- More deforestation occurs in years with competitive elections than in non-competitive election years (i.e., those with a single candidate or a rigged vote), according to a study examining 55 countries in the tropics between 2001 and 2018.
- Competitive elections can be potential drivers of deforestation because politicians use land and resources to win over voters. While there are laws and regulations against monetary and real estate bribery, there often aren’t any against the exploitation of natural resources.
- Researchers were surprised to find that deforestation was higher during non-election years and competitive election years than during non-competitive election years. They suggest several reasons why, although this contradicts findings from past studies.
- To better protect forests, the authors recommend that integrity and transparency monitoring schemes in place to monitor elections include natural resource monitoring and that conservation organizations and the media be extra vigilant in the lead-up to competitive election years.
Ahead of the presidential election in Brazil last October, deforestation in the Amazon reached its highest level in 15 years. Was this an anomaly, or part of a pattern? Are elections and deforestation somehow linked?
To answer these questions, a group of researchers examined deforestation and election data from 55 countries in the tropics between 2001 and 2018. They found that, overall, more deforestation occurred in years with competitive elections than in non-competitive election years.
A competitive election is defined as one in which at least two candidates are running, and the votes actually count toward electing the winner (as opposed to elections with a single candidate or where the process is a sham). During these competitive years, candidates may use whatever tools they have at their disposal to win votes, including leveraging natural resources.
“These results are in line with previous studies on election cycle competitiveness, suggesting that competitive elections can be potential drivers of deforestation,” they wrote in a recently published paper in the journal Biological Conservation.
‘We think this is because politicians use land and resources to win over voters,” said Joeri Morpurgo, first author of the study and Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands. For example, candidates may donate forest land to be mined or logged, or relax regulations, all in hopes of gaining votes from people working in these industries.
“More competitive elections will increase incentives for politicians to misuse public goods for winning favour,” the authors write. “Additionally, citizens might also pre-emptively clear forests, in fear of new legislation by anti-deforestation regimes or in expectation of impunity.”
For each of the countries, the authors analyzed data on election competitiveness, media integrity, corruption control, seasonality, agricultural contribution to GDP, and human population density. They used the Global Forest Change data set, which relies on satellite data, to calculate deforestation rates.
To their surprise, the researchers found that deforestation was higher during non-election years and competitive elections years than during non-competitive election years. This result contradicts a 2018 study of Brazil that found municipal-level deforestation increased by 8-10% during years with a municipal election.
“This result does not support the notion that forests are utilized as a resource during national level electioneering at the pan-tropical scale,” the paper says.
The authors suggest several reasons why this may be the case. First, forests may be exploited before elections, and tree cutting may taper off at different time scales. Second, natural resource management is becoming more decentralized within countries, which should make it more difficult for higher-level politicians to exploit resources at the local scale.
Stakeholders invested in logging or logging-dependent businesses may alter their investment behavior in response to upcoming elections, resulting in reduced deforestation, as seen in Africa, where private investments decreased by 16% during election years.
Lastly, in situations where elections are uncompetitive and binding term limits are in place, deforestation may decrease during elections. For example, when politicians face binding term limits, they may not compete in the next election, eliminating the incentive to seek political support and votes.
Johanna Eklund a postdoctoral researcher from the Digital Geography Lab at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, who was not involved in the study, describes the