Millions of acres of tropical forest should be cut down to allow poor countries to expand their economies, according to a leading environmentalist and adviser to the Prince of Wales.
The opinions of Sir Jonathan Porritt, a well known leading environmental activist, will no doubt engender fierce comment from environmental groups but will be welcomed by ambitious Asian paper makers as they seek to expand their production of paper.
Sir Jonathon Porritt, who advises the Prince on green issues and is a former chairman of the Green party, said that conservationists from rich countries who demanded the preservation of all forests were guilty of “eco-imperialism”.
He suggested that poor countries, such as Liberia, should be allowed to chop down up to half their forests as long as they agreed to the preservation of those containing the greatest volume of carbon.
Saving tropical forests has long been a priority for the prince, who established the Prince’s Rainforest Project in 2007. In 2009, he told the Copenhagen climate change summit: “Forests are being cleared at a terrifying rate. It is critical to find ways to prevent forests being converted to agriculture.”
Sir Jonathon is working for a group of palm oil companies, including Sime Darby, Musim Mas and Asian Agri, which have been accused of rampant deforestation but have now pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from future expansion of plantations.
He is chairman of the palm oil industry-funded High Carbon Stock Study, which is seeking to determine which forests contain the most carbon and should therefore be protected because clearing would result in massive greenhouse gas emissions.
However, he admitted that he would also be helping the companies to identify forests which they could clear to produce more palm oil, a common ingredient in margarines, biscuits, breads, breakfast cereals, ice cream, shampoos, lipstick and detergents.
Clearing land in Indonesia and Malaysia has pushed many species, such as orang-utans and tigers, to the brink of extinction in the wild. About 30 million acres of forest are lost each year, the equivalent of 36 football fields per minute. Deforestation causes 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Speaking to The Times, Sir Jonathon said: “It’s trade-off time. You can’t develop a new palm oil business in west Africa if you don’t cut down a tree. So the real story now is what kind of deforestation is acceptable within an understanding of the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases but secure real economic benefits for people in poor countries.”
He said if countries such as Liberia promised to save half their remaining forests but wanted to develop the other half, they would be condemned by some green groups demanding zero deforestation.
“That is a form of eco-imperialism where western perspectives are telling countries that the only way we can have a sustainable world is by keeping them poor. That is not going to work.
“I describe myself as a sustainable development activist, not an out and out environmental campaigner. For me sustainable development means you have to find appropriate ways of allowing poor nations to use their natural assets to achieve higher levels of economic prosperity.”
Sir Jonathon, who will publish a report in July, said he was not being paid directly by the palm oil companies but they were paying Forum for the Future, the charity he founded and which pays him £88,700 a year as director.
Glenn Hurowitz, chairman of Forest Heroes, a coalition opposing deforestation, said: “Porritt seems to have absorbed the thinking of his paymasters and become an apologist for companies engaged in egregious deforestation. Sime Darby and friends are conducting massive land grabs in Africa for palm oil plantations that displace local people and forests. Porritt seems to be working for the very people who are trying to carve up Africa for profit in the 21st century, and then accusing his opponents of colonialism.
“Where Porritt gets it spectacularly wrong is that it’s not a choice between saving forests and development. Brazil has reduced deforestation by more than two thirds since 2004, while increasing soy and cattle production.”