09/16/2014 12:21 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:52 EDT

You Might Have Just Bought an Illegally Cut Piece of the Rainforest

Rainforest Action Network/Flickr
This photo is from <a href="" target="new" rel="nofollow">an investigative report</a> from Rainforest Action Network that presents evidence that Cargill is operating two undisclosed palm oil plantations in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The destruction of primary rainforest by Duta Palma. West Kalimantan, Borneo. Cargill was a key purchaser of palm oil from this notorious rainforest destroyer up until 2008. Photo: David Gilbert/RAN

If you've just been shopping at the supermarket or hardware store, chances are you've brought a little bit of tropical rainforest home with you. And chances are some of it was illegally cleared.

That's because the goods you bought contain everyday commodities exported from tropical forest countries, and these make their way into everything from cookies, ice cream, cosmetics, cooking oil to tissues and printing paper. Unwittingly, we're all driving deforestation across the globe in tropical forest countries because a large portion of that deforestation is caused by illegal clearing for agriculture.

The main culprits are palm oil, timber plantations for pulp, soy, beef and cocoa but also include rubber and coconut plantations, and mining, according to a landmark study led by Forest Trends, a U.S.-based NGO.

Why illegal? Because many companies producing the stuff and exporting it are flouting local rules and regulations through bad practices, corruption and little or no consultation with local communities. Permits are corruptly obtained, areas are cleared against regulations, permit boundaries are not respected, fires are used to illegally clear forest, local communities aren't compensated and land is illegally grabbed from them.

And tropical forest deforestation has been accelerating globally, so the problem is of growing concern.

Most of us would never knowingly contribute to such destruction. Instead, we're being duped. Our voracious demand for food and wood products makes it easy to disguise tainted commodities in the products we buy. The Forest Trends study is the first assessment of the extent of illegal deforestation and forest conversion for export-driven agriculture, the authors say.

They found that 49 per cent of all recent tropical deforestation is the result of illegal clearing for commercial agriculture. The global trade in exports from illegal forest clearance is worth US$61 billion a year, with the EU, China, India, Russia and the United States among the largest buyers, the study says.

Brazil and Indonesia together account for 75 per cent of the global area of tropical forest estimated to have been illegally converted for commercial agriculture during 2000-2012. In Indonesia, the main drivers of deforestation are palm oil and pulp plantations, with 75 per cent of these commodities exported. Total forest lost between 2000-2012 totaled 15.5 million hectares (38.75 million acres), with 80 per cent of deforestation for agricultural production being illegal based on an analysis of permit violations and other illegalities.

In Brazil, 90 per cent of deforestation from 2000 to 2012 was illegal, primarily due to the failure to conserve a percentage of natural forests in large-scale cattle and soy plantations, as required by Brazilian law -- though much of this occurred prior to 2004.

What does all this mean for the climate? The emissions caused by illegal conversion of tropical forest for large-scale agriculture during 2000-2012 was an average of 1.47 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, about half of which was associated with commodity exports.

"If the international trade in agro-commodities from illegal deforestation were a country, it would be the sixth largest contributor to climate change in the world," says the report.

The authors say much of the forest conversion takes place in the context of complex, contradictory, and poorly implemented regulations governing forested areas.

"This confusing regulatory environment makes 'legal deforestation' difficult for both large and small forest enterprises to achieve, while enterprises that blatantly break the law often do so with impunity and may even be rewarded after the fact with acts of amnesty or retroactive changes in the law," the authors say in the report.

The authors calculated illegal clearance in 17 tropical forest countries responsible for most of the rainforest loss for the study's 2000- 2012 focus period.

To estimate the area of tropical forest lost due to illegal commercial agriculture (including timber plantations) in each country, the authors multiplied the total area of measured forest loss by an estimate of the deforestation during 2000 to 2012 that was due to commercial agriculture. The resulting figure was then multiplied by an estimate of the proportion of deforestation for commercial agriculture that was illegal in some way.

For ordinary shoppers, the findings are worrying. How to distinguish between what is produced legally and the product of corruption, land grabs and illegal burning?

The good news is that a growing number of large Indonesian palm oil firms such as Wilmar and Golden Agri Resources have adopted strict zero-deforestation and sourcing policies, along with a major Indonesian pulp & paper company Asia Pulp & Paper.

In Brazil, soy producers in the Amazon region have adopted a voluntary deforestation moratorium, though soy produced in other areas in Brazil seems to be less well regulated, the study finds, and a 2009 moratorium for beef producers has had some positive effects. Major commodity buyers such as Nestle and Unilever have also issued tough sourcing pledges, spurring other buyers to follow suit over the past year.

All these commitments need close scrutiny and much more needs to be done to clean up the global food and wood products sectors. Laws need to be enforced and corruption stamped out.

Commodity supply chains are complex but companies, NGOs and certification bodies can and are working together to bring much needed transparency to the production of the food we eat and the basic goods we buy and take for granted. We need this for the good of the planet and to make agricultural commodity production genuinely sustainable.