in Uncategorized

Conservation International shock advert adds to confusion about REDD

A dramatic new advertising campaign by US-based NGO Conservation International (CI) depicting the destruction of tropical rainforests as being like diseased human lungs could serve to further deepen confusion about the causes of deforestation.

The advertisement, which is the latest offering in CI’s high-profile ‘Lost There – Felt Here’ campaign, could lead the public to believe that poor farmers in tropical countries are to blame for deforestation.

CI’s new ‘lungs’ advert, the latest in a campaign which has already featured filmstar Harrison Ford in appeals to stop the destruction of rainforests, says that “When rainforests are slashed and burned, it effects every one of us” – thus giving the impression that it is ‘slash-and-burn’ susbistence farmers that are solely responsible for rainforest loss.


In fact figures used by the World Bank show that, at most, only two-fifths of the destruction of forests worldwide is due to ‘small scale agriculture and shifting cultivation’. The Bank’s head of environment, Warren Evans, recently acknowledged that the figure for ‘rainforest’ destroyed by slash and burn farming would be considerably less than 40%. The Bank’s figures show that more forest worldwide is destroyed by commercial agriculture, cattle ranching and industrial logging.

CI’s advertising campaign will no doubt serve to increase public awareness of the importance of protecting tropical rainforests in order to prevent climate change, which can only be welcomed. But there is a risk that such careless wording will serve to reinforce wrong impressions about the real culprits, and encourage the wrong policy responses as a result. There is already a strong tendency to ‘blame the poor’ for deforestation, and REDD-Monitor has already reported that weak analysis by organisations such as the Woods Hole Research Centre could result in traditional and sustainable ‘forest-fallow’ or ‘rotational’ farmers being wrongly accused of causing deforestation.

Leave a Reply


  1. To point out that slash and burn agriculture can be a major cause of deforestation does not necessarily have to be interpreted as attributing blame to the rural poor and forest communities. I am a user of fossil fuels where I have few alternatives available to me, but I do not believe I am to blame for industrialisation. Recognising the diversity of causes of deforestation and the diversity of practical actions required to overcome these is key. For example, better regulation of inductrial logging, more community land rights, reduction in global meat consumption, payments for ecosystem services to diversify community incomes and incentivise forest protection. Complex problems require complex, considered solutions.

  2. Let’s think about just this ad campaign for a second, without blowing things out of proportion: The target audience, no more than Harrison Ford, is not going to be aware of the controversial connotations of the term “slash and burn” that academics and conservation practitioners are so acutely aware of. They won’t know the whole back story of the deforestation blame-game, the degree to which slash n burn/milpa agriculturalists are to blame, etc. What they will see is a striking image that compels them to think about their connection to deforestation in a way they probably haven’t. And that kind of publicity is priceless.

    I understand that there is a strong need for oversight of the big NGOs, and clearly, there are lots of things about CI that we could take issue with. It would be great if some other less bureaucratic organization had enough surplus cash to run huge ad campaigns that were still nuanced and took into account all criticisms from all stakeholders. But let’s get real. I do not understand is why some folks spend so much energy on defaming them without recommending alternatives, rather than concentrating on being constructive.

  3. @ Anon: I agree, the problem is complex. That is exactly why we are concerned when an organisation like Conservation International makes public statements about deforestation which limit the analysis of the problem to “slash and burn”.

    @ Luke: Conservation International does know the controversial connotations of the term “slash and burn”. Using the term in this way is irresponsible. When the target audience reads the words “slash and burn”, whether or not they know what term connotes, they do know that it refers to something over which they cannot have much influence. Imagine how much more powerful the advert might have been if it described how consumers of paper, timber, beef and agrofuels in the North were having an impact on tropical forests. Or how projects funded by institutions such as the World Bank impact on people and forests in the tropics. Or how Northern-based corporations are involved in forest destruction through their involvement in projects such as roads, mining or dams.

    The advert notes that carbon emissions from deforestation are double those of cars, trucks and planes – implying that we in the North can carry on with our carbon intensive lifestyles as long as people in the South stop slashing and burning their forests.

  4. Slash and burn, better referred to as Swidden Agriculture, has been practiced in tropical ecosystems by indigenous cultures for tens of thousands of years. Over that period they maintained ecosystems with incredibly high biodiversity.

