Resilience Dispatch #16: The Climate Risk in the Shadows, the Salles Investigation, and Reviving an Ancient Technology

May 1, 2021

In this edition

The Climate Risk Hiding in the Shadows

You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. Forest Trends helped to put agriculture-driven deforestation on the map back in 2014. This week, we released a new study focused on how much of this deforestation is actually illegal. We also looked at what share of the commodities produced in the shadows on illegally cleared lands end up in global markets.

The results are shocking. Our data shows that nearly 70% of deforestation for commercial agriculture is happening in violation of the law, and the trend is getting worse, not better. Nearly one-third of the resulting agricultural products are exported – ending up on our grocery store shelves, and making us all unwittingly complicit in forest loss.

Illegal deforestation undermines all of the good work being done to stop climate change, end biodiversity loss, and ensure sustainable development for all. It underwrites corruption, abets human rights abuses, and costs governments billions of dollars in lost tax revenue — revenue that could be used to fund basic government services.

Hours after we released our report, the news broke that Brazilian police had raided Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles’ home and offices, as part of an investigation of whether Salles and a number of other officials had facilitated the smuggling of Amazon timber, among other allegations of corruption. We’ve released a statement about it here. Suffice it to say that I am heartened to see Brazilian government agencies taking the issue of illegal deforestation seriously. In our analysis, Brazil was among the worst offenders, with the data showing at least 95% of agro-conversion between 2013-2019 took place in violation of Brazilian national laws and regulations.

Yet Brazil also shows us solutions are possible: until recently, Brazil had done more than any country in the the world to cut emissions and slow climate change. It can absolutely get back on that path again. Successes in stamping out the illegal timber trade show the international community a way forward for other illegal commodities. Now that we better understand what we’re up against, we can take action.

We’ll be sharing new insights in the coming weeks on what’s going on in Brazil, how illegal deforestation especially hurts indigenous communities in their tireless battle to save their forests, and recommendations for the global community on countering illegal deforestation as we head into climate talks in Glasgow and all of the work ahead.

Be well,


Illegal agriculture is the main reason we’re still losing forests. Is a crackdown coming?

If illegal deforestation for agriculture were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world after China and the US.

Tropical deforestation’s threat to climate security is well understood by now. Forest Trends helped to put agriculture-driven deforestation on the map in 2014. Our latest report, Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods, expands the knowledge base further, benchmarking the state of illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture around the world.

The distinction between legal and illegal deforestation isn’t academic: illegal deforestation requires a different set of strategies to stop. Nor is it a victimless crime.

Our new study shows that not only is the majority of land clearing for products like beef, soy, palm oil, and cocoa illegal, but it is getting worse. These are not the results we wanted to see. But it is important data for governments and businesses committed to stopping deforestation.

Key findings from the report:

  • Illegal land clearing for commercial agriculture is the largest component of tropical deforestation–and is getting worse. At least 69% of tropical agro-conversion was in violation of national laws and regulations during 2013-2019. That’s at least 31.7 million hectares (roughly the size of Norway).
  • Beef, palm oil, soy, and cocoa were the worst offenders.
  • In Brazil, at least 95% of all deforestation was illegal.
  • In Indonesia, more than 80% of palm oil operations were out of compliance with national laws and regulations.
  • Such illegality exposes agribusiness supply chains to risk of association with land grabs and human rights abuses. It makes consumers complicit  in tropical forest loss and trafficking in illegal products, whether they know it or not.
  • But we also found evidence that this problem is solvable. Indonesia has successfully reduced its deforestation every year since a peak in 2016. Proposed regulations from a number of governments (the UK, EU, and US) can help keep illegal commodities out of consumer markets.

In the coming weeks, we’ll publish new analysis showing a pathway forward, including recommendations for governments, investors, and consumers.

[Keep reading here.]
Investigation of Brazil’s Environment Minister underscores critical importance of stopping illegal deforestation—for the sake of the climate
Brazil’s Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles, Ibama Director Eduardo Bim, and at least eight other officials are the target of a Brazilian investigation into the illegal export of Amazon timber. Here’s our response. [Read it here.]
BBC: Why Peru is reviving a pre-Incan technology for water
Peru is turning to ancient indigenous techniques and natural ecosystems to keep its taps running, as climate change threatens to dry out its water supply. BBC Future covers groundbreaking work led by Forest Trends and our partners.
[Read it here.]