I had the opportunity to talk to Robin, the founder of MyMizu, a service that tells you where you can get free water. He taught me many exciting things, but I remember the most is systems thinking. Systems thinking is a way of solving problems not only by influencing the object to be solved through direct action but also by understanding the indirect relationships between seemingly unrelated things around it. When I heard this, I immediately thought of deforestation.
If you want to stop deforestation in developing countries, you can't just put guards and police in forest areas. This is because, in many areas, deforestation is the source of many different demands. When I was in Malawi, Africa, a few years ago, there was an incident where they killed the troops who were protecting the forest. The reason why they go to such lengths is that there is no alternative to fuel for cooking. If there is no alternative energy, we have to somehow get wood or charcoal to cook with. There is a demand for firewood to cycle 40 kilometres from the city to collect it, even confronting the army if the need arises. Usually, firewood collection is a job for women and children, but in Malawi, where we did this research, men collect firewood because it is good money and many men have no other job.
When I researched Ethiopia, illegal deforestation was taking place to use the wood as scaffolding for buildings. Many of the buildings that were being built were concrete blocks that looked like they had no rebar in them and would break down at any moment. I didn't see the type of wood used, but it seemed to me that the wood used for scaffolding was more durable. My house and office are built in a 150-year-old house, and the walls are made of boat wood which is more than a decade old. Wood lasts longer if made correctly, but the wood used for scaffolding is used three times before being used again in Ethiopia. At first glance, it may seem that the wood is being recycled, as it could be used to make charcoal, but it is wrong to use this wood as scaffolding for buildings in the first place. In fact, the use of timber legs is forbidden in Ethiopia, and steel scaffolding must be used. Still, forests in developing countries are not registered, and the wood often does not belong to anyone. Therefore, instead of using iron scaffolding, which is expensive to rent, they use free wood from the forest, which costs nothing except transport.
In Indonesia, the link between deforestation and palm oil has been raised. The government reports that there is no illegal deforestation anymore, but if you look at the fact that the foreign researchers who found it has been effectively deported, I think illegal deforestation could be still going on. But it's not just deforestation; some rice fields and coffee plantations have recently been converted to palm oil production. A government official told me that he was surprised to find that cocoa fields in Java, where he went to do research, had been turned into palm oil fields. This is probably because there is no alternative to palm oil, and the pressure to cut down the forests is not letting up.
I just jet-down this post based on my own research. However, it shows that deforestation is caused by many factors such as firewood for cooking, lack of work for men, timber as scaffolding, problems with land registration, housing demand, lack of research transparency and palm oil demand. If you do a proper survey, you will find a complex set of factors that circle further around it.
Many social and environmental issues, not just deforestation, involve many different factors, so we need to understand the situation at a systems level and sit down and work through the issues that will take several years.