    By shifting their plots, land left fallow fixed carbon at the rate equal to that being released in land being burned. The system worked well for a very long time. These people are not the cause of global warming. To blame those people now for global warming is not just wrong, it is dangerous.

    Monoculture oil palm plantations threaten vast areas of rainforest in Asia and South America. When the ‘bulldoze and blaze’ of monoculture plantations replaces the shifting cultivation it greatly reduces species diversity, releases vast amounts of CO2 into the air, and displaces indigenous peoples. We do need complex thought to help us avoid the violent dystopia that many predict will come from climate change. Part of that complex thought is to realize that governmental agencies tend to represent the rich and powerful in their countries. REDD could help improve the land rights of the rural poor; it could help preserve biodiversity; it could store, and remove from the atmosphere, significant amounts of carbon. Or it could erode the land rights of indigenous peoples and create more environmental refugees; it could cause monoculture plantations to replace the desperately needed biodiversity of the rainforest; it could cause a net release of carbon in the short term and a loss of natural systems that could store more carbon in the future. If it increases corruption by funneling money into systems where bribes and graft are a way of life, then it could destabilize fragile governments. Conservation International has a less than honorable relationship with indigenous cultures. That, unfortunately, is also part of the complex story;

  5. What Joe Lamb states in the above commentary is correct.
    The International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as to be iniatiated with the U.N. will verify this as too will my Initiative. The interpretation of REDD is what is at issue and the absolute need for our global citizenary to part of the solution and not living with their proverbial “head in the sand” attitude due to bad governnment via their poor education authorities and the maldirection of this the most serious of biome issues and the misdeed actions of global media coverage. Ask yourselves this question….how many of your family and friends know of this most excellent website and the responsibility is is attempting to promote for the betterment of at least 1/4 of humanity and the preservation of evolution in the tropical realms?

  6. @ Joe Lamb

    Swidden Agriculture, traditionally, was a very sustainable practice. However, to be sustainable it requires low levels of population growth and significant land availability: we dont see that many places today. Many, if not most, instances of swidden agriculture today are not sustainable because of this. It does, in fact, contribute to deforestation. However, I would agree that globally swidden agriculture is a relatively minor contributor to deforestation. To ignore it completely as a contributor, however, is also “dangerous”.

    The reality is, deforestation is an incredibly complex issue. Some people on here take issue with blaming shifting agriculture. But the reality is, it does contribute. As does the collection of fuelwood and chracoal by poor people. As does industrial logging. As does industrial agricultural expansion. As does biofuel expansion. If CI were to put an add together targeting all the causes of deforestation….do you honestly think that would be effective?

  7. @Joseph – see my comment above from two years ago – it still applies.

    Deforestation is complex. I think that would be a great slogan for Conservation International to use in an advert. Part of the problem with the whole REDD frenzy is that too many people and organisations have told us that it is a cheap and easy way of reducing emissions. In fact, as should be obvious to most observers by now, it is neither.

    By the way, since we’re talking so much about forest, shouldn’t we define what we are talking about? So far, despite five years of UN discussions about REDD, there is no agreed definition of forests. Neither is there a definition of “degraded”.

  8. I understand wealthy Americans use coffins to be burried in made of mahogany (mogno). Shouldn´t that make a clear add photo of how short-sighted the (mostly illegal) logging is – as well as the direct link to consumers in the west? (be it buy buying hardwood or fastfood burgers)

  9. Thanks for this. I was interested in the World Bank figures, could you kindly provide the source for them? There are so many numbers and reports going around now it can be difficult to find the source reports.

    – Brian

  10. @Brian Child – I’m not sure which World Bank report the figures came from, but the same figures are used in this report (page 42):

    Carmenza Robledo, Jürgen Blaser, Sarah Byrne and Kaspar Schmidt (2008) “Climate Change and Governance in the Forest Sector: An overview of the issues on forests and climate change with specific consideration of sector governance, tenure, and access for local stakeholders”, Rights and Resources Initiative and Inter-cooperation.

    And the source given for the figures is this report:

    Jürgen Blaser and Carmenza Robledo (2007) “Initial Analysis on the Mitigation Potential in the Forestry Sector”. Report prepared for the Secretariat of the UNFCCC. August 2007.

