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Roya Sabri headshot

Deforestation is Increasing During the Pandemic: What Can Business Do to Turn the Tide?

By Roya Sabri

For the fourth consecutive year, World Rainforest Day (WRD) has come again, this time during the COVID-19 pandemic. WRD is a time to celebrate rainforests for all their beauty, diversity and richness of resources. It is also a day to recognize the challenges these ecosystems face, including deforestation, and to ask the question: What can we do to support these precious habitats?

Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on the planet. Covering only 6 percent of the Earth’s surface, they support more than half of the world’s plant and animal species. Rainforest cover is valuable, producing about 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and regulating atmospheric temperatures.

But rainforests face increasing threats. Last year saw a loss of 14,500 square miles of global rainforest. The German branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 2,500 square miles were lost in March of this year alone. That's 150 percent higher than March averages from 2017 to 2019.

The WWF identified two factors influencing this troubling increase. Pandemic-prompted stay-at-home orders have reduced police presence in forests, allowing for a proliferation of illegal deforestation, and global job losses due to the pandemic have spurred people to act out of desperation.

Forests in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil have seen the most significant losses, according to WWF's report. 

Losing rainforests to clearcutting or monoculture has severe economic impacts. A study published in the journal Nature last year found that leaving the Amazon rainforest intact would have a positive $8.2 billion annual impact. Deforestation over a 30-year period could cost as much as $3.5 trillion in combined social and economic deficits.

Business solutions to deforestation during the pandemic

To diminish illegal deforestation, the WWF recommends that governments support their people with financial and technological resources. Expecting governments to do the heavy lifting to protect forests when they are still grappling with a pandemic may be impractical, though. Business solutions can help decrease deforestation from the ground up.

To start, from a business standpoint, much of the land already cleared by logging and fires is economically unproductive, even abandoned, Toby Gardner, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told Al Jazeera in 2019. A McKinsey report from 2012 recommends improving the productivity of cultivated land by implementing agricultural best practices, rather than clearing more forests for agricultural use. The report claims that such improvements could symbolically free up more than 370 million acres of land.

Many corporations claim to support healthy rainforests. Now would be a good time for those companies to ensure they have the proper procedures and standards in place to fulfill the promises they’ve made to their stakeholders and customers.

A 2014 article in the Guardian identifies three essential elements to supporting sustainable rainforest management. First and foremost, any company that relies on commodities sourced from rainforests and their communities must know the ins and outs of its supply chain. That company can then develop relationships with these suppliers, part of which is providing the necessary financial resources for local industries to adhere to the highest standards. If the necessary standards don’t yet exist to maximize the productivity of land already cleared and to protect old-growth forests from further deforestation, corporations have a responsibility to work to develop them.

Now is the time for businesses to step up for rainforests

Last year, when fires were racing across the Amazon, 230 major investors called on businesses to step up their actions to protect rainforests.

“Deforestation and loss of biodiversity are not only environmental problems. There are significant negative economic effects associated with these issues and they represent a risk that we as investors cannot ignore,” Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, Norway’s largest private asset management firm and one of the signatories, told Reuters.

Investors called for businesses to forego any activity that leads to deforestation, but not to stop there. Actions must have a timetable and be quantifiable, transparent and reported.

Rainforests are a global resource — their protection requires coordinated global action, and that includes corporate action. Some of the world’s biggest brands and corporations have made no public commitment to decreasing deforestation — Tyson Foods, Ashley Furniture, Samsonite and Amazon among them, according to Global Canopy’s 2019 Forest 500 report. Of the 500 most influential forest-risk companies and financial institutions, 140 have no public commitment to end deforestation in their supply chains.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise rainforests are vulnerable to a 150 percent increase in deforestation within only a couple of months. This WRD should be a call-to-action for businesses to take up the responsibility they have to our global rainforests and to forego their long-held silence.

Image credit: Tobias Tullius/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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