Monday, March 30, 2009

Deforestation on a 'J' curve

The New York Times' DotEarth blog reports that Madagascar's forests are being endangered by the political instability of the country, caused by a recent coup. A group of eleven conservation organizations have put out a letter expressing deep concern about the state of conservation efforts now that the coup has brought about a degradation of law and order. They specifically decry:

"– Open and organized plundering, sometimes using firearms, of precious wood from several natural forests, including national parks such as Marojejy and Masoala, which have been declared World Heritage Sites.

– Intensified smuggling of wild species, especially reptiles such as tortoises, to the national and international markets.

– Proliferation, due to the current impunity, of destructive practices such as illegal mining and slash-and-burn agriculture within protected areas and environmentally sensitive areas."

This event and tragedy illustrate an interesting and disturbing phenomenon: as security in Madagascar falls, poaching and deforestation should be expected to rise, but only to a point. If political instability continues to degrade, and an open civil war begins, we should probably expect less deforestation, as people and companies flee the area. Currently, lawless bands see instability as a way to make quick money, but if open warfare breaks out, they will focus their efforts on survival. I will explain.

The J Curve was a book by Ian Bremmer, published in 2006 that made the assertion that very repressive, closed states (like Cuba or North Korea) are relatively stable, and very open, democratic states (like Western Europe and the U.S.) are extraordinarily stable. However, nations that are transitioning from closed societies to open societies are inherently unstable, and are at great risk of either backsliding towards repression (like Russia over the last decade) or of collapsing into anarchy (like the collapse of Mobutu's Zaire or Milosevic's Yugoslavia). This phenomenon is best shown by the accompanying graph, shaped like a 'J.'

I would propose a corollary to Bremmer's 'J' curve, with regards to political stability and the sustainability and management practices of local forests. On the X axis I would substitute 'political stability' for openness, and on the Y axis, I would put 'forest sustainability' instead of stability. I have reproduced the graph. You can see that I'm stating that countries which are very politically unstable -- characterized by civil wars, falling populations, mass refugees, or localized famines -- will have relatively healthy forests: environmental management by a sort of 'benign neglect.' On the other hand, countries with more stable, but not necessarily effective, governments would have extremely unhealthy forests and high rates of deforestation. These governments would be characterized by corruption, the lack of a rule of law, and little environmental protection. Finally, the most stable countries would also tend to be the most able to devote scarce resources to creating national parks, policing poachers, and valuing the natural environment.

I will illustrate with examples. Returning to my introduction, we see that Madagascar's unique wildlife and rich forests are under severe threat from poaching, logging, and clearing, since a coup two weeks ago. The eleven signatories of the letter say: "During the last 20 years, Madagascar has undertaken significant and exemplary efforts to stop environmental degradation, effectively manage natural resources and preserve its unique biodiversity in the pursuit of sustainable development." This statement implies that Madagascar's relatively stable government of the last two decades was very strong in conserving its forests. Now, lawlessness is causing it to backslide down the curve, as illustrated at right.

On the other hand, a country that would be as close to 'zero' on the political stability curve is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 1998, the Congo has suffered through a long, intractable, and deadly civil war. One of the unexpected consequences of this civil war, however, has been that the Congo has some of the largest tracts of unspoiled natural rainforest in the world. A few weeks ago, I was doing research on rates of deforestation in tropical forests, and I was surprised to see that, according to a new report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Congo's rate of deforestation was only .2% per annum during the 2000-2005 period. For comparison, the same report states that the Brazilian rainforest was deforested at three times that rate, and Indonesian forests were cleared at 10 times that rate. However, during that same time period, the IISS's Armed Conflict Database reports that over 30,000 people were killed directly in armed conflict during the 2000-2005 period in a war that some estimates claim caused the death of 5.4 million people.

This evidence, therefore, shows that the Congo has been a very bad place to be a commercial logger. Most of the deforestation in the Congo has been localized around population centers as part of slash and burn subsistence agriculture. However, this is changing. reports that "Logging in the Congo Basin has increased significantly as peace has returned to the region." With peace and increased political stability, the great forests of the Congo will be opened to logging. However, in a country with great corruption, little culture of conservation, few legal limits on logging, and no ability to enforce those laws deep in the jungles, we should expect loggers to quickly move in. This can be illustrated graphically at left. It is paradoxical, therefore, that with increased stability in the Congo we should expect greater deforestation.
The implications of this for the Congo are several: to help alleviate and mitigate that period of transition, aid agencies and foreign governments should help to improve political stability, as well as to implement institutions capable of protecting tropical forests. For Madagascar, however, the implications are that the country should seek a return to political stability and openness. In the meantime, donors should remain vigilant in their efforts to protect forests as much as possible.