An Expert Opinion: Frances Seymour
The former Director General at the Center for International Forestry Research, Frances Seymour has been a world leader in the effort to understand and address the impacts of tropical deforestation for 20 years. Or as she puts it, since Ben and Jerry’s released their Rainforest Crunch ice cream.
What got you interested in forests in the first place?
Growing up in Chapel Hill, [North Carolina] I was always interested in nature and I tried to think of careers that could enable me to indulge that hobby. So when I was at UNC, I majored in zoology and thought about being a wildlife veterinarian as a way to be outside. I was in graduate school at the time when tropical forests were just exploding onto the international consciousness. This was back in the era of Rainforest Crunch and the lead-up to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, when everybody was concerned about tropical biodiversity and indigenous peoples. So I ended up being caught up in all that and making a career out of it.
What are some of the human and ecological costs of deforestation?
When forests are lost, that means the loss of a lot of things that local communities depend on. At the local level this includes access to timber and non-timber forest products. At the landscape level forests provide various ecosystem services, like keeping clean waters in streams year-round and regulating rainfall patterns. Last but not least are the global-level human impacts. It’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation and other land-use changes are a greater source of [C02] release than all of the planes, trains, automobiles emissions combined.
What poses the biggest risk to our forests: chopsticks, toothpicks, or toilet paper?
I would say “none of the above,” because some of the fastest and most damaging deforestation taking place right now is caused by the palm oil industry. So maybe the answer would be “your doughnuts.”
Palm oil is one of those commodities that is mostly used as an edible oil. In Asia, it’s the most commonly used oil for frying things. But in our supermarkets, it’s in, like, half the products, ranging from shampoo to peanut butter to doughnuts. And so that’s probably the greatest threat to tropical forests right now.
Is palm oil a relatively new commodity, at least on this scale?
Palm oil has been produced on an industrial scale in Indonesia and Malaysia for a long time, but the price of it has rapidly escalated. The prospect of new markets for palm oil-based biodiesel have also come on the horizon and so the incentives to invest in palm plantations have increased in recent years.
Palm oil production is responsible for significant deforestation in both of those places and, most recently, it’s begun to expand to other regions. It feels like almost every day I read a news release about another deal being done for tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares in Central Africa to be converted to an oil palm plantation. And the particular concern in a place like Indonesia is that a lot of this palm oil is being planted on peatland swamp forests. These peat swamps can be standing on layers of organic matter that has accumulated over thousands of years. They can be more than 30 feet deep.
Thirty feet deep. That’s incredible.
Think about that for a minute. When you drain and burn a peatland forest in order to plant palm oil or pulp and paper—not only do you have the pulse of emissions from the initial burning of the surface vegetation going into the atmosphere, but that organic matter that was locked up underground is suddenly liberated, releasing greenhouse gases into the air as it oxidizes and decomposes. And so the amount of carbon per hectare released into the atmosphere is many, many, many times greater than an equivalent hectare of forest not on peat swamp soils.
What’s the best way to balance sustaining the health of a forest and giving forest-dependent communities control of their resources?
I guess I would challenge the premise of the question in the following way: one of the great misconceptions about tropical deforestation is that it’s the local people who are responsible for deforestation. Communities don’t need to be convinced of the value of forest because they’re the ones who hunt in the forest and fish in the forest and gather rattan from the forest. They’re the ones who suffer when the logging trucks come in. So it’s kind of galling to blame deforestation on local communities when, in fact, the people who are profiting from deforestation tend to be elites from capital cities.
I love that you challenged me on that.
You can tell I’m not shy.
Agriculture, specifically livestock grazing, contributes to deforestation. Are you a vegetarian?
[LAUGHS] No, I’m not. Yes, it is true overall that agricultural expansion is one of the key drivers of deforestation around the world. In terms of the cattle production in the Amazon, there’s been a big effort recently to try to shift beef production to deforestation-free methods.
People that are reading this might want to know what they can do to prevent deforestation. Should they buy forest-certified lumber? Eat local meat? Eat fewer doughnuts?
With specific reference to tropical deforestation, I think there are two things: One is to be a constituency for active U.S. engagement. And then, as individual consumers, yes, it does make a difference. Buy sustainably produced FSC-certified wood products. And hopefully, over time, we’ll have credible certification systems for some of these other commodities that can be certified deforestation-free.
Did you read The Giving Tree as a kid?
If trees could talk, what would they say to the humans right now on this planet?
Trees have a self-interest in controlling climate change. So in addition to, “Don’t cut me down,” trees would also say, “Please protect the climate,” because forests are also vulnerable to climate change. With a changing climate, forests are experiencing drought and new invasions of pests that we have haven’t seen before. And so they would be saying, “If you want to keep forests around, you need to protect the climate.” So it’s sort of the opposite of what we’ve been talking about, “If you want to protect the climate, protect forests,” but it works the other way too.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.