. Still, soy drives a huge amount of forest clearing throughout the region.
  3. Holiday shoppers should also be sure to read the labels on their favorite cosmetics, which often contain palm oil, another driver of deforestation in region. Though a smaller contributor to deforestation than soy, the rapid growth of palm oil production is an increasing source of alarm. In Peru, for example, palm oil production is expanding rapidly in the Amazon region with more than 13,000 hectares deforested in just six months in the Loreto and Ucayali regions in 2013, and another 120,000 hectares of applications for palm oil production in Loreto alone. In Honduras, it is causing deforestation and violence.
  4. Avoiding unnecessary wrapping, gift cards, and paper products as well as sourcing any new hardwood flooring and furniture sustainably are other ways to lessen consumer impacts on Latin American forests. The timber used to make these products accounts for approximately 70 percent of the forest degradation in Latin America. Unfortunately, much of the logging that produces this timber is done illegally, and is loosely regulated in rural, hard to reach regions. Yet it still makes its way to international markets. A 2012 report from experts at the Environmental Investigation Agency found “more than 100 shipments containing illegally logged…wood that were exported to the U.S.” between early 2008 and mid-2010.
  5. Shoppers should think twice about the gold jewelry they planned to get their significant others as well. Demand for gold from India, China, and the United States has increased in recent years causing illegal mining operations to expand along important rivers deep in Amazon regions like the Madre de Dios Region of Peru, the sixth largest gold producing country in the world. The Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA) even estimated that in 2013 illegal mining activities contributed to 100,000 hectares of deforestation across the Amazon.   
  6. Lastly, be conscientious of driving habits over the holidays to minimize your gasoline or diesel consumption. Fossil fuel extraction, especially in Peru and Ecuador, is fast becoming another driver of deforestation. Along with the intensive clearing inherent in drilling for the oil itself, the roads built to access remote areas of the Amazon bring migrants in search of new pasture and agricultural lands, further compounding the problem. Even UNESCO sites like the ITT block of the Yasuní Park in Ecuador, which are important habitats for a variety of protected species, are being developed for oil production.

These are just a few ways that we can all be more conscious of our consumer habits, to try to ensure that we are not feeding the global markets that drive deforestation in Latin America and other regions.

Better consumer choices certainly have an impact, but producer countries, multi-national corporations, and consumer countries all have to work together to avoid the sale or use of commodities that drive deforestation and forest degradation. Along with better regulation and capacity building, producer countries must enforce their laws well enough to protect the remaining fragile forests, and work to rehabilitate and reuse already deforested lands in order to avoid compounding the problem.

The private sector, too, has a responsibility to support and abide by regulations in producer countries, as well as do everything in its power to limit the use of commodities that drive deforestation.

Finally, consumer countries have the opportunity to be a part of these solutions by better regulating the demand for these commodities domestically, and by aiding in REDD+ and other initiatives internationally, which are a central theme of the international climate negotiations (COP20) currently taking place in Lima, Peru.

This blog was written by Sam Hoyle, intern with NRDC’s Latin America team.