NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Policies to end deforestation are essential for curbing climate change and can also support economic development, top government and business officials said.
"Putting a stop to deforestation is the smart thing to do," Justine Greening, Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, told a panel discussion in New York on the eve of the U.N. Climate Summit.
"Without action, the world will get hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the years to come. There is no point building a health clinic for poor people in Bangladesh if it will get washed away by the next floods," she said.
Deforestation is the world's second largest source of planet-warming gases, and a threat to the livelihoods of over a billion indigenous people who depend on forest resources, experts say.
Cutting down forests reduces their capacity to store carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, and also destabilizes slopes, worsening the risk of landslides.
The meeting at the Ford Foundation assembled representatives of business, governments and indigenous people to call for an end to deforestation.
Greening announced that Britain will invest $137 million over the next three years in governance reform to end illegal logging. It will also provide $97 million for programs encouraging businesses to end deforestation in their supply chains and commit to sustainable natural resources.
Global food and care products giant Unilever is one of a growing number of companies that have pledged to do so.
"By 2020 we're not going to sell anything anymore if it comes as a result of illegal deforestation," said Unilever CEO Paul Polman.
Noting that around half of deforestation is due to the need to cultivate more food crops, Polman said companies like his must source commodities - particularly palm oil, soy, beef and timber - in a way that doesn't harm forests.
“Sustainable growth in terms of fighting climate change does not have to go against economic development,” said Polman.
"We are the first generation who has ever had to deal with climate change. It is our choice if we want to be the last generation," he added.
ACTIVISTS IN DANGER
Governments must also take measures to guarantee the rights of indigenous people whose land is threatened when it is leased to corporations that clear forests to make way for farming and ranching, said Daniel Azeredo Avelino, chief federal prosecutor of Brazil’s Para state.
Satellite technology has allowed Brazilian prosecutors to identify remote areas where deforestation is occurring, particularly in the Amazon where much indigenous land is located, he said.
Forest leaders will say on Tuesday they plan to use cutting-edge technologies like drones and a new mapping system for tracking deforestation in real time to ensure promises made at the New York climate summit are kept.
But advocating for the land rights of indigenous people has become a dangerous undertaking when it conflicts with commercial interests, several speakers noted at Monday's panel discussion.
Earlier this month in Peru, four indigenous activists campaigning to safeguard forests, including Edwin Chota, were believed to have been killed by illegal loggers, said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. That is why discussions to end deforestation are so important, he added.
“We want to save the forests, but there is no protection for the people who save the forests,” said Abdon Nababan, secretary general of Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago.
(Reporting by Lisa Anderson, Editing by Megan Rowling)