The problem of tropical deforestation

Since the 1960s, more than 50% of tropical forests have been destroyed.

That’s a lot less trees, and a lot more danger for biodiversity, be it to animals or plants.

Surviving forests are responsible for absorbing one-third of the carbon dioxide released annually by burning fossil fuels, being also responsible for regulating the water cycle, among other essential functions. So why do we keep destroying them? There is no easy answer.

Causes for tropical deforestation

It’s normal to associate the word “deforestation” with the image of cutting down trees to produce wood or paper. But that is not always the goal.

Deforestation directly affects the lives of 1.6 billion people whose sustenance depends on forests. For many, forests are a source of food, a way of access to drinking water, fuel, and even serve as a spiritual vessel.

Many industries, political decisions, and cultural factors can, however, encourage deforestation. In some regions, forests are seen as obstacles to the expansion of cities, roads and infrastructure, or the production of food and raw materials consumed all over the world. These are some of the most well-known:

Palm oil production is responsible for the deforestation of some tropical environments.
  • Palm oil

    Palm oil is present in a wide variety of goods, from snacks and sweets, to beauty and skincare products. Its production is responsible for the deforestation of some of the most diverse and rich tropical environments on the planet. The palm oil industry is estimated to be worth more than 86 billion euros by 2021.

Soy production is one of the causes of deforestation.
  • Soy

    Soy production is a huge industry, particularly in Brazil, which dedicates more than 20 million hectares to it. Of these, about 80% is used to produce soy for animal feed.

The international meat market is one of the main culprits for tropical deforestation
  • Beef

    The international meat market is another of the main culprits for tropical deforestation, especially in Africa and South America. Each year, thousands of hectares of the Amazon rainforest become pasture. It is estimated that 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon rainforest could be attributed to the beef industry.

The production of these and other raw materials such as rubber, coffee, cocoa, and sugar, are the main causes of tropical deforestation. The production of coal and the illegal and unsustainable extraction of wood, minerals, oil and gas, are other important causes.

Deforestation and climate change go hand in hand

Losing forests also means losing habitats. 80% of terrestrial biodiversity lives in forests, which means that deforestation, coupled with drastic temperature changes and soil erosion, can put the survival of many species at risk.

Forest degradation is both a cause and an effect of climate change. With global warming, rapid changes in seasons, and rising sea levels, tropical forests dry up, irreversibly destroying the surrounding biosphere. The weaker the forest becomes, the more vulnerable it is to further degradation.

The natural areas surrounding the forests are also more vulnerable to natural or man-made fires. In 2019 alone, at least 906,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest burned down. The destruction reached Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. Recently, wildfires have also hit Southeast Asia, the USA (California) and Australia.

Fighting tropical deforestation

The raw materials associated with deforestation risk are part of the daily food intake of millions of people across the world, directly or indirectly. So, it is difficult to simply stop its global consumption. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is nothing to be done.

To fight deforestation, producers, manufacturers, and retailers develop shared strategies to end the destruction of tropical forests and the loss of habitats. These strategies may involve replacing raw materials coming from particularly vulnerable areas by those certified as having a sustainable origin.

What does a “sustainable origin” mean

To put it simply, for a raw material to be considered of sustainable origin, it is necessary to consider the combination of several factors, such as the risk of deforestation, but also the agricultural practices adopted or the protection of human rights and labour laws.

As members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Jerónimo Martins Group has been tracking the origin of its commodities since 2014, looking at the risk of deforestation connected to goods such as palm oil, soy, paper and wood, but also beef in fresh and Private Brand products sold in its stores in Portugal, Poland, and Colombia.

When they have to be used, these commodities must have, as much as possible, sustainable origins. In 2019, 92% of all palm oil present in the Group’s products was certified by RSPO, while 10% of all soy that came from countries at risk of deforestation were RTRS or ProTerra certified. As for virgin paper and wood fibre, less than 0.5% was from countries at risk of deforestation, and, of those, more than 60% had a certification of sustainable origin by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. At the same time, less than 1% of all beef sold in the Group’s stores comes from countries at risk of deforestation.

Pingo Doce soap with RSPO certification.

A different kind of soap

Pingo Doce and Amanhecer’s soaps are an example of this effort: they are the first Portuguese products to be sold under and RSPO certification.

The RSPO label, present on the packaging, shows the Jerónimo Martins Group’s commitment to fight deforestation.