  11. @Chris Lang:
    Although the definitions of forest and degradation do vary from country to country, a working definition of forest used by the UNFCCC (and others) is in place:

    – minimum forest area: 0.05 to 1ha
    – potential to reach max height at maturity in situ: 2-5m
    – minimum tree crown cover: 10 to 30%

    The definition of degradation simply varies in accordance with the definition of forest (removing wood at a level which results in “not forest” = deforestation; any lower level= degradation).

    I admit to having pro-REDD bias (as long as it has true carbon, social and biological benefits, see Kalimantan), but I don’t think this is a big problem.

  12. @David Swallow – Thanks for this comment. You’re right – UNFCCC adopted the definition you refer to in 2005 for LULUCF purposes.

    One of the problems with the LULUCF definition is that it fails to differentiate between industrial tree plantations and native forest. As far as I’m aware the UNFCCC has not adopted a definition of forests for REDD purposes (please correct me if I’m wrong). But if the LULUCF definition were to be adopted there would be a risk that REDD could actually encourage conversion of forests to monoculture tree plantations.

    The fact that part of REDD+ includes “enhancement of carbon stocks” only adds to this concern.

    This may, at least theoretically, be countered by one of the safeguards agreed at Cancun in Decision 1/CP.16 (which, like all the other safeguards, is to be “promoted and supported” – whatever that means):

    “That actions are consistent with the conservation of natural forests and biological diversity, ensuring that the actions referred to in paragraph 70 of this decision are not used for the conversion of natural forests, but are instead used to incentivize the protection and conservation of natural forests and their ecosystem services, and to enhance other social and environmental benefits;”

    But rather than having a deeply problematic definition, and relying on a “safeguard” in the hope of addressing the problem, wouldn’t it make more sense to adopt a sensible definition in the first place?

  13. @Chris Lang
    I agree that there is a problem with the definition of forest potentially leaving open the possibility of plantations in REDD projects.
    This is why, in the voluntary carbon market, “co-benefit” standards such as CCB, which provide for climate, social and biodiversity benefits above and beyond the V-C-S (carbon accounting standard), are preferred by buyers. As such, V-C-S + CCB standards applied in conjunction represented 53.2% of Voluntary Carbon market transactions in 2010 (see Forest Trends (2011), “State of the Voluntary Carbon Market 2011”). Under rigorous CCB standards, true biodiversity benefits will be provided.
    So in my opinion what we are seeing is a voluntary carbon market with buyers tending to be in tune with these risks.
    In this sense, although the forest definition is a policy can of worms, which you’re right to flag up, the voluntary market ploughs on regardless of such concerns.
    I would be interested to know, at this point, what the balance is of REDD projects in the voluntary vs. compliance (UNFCCC-related, if I understand correctly). I.e. what is the reality on the ground? How much does it matter (currently) what the UNFCCC, COP meetings etc. actually state?

  14. Mis-print: the Forest Trends reference is, “State of the Forest Carbon Markets (2011)”, apologies.

  15. Slash and burn is simply a forest clearing technique, already stated so in the Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Program report 2005. It is used as much by cattle ranchers as small-scale, big-scale farmers or just anyone who wants to clear a tropical forest.

    I would be very interested to hear about other forest clearing techniques that do not involve first slashing the trees, letting them dry and later burn them. Even tearing down trees with a chain between to tractors and later burning them – is just mechanized slash and burn.

    So, what I am trying to say @Chris Land is that it is maybe a bit biased to want to read “CI blames small-farmers” from them using the word slash and burn.

  16. @Florian Reimer – I take your point that “slash and burn” could refer to any type of forest clearing, whether it’s for small scale farming or for large industrial plantations. However, Conservation International should be more careful in its choice of words, if it is not intending to blame small farmers.

    “Slash and burn” is a term that is frequently used to describe small farmers clearing the forest. Here are a few examples:

    ScienceDaily: “Slash and burn is a specific functional element of certain farming practices, often shifting cultivation systems.”

    Merriam Webster: “characterized or developed by felling and burning trees to clear land especially for temporary agriculture”

    Wikipedia: “Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock herding.”

    Encyclopedia Britannica: “slash-and-burn agriculture, method of cultivation often used by tropical-forest root-crop farmers in various parts of the world and by dry-rice cultivators of the forested hill country of Southeast Asia.”

  17. Why are countries not getting together to put these fires out as without the rain forests we will all suffer and our planet will be changed for good. We need to act now. Nothing is as important what’s up with everybody