Profit, not poverty, increasingly the cause of deforestation

Rhett A. Butler,
June 13, 2011

Small-holder deforestation, like this seen in Suriname (left), is being replaced by large-scale deforestation for commercial commodity production, like cattle (right).

A new report highlights the increasing role commodity production and trade play in driving tropical deforestation.

The report, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that export-driven industries are driving a bigger share of deforestation than ever before, marking a shift from previous decades, when most tropical deforestation was the product of poor farmers trying to put food on the table for their families.

"Not that long ago the conventional wisdom was that deforestation was due to farmers clearing land for crops they needed for food or wood they needed for fuel," said Doug Boucher, director of the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and a co-author of the report. "Everyone thought the forests were declining because rural populations were growing. But that's just not the case anymore."

Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America averaged over the period 1990–2005. 'Croplands' includes soy in Latin America and oil palm in Asia. Most timber harvesting in Asia is included in 'Industrial Harvest.' Units are billions of tons of carbon per year. Source: Houghton 2010. Caption and image courtesy of UCS.
Instead forest loss is increasingly the result of growing affluence worldwide. Forest lands are being converted for commodity production: palm oil, timber, beef and leather, pulp and paper, and soy. While small-scale agriculture and charcoal production remain significant drivers of deforestation, The Root of the Problem: What’s Driving Tropical Deforestation Today?, says that says that changing diets — most notably, more consumption of meat, which requires more land and more grain inputs — are putting more pressure on forests.

But the report highlights reasons for hope, including efforts to compensate tropical countries for protecting forests through the REDD+ mechanism, renewed emphasis on commodity production on 'degraded' lands, certification mechanisms for agricultural products, and NGO campaigns that pressure consumer-facing corporations to adopt more sustainable practices.

The report says reducing deforestation is one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to slow climate change. Emissions from deforestation and forest degradation account for around a tenth of global emissions.

The Root of the Problem: What’s Driving Tropical Deforestation Today?

Related articles

Corporations, conservation, and the green movement

(10/21/2010) The image of rainforests being torn down by giant bulldozers, felled by chainsaw-wielding loggers, and torched by large-scale developers has never been more poignant. Corporations have today replaced small-scale farmers as the prime drivers of deforestation, a shift that has critical implications for conservation. Until recently deforestation has been driven mostly by poverty—poor people in developing countries clearing forests or depleting other natural resources as they struggle to feed their families. Government policies in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s had a multiplier effect, subsidizing agricultural expansion through low-interest loans, infrastructure projects, and ambitious colonization schemes, especially in the Amazon and Indonesia. But over the past two decades, this has changed in many countries due to rural depopulation, a decline in state-sponsored development projects, the rise of globalized financial markets, and a worldwide commodity boom. Deforestation, overfishing, and other forms of environmental degradation are now primarily the result of corporations feeding demand from international consumers. While industrial actors exploit resources more efficiently and cause widespread environmental damage, they also are more sensitive to pressure from consumers and environmental groups. Thus in recent years, it has become easier—and more ethical—for green groups to go after corporations than after poor farmers.

Changing drivers of deforestation provide new opportunities for conservation

(12/09/2009) Tropical deforestation claimed roughly 13 million hectares of forest per year during the first half of this decade, about the same rate of loss as the 1990s. But while the overall numbers have remained relatively constant, they mask a transition of great significance: a shift from poverty-driven to industry-driven deforestation and geographic consolidation of where deforestation occurs. These changes have important implications for efforts to protect the world's remaining tropical forests in that environmental lobby groups now have identifiable targets that may be more responsive to pressure on environmental concerns than tens of millions of impoverished rural farmers. In other words, activists have more leverage than ever to impact corporate behavior as it relates to deforestation.

Concerns over deforestation may drive new approach to cattle ranching in the Amazon

(09/08/2009) While you're browsing the mall for running shoes, the Amazon rainforest is probably the farthest thing from your mind. Perhaps it shouldn't be. The globalization of commodity supply chains has created links between consumer products and distant ecosystems like the Amazon. Shoes sold in downtown Manhattan may have been assembled in Vietnam using leather supplied from a Brazilian processor that subcontracted to a rancher in the Amazon. But while demand for these products is currently driving environmental degradation, this connection may also hold the key to slowing the destruction of Earth's largest rainforest.

Shift from poverty-driven to industry-driven deforestation may help conservation

(08/06/2008) A shift from poverty-driven deforestation to industry-driven deforestation in the tropics may offer new opportunities for forest conservation, argues a new paper published in the journal Trends in Evolution & Ecology.

Rhett A. Butler, (June 13, 2011).

Profit, not poverty, increasingly the cause of deforestation.