International forests

International forests

Climate change has thrust the decades-long fight against deforestation back into the international spotlight, and rightly so. Deforestation is an urgent problem that has wide repercussions. The loss of forests worldwide accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and forests are critical to regulating the climate, both locally and globally. But forests are not merely the lungs of the earth -- they are also the greatest repositories of biological and cultural diversity on earth, and home to 350 million people, including at least 60 million indigenous peoples who have protected and defended forests since time immemorial.

Friends of the Earth’s International Forests program works to address the root causes of forest destruction and the marginalization of forest-dwelling communities. We do this through our campaign on Landgrabs, forests & finance, and our work to challenge forest carbon offsets. Friends of the Earth’s work on biofuels is closely tied in to these campaigns, but is housed under our Climate & Energy program.

Landgrabs, forests & finance

One of the fastest growing drivers of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and displacement of forest-dwelling communities is the expansion of palm oil plantations across the tropics for the production of food, fuel and cosmetics. The expansion of oil palm plantations has led to massive forest destruction and ongoing conflicts with indigenous groups and local communities. In turn, key drivers of this trend include investments in large-scale land acquisitions, the rapid rise in both commodity prices and commodity speculation, and the exponential growth of biofuel use and investment -- trends that can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future, unless curbed through targeted action by governments, environmental rights advocates, and civil society groups.

Large scale acquisition of land represents a tremendous threat to local communities, forest governance, and resource rights worldwide. Land deals between investors and governments tend to occur in secrecy, marginalizing affected communities and farmers and leading to the eviction of people from their land without proper compensation. The use of the term ‘land grabs’ applies to land that was previously used by local communities, typically for subsistence agriculture, and then leased or sold to outside investors (including corporations and governments), harming community interests. Land grabbing is broadening and deepening the trend of privatization that has deepened poverty and threatened the food sovereignty of billions of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Significant attention has been brought to bear in recent years on the wave of farmland-grabs and the associated concern for food insecurity. Less well-known is the direct impact of foreign land acquisitions on deforestation, and on the wholesale destruction of primary and secondary forest and its replacement with industrial monocultures. Between 1990 and 2010, the global land area devoted to plantations has grown by 400 percent, with direct correspondence to the global rush of land grabbing. Forests will not be preserved unless the customary rights and land tenure of local peoples is strengthened and supported.

Analysis by Friends of the Earth U.S.’s International Forests Program has led us to determine that our best hope of success in deterring deforestation is to take a three-pronged approach by:

  1. focusing on the economic drivers of deforestation, and directly targeting the finance sector;
  2. influencing global investment rules to end the land grabbing trend; and
  3. promoting policies and practices that strengthen the resource rights of forest peoples, foster biocultural diversity, and build capacity for rights-based land and forest governance.

For more in-depth information on palm oil, land grabs and financing for forest destruction, see these issue briefs and reports below:

Issue briefs

Forests and climate

In climate change policy-making arenas, a mechanism called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD and REDD+) is being held up as a cheap, easy and fast way to reduce greenhouse gases by creating financial incentives, in the form of carbon credits, to compel those engaged in deforestation or forest degradation to switch to less damaging activities. However, the current focus on counting carbon stored in trees misses the forest for the trees.

Deforestation is a complex socio–political and economic problem that cannot be solved by cash alone, and should not be linked to efforts to reduce industrial emissions. There are many cases where substantial international funds have been allocated to saving forests, but to no effect. REDD is in danger of repeating this failed pattern. Even worse, allowing polluting industries in wealthy countries, like the United States, to purchase carbon credits instead of reducing their own emissions will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in those countries most responsible causing the climate crisis. And, REDD has been shown in practice to have multiple perverse effects, that heighten the problem of deforestation rather than reduce it.

Instead, all countries need to enact policies that address the underlying drivers of deforestation, including unchecked extractive activities, big dams, increasing demand for wood products, agricultural commodities, and bioenergy, poor forest governance in developing countries, and the failure to respect the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Friends of the Earth continues to demonstrate why forests are poorly suited to carbon offset trading and to advance more effective solutions to halt forest loss.


Forests are increasingly impacted by the rapid expansion of biofuel feedstocks, biomass energy and cellulosic ethanol. To learn how Friends of the Earth addresses these challenges, see our Climate & Energy program.

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