On May 29 the summit of the three tropical basins opened in Brazzaville. There has never been so much talk about tropical forests as in the past few years. They have been in the eye of the media, the focus of UN processes (REDD), and the heart of NGO campaigns. Everyone is talking about forests.
It would however be wrong to say that forests are merely “fashionable”. If there is so much being said about forests, it is because human destiny is inextricably linked to their existence and survival. We are all aware of the important role forests play in climatic balance, in the water cycle, in providing habitats for millions of individuals, and how they protect more than 50% of terrestrial plant and animal species.
Tropical forests are geographically far, which explains why we are so little affected by the available figures on deforestation. We are moved when we watch forests being devastated on television and the shocking images of helpless Orangutans dying on roadsides. These emotions however are fleeting, quickly dispelled by others produced by the media who know how to elicit them with an unrivaled intensity on a daily basis.
Tropical forests, however, have never been so close to us. Every day, we bite into goods that are made from raw ingredients that grew on soil that was just a few short years ago a tropical forest This is the case of palm oil obtained from plantations spanning across all of Southeast asia; it is present in high doses in ice cream, potato chips, or chocolate bars. Then there are soybeans grown in Argentina and Brazil that are used to feed our pigs, our chickens, and even our cows. Our shoes are made from leather that comes from Brazilian cattle raised on land which had been a part of the Amazon forest basin.
Because there must always be a culprit, the consumer is once again the accused: he buys, he eats, he is therefore responsible. The consumer must act responsibly. However, we should ask ourselves if this is truly realistic? How many labels should a product boast to ensure that is an environmentally responsible commodity? Most importantly, is this a valid solution for emerging countries that are mostly concerned with raising living standards and increasing access to inexpensive food for a growing population. I do not believe so.
I am convinced that the real responsibility must be assumed earlier on. Industrial groups who market products that impact forests should truly strive to offer consumers responsible choices both in Europe and in other countries, emerging or not. A year ago, Nestle made this unprecedented commitment and has applied it with rigor and determination. Today, the results are already visible in the field: one of the companies with the worst environmental practices has decided to radically change the manner with which it manages its plantations.
Hope exists for tropical forests, but it requires large multinational companies with generalized “forest footprints”. We must stop spending more money simply to raise public awareness and create beautiful communication campaigns aimed at “greening” the image of these companies. It is facile and charming, but useless. The task that lays before us is indeed to work with these companies and their suppliers to change the way commodities are purchased and more importantly, produced, so that forests can finally be spared.
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