The world’s forests are essential for both human well-being and wildlife everywhere. They help stabilize the global climate, provide food and essential natural resources, filter the water and air, and anchor entire ecosystems.
But forests are at risk, already becoming a shadow of their former selves, as industrial forces cut down trees at a pace of a football field every six seconds. The world has lost a third of its forest cover over the past 10,000 years — roughly twice the size of the United States — half of which has been lost since 1900.
As the climate crisis worsens, ongoing deforestation could unravel the ability of forests to self-regulate, leading to their collapse.
But that’s not inevitable. Forests can be shielded from further harm, conserved for future generations, and greatly expanded to reach their historic range one again.
A new bill under review in the United States is seeking to facilitate this global shift. The Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade (FOREST) Act, introduced by US Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and US Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), seeks to outlaw commercial products linked to deforestation such as meat, soy, palm oil, cocoa, rubber, and wood pulp.
Since the US is a leading consumer of commodities worldwide, the bill could have a sweeping impact on industries driving deforestation.
“Products of illegal deforestation are everywhere,” said Sen. Schatz in a statement. “Half of the products in American grocery stores contain palm oil and most of that is coming from illegally deforested land around the world.
“Illegal deforestation is threatening local communities and wildlife and is a major driver of climate change,” he added. “American consumers are unknowingly and unintentionally driving this destruction, and our bill will help put an end to that.”
3 Key Things to Know About the FOREST Act
- The FOREST Act would prohibit products that have been linked to illegal deforestation from entering the US, building on the Lacey Act, which prohibits illegal timber and wildlife from entering the country.
- The bill would create the ability for the US to prosecute people and organizations driving illegal deforestation.
- The bill would also create a fund to help countries transition away from deforestation and create effective enforcement and conservation programs.
How Bad Is the Problem of Deforestation?
Deforestation reached its peak in the 1980s, and has since declined — but the problem is still out of control. Between 2015 and 2020, the world lost 10 million hectares of forest per year, which is similar in size to 20 million football fields.
Forests take a long time to grow, so all new deforestation compounds the damage done to forests in the past. As this damage accumulates, forests become weaker, just like any organism.
"Climate change manifests in so many ways, sometimes it's extreme heat, sometimes it's wild weather events," Alejandra Borunda, a former climate scientist who writes about climate change for National Geographic, told Global Citizen. "All of the pieces of it together mean that trees are facing unprecencents kinds of challenges piled on top of each other. It's not just one thing. There’ll be a drought then a heatwave then a giant flood event."
Current rates of deforestation could lead to the extinction of at least 28,000 species, directly threaten the livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people, and release catastrophic levels of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Many of the greatest remaining forests such as the Amazon and Borneo rainforests are the most threatened by illegal logging and industrial encroachment. The Amazon has lost 17% of its tree cover over the past 50 years, and could soon cross a dangerous tipping point.
What Would the FOREST Act Do to Stop Deforestation?
Deforestation is largely driven by corporations seeking to increase their profits through the sale of natural resources, agricultural commodities, and other goods that can be obtained by cutting down trees.
More than 80% of deforestation is caused by agriculture, primarily by the meat industry, which continuously converts forest to grassland so cattle can graze.
The dirty work of deforestation is often deputized out to local communities that are heavily exploited. In Malaysia, for instance, the palm oil industry uses forced labor as it destroys native forests to produce more palm fruits.
The FOREST Act would prohibit such products from entering the US, which would deprive drivers of deforestation of a key market.
The bill notes that the US annually imports $500 million worth of cattle products from Brazil and $1.2 billion in palm oil-related commodities from Indonesia.
The US has one of the highest deforestation footprints in the world, with products available in stories linked to tree loss in countries worldwide, according to Carbon Brief. Only Brazil has a higher aggregate deforestation footprint, and the US has the sixth highest per capita deforestation rate, behind Canada, Sweden, Brazil, Norway, and Singapore.
Not all deforestation is considered illegal. Only 726 million hectares of forest out of the 4.06 billion left worldwide are under protection, according to the UN.
Due to a lack of transparency, it’s often hard to determine what products come from illegal deforestation and what comes from legal deforestation. However, the FOREST Act notes that an estimated half of all tropical deforestation is illegal and roughly 69% of deforestation linked to agriculture between 2013 and 2019 has been done illegally. The World Wildlife Fund found that an estimated 94% of deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado rainforests could be illegal.
The UN is pushing countries to extend protections to more forested areas because of the essential benefits that they provide to communities and the planet. As these efforts expand, more products stemming from deforestation will be considered illegal.
The FOREST Act aims to punish bad actors and fine offending countries in an effort to discourage deforestation. It’s also seeking to empower countries to protect their own forests by establishing a fund offering conservation and other forms of support with an initial budget of $20 million.
In order to enforce the FOREST Act, Congress would create mechanisms to monitor, trace, and report on deforestation worldwide. Such robust data collection would greatly benefit environmental groups working to protect forests.
Additionally, by shifting US purchasing power to products that are sourced in ways to protect or are neutral to forests, the bill could create market incentives to avoid deforestation.
What Other Countries Are Combating Illegal Deforestation in This Way?
Australia, the European Union, and the US have laws that prohibit the import of timber linked to illegal deforestation and forced labor. The EU and the UK have fined supermarkets found to have products linked to illegal deforestation. Norway, meanwhile, is the first country to outright ban products linked to deforestation.
“Illegal deforestation is devastating to biodiversity, livelihoods, and to our climate, and it therefore requires urgent global action,” said Lord Goldsmith, the United Kingdom’s international forestry minister, in a statement supporting the FORESTrest Act. “Due diligence measures like those being proposed in the USA are an important part of the solution, and would significantly help remove illegal deforestation from US supply chains.”
During the last COP climate event, more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation and land degradation by 2030.
What Kind of Support Does the FOREST Act Have?
The FOREST Act is supported by 40 environmental and human rights nonprofits that signed an open letter calling for its swift enactment.
“As one of the world's largest producers and consumers of agricultural commodities, the United States must play a key role in setting standards for trade and finance that promote good governance and protect people and the ecological integrity of the world's remaining forests,” the letter says.
Hundreds of companies are working toward “zero deforestation” supply chains, but have made limited progress.
But some companies like Tony’s Chocolonely, a Global Citizen Rewards partner, have worked hard to root out deforestation in their supply chains and support strong labor and environmental standards, while using their platforms to call for the passage of the FOREST Act and defend the planet.
How Can You Support Forests?
If you live in the US, you can call on your elected officials to support the FOREST Act. If you live elsewhere, you can call on your representatives to enact similar legislation.
"Talk to people and lawmakers who are trying to do good work with forests to protect them and grow them, to make sure they have a place in the larger conversation about climate and conservation," Borunda said.
You can also take action with Global Citizen right now to demand that world leaders protect 30% of nature by 2030 — the amount experts have determined can reverse the decline of Earth’s ecosystems.
In your daily life, you can protect forests by avoiding products linked to deforestation, buying local food from transparent supply chains, and minimizing your carbon footprint. While structural change is the only way to contain climate change, individual changes on a large enough scale can combine to transform the whole.