The next conservation battleground: cities

Consider this.

  • 2009: first time in history when one in two humans lived in urban areas.
  • 2010: A study from the Earth Institute tells us that the highest forest losses are correlated with 2 factors: urban growth within countries; and, mainly in Asia, growth of agricultural exports to other countries (for dramatic illustrations of these trends, look no further than the slums clogging cities such as Jakarta, Beijing or Bangkok.)

For those of us engaged in stopping deforestation, these two facts point to cities as the arena where the next conservation battles must be fought. As urban centres swell with an influx of people from the countryside and total purchasing power grows, demands on commodities such as palm oil, soy, sugar and cotton follow accordingly. Hundreds miles away, this demand is met by ever faster encroachment into the remaining patches of forest, flattened in favour of plantations.

Influencing consumer behaviour in the largest cities–say with more than 5 million residents–through localized, sophisticated, campaigns that provide the public with attractive alternatives to products that have contributed to deforestation may prove more effective than spatial plans, protected areas, law enforcement patrols and the like.

At the end of the day, consumers run the show. When a product’s sales drop–hopefully because a campaign has effectively convinced consumers of the brand’s unsavoury environmental and social practices–then you can be sure that the executives will start paying attention, and clean up their act–pronto.

Because of their size, density, and combined environmental impact beyond the limits of the urban area, cities are the best place where we have a fighting chance to keep forests standing. But to do this, we must win the hearts of tens of millions of people who through their daily acts are unconsciously undoing the natural world, one purchase at a time.

This is the time; the public is attentive to ‘green’. Can we be smart enough to capitalize on this interest to make them make more responsible purchasing choices?

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