Tropical Forests in 2012: A Year in Review

December 21, 2012 | 2:45 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

It’s that time of year. Holiday decorations line the streets, days are getting short, and temperatures are falling (well, theoretically at least, it’s still been in the 50’s and 60’s here in Washington). It’s also the time to step back and reflect on what’s happened since the last time the earth was on this side of the sun.

2012 has been a big year:  France, Egypt, South Korea, and the U.S. all held presidential elections; Apple released the iPhone 5, the iPad 3, the iPad 4, and the iPad mini; and my hometown little league team nearly won the world series (my home city major league team actually did win the world series). But politics, technology, and sports aside, 2012 has seen some major victories and defeats for tropical forests as well. I’ve spent the last week reflecting on the events of the 2012 and wanted to share with you what I think are the milestones for 2012.

Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva win UN Forest Heroes Award

Meeting at Director Jackson's office, 17 April 2012

Rhiannon and Madison met with EPA Director Lisa Jackson at her office

The year started off on a high note, when two 16-year-old Girl Scouts were awarded the first ever UN Forest Heroes Award. Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva have been campaigning since the age of 11 to bring attention to the links between palm oil production and deforestation. The girls were not only recognized by the UN, but on a trip to DC the two met with their home state senators (Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow) and representatives (John Dingell and Thaddeus McCotter), EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and a number of State department officials.

Lacey Act and forest get some relief from RELIEF

In Washington, D.C. this year, the biggest fight to protect tropical forests involved defending the Lacey Act, which bans the importation of illegally sources animals and plant products (including illegal tropical timber and wood products), from a number of congressional attacks.

Thankfully, relief came to the Lacey Act when congressional leadership decided at the last minute to pull the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness (RELIEF) Act from the congressional calendar, essentially killing it. Lacey enters 2013 looking strong, free of congressional challenges, and ready to continue protecting tropical forests and US jobs.

Rio+20: The future we don’t want


A banner hanging at the Ri0+20 summit. Based on the lack of decisions in the Rio text, the future does not look too bright.

The biggest environmental flop of the year was the failure of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (aka Rio+20) to lead to any concrete decisions and commitments. The meeting, a follow up to the original Earth Summit in 1992, which gave rise to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, shut down large parts of Rio for two weeks in June as representatives from over 190 countries descended on the city.

Widely seen as a failure, the meeting highlighted the difficulty and frustration of decision-making at an international level. The only glimmers of hope during the summit came from businesses, cities, and individuals that continue to push the sustainability movement forward in the absence of national and international leadership.

Brazil Forest Code: Taking the good with the bad

Following the theme of environmental disappointments in Brazil, that country’s national government made some substantial changes to its forest code, leading to a decline in forest protection. The debate over the forest code, which had raged in the Brazilian congress for nearly two years, concluded when the pro-agriculture block of legislators passed a bill which greatly reduced forest protections, over the objection from Brazil’s leading scientific bodies. A series of presidential vetoes and congressional responses led to a final law that, while better than it could have been, still reduced protections for Brazilian forests.

Brazil’s continued deforestation reductions

However, not all environmental news out of Brazil was bad. In early December, it was announced that for the eighth year in a row, Brazil has reduced its deforestation rate. Deforestation this year was down by 27 percent and has fallen by 75 percent from the years of peak deforestation. This effort has involved cooperation amongst governments, business, and land owners on the state, national, and international levels to address the drivers of deforestation (mostly soy and beef production) and change the way forests are managed and protected. It’s not yet clear what effect the changes to the forest code will have on deforestation rates, but for now it’s enough to marvel at how far Brazil has come.

Looking ahead

This time of year is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back. With the new Tropical Forest Alliance between the U.S. government, major businesses, and NGO’s to address deforestation in supply chains, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil reviewing its principles and criteria for certification, and the UNFCCC scheduled to resolve the remaining technical issues concerning REDD+, 2013 promises to be an eventful year.  We here at UCS will be keeping a close eye on these, and countless other developments, so stick around, it should be a fun year.