Interview with ecologist Pliny Sist

This article comes from the journal Special Issues Sciences et Avenir no. 201 from April 2020.

Plinio Sist ecologist specializes in tropical rainforests, director of the research unit for forests and societies at CIRAD. He gave an interview for Science and the future.

Sciences et Avenir: Where is deforestation in the world?

Plinio Šist: It has accelerated dramatically since 2016. During the period 2010-2018, forest area loss increased by 25% compared to the previous decade. In Brazil, where it fell by 80% between 2004 and 2012, deforestation then experienced a real slowdown. But a sad record was set in the Amazon last year, in part because of summer fires: nearly a million acres were destroyed. And in the Congo Basin, which has long been spared mass deforestation, natural forest losses have more than doubled, reaching an average of 460,500 hectares a year between 2010 and 2018.

Why do we clear forests?

For almost thirty years, 5 million hectares of forests have been lost annually, mainly due to their conversion into agricultural land or industrial plantations. Most of this deforestation occurs in tropical regions. Pastures in the Amazon, cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast or palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia … But it’s not just the business of large landowners or the agro-industry. For example, in Africa, small farmers also need land. Also included: over-utilization of wood. With current logging and logging cycles, the Amazon rainforest regeneration capacity is insufficient to replenish stocks. In Indonesia, we even cleared natural forests to make plywood!

Does trade globalization have its share of responsibility?

Combating deforestation requires an exodus from our production and consumption system, as well as our growth model, to opt for environmental rather than economic goals, to change indicators to take into account the impact of natural degradation on our quality of life. Political will is fundamental: we have seen it in Brazil where, over eight years, the government has managed to slow down deforestation in a spectacular way, equipping itself with means of control (satellite surveillance) and repression (fines for lawbreakers). ). But with President Bolsonar, we returned to the vision of development that dates back to the 1970s …

Can we fear the disappearance of forests?

I’m not very optimistic. For thirty years I watched the disappearance and decay of tropical forests, for thirty years I defended sustainable governance and heard beautiful speeches by politicians … I hoped Brazil would show the way, but our political cycle is not going in the right direction: elections bring to power extremist leaders who make catastrophic decisions. Investments dedicated to the protection of tropical forests are unfortunately not up to par. The example of the Bonn Challenge speaks for itself: launched in 2011, its goal is to rebuild 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. More than 60 countries are engaged. But in the absence of money little was done.

What needs to be done to stop this process?

If we consider forests to be a global public good, we urgently need to give ourselves resources for our ambitions, urgent action for forests in the name of “globalization of the environment”. It is also necessary to preserve the last tropical forests and launch ambitious forest restoration programs to reverse the process of soil degradation … In other words, it has gradually shifted from extensive agriculture, greedy in space and factors. Production, intensive agriculture on agri-environmental practices, thanks to which the inhabitants of the areas in question will no longer have to reach for the forest again and again. This can only be successful on a territorial scale and in consultation with the local population. We need to train farmers, ask them to give up the practice of ancestors: this is a real paradigm shift.

Interviewed by Eliane Patriarca

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