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Profit, not poverty, increasingly the cause of deforestation

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?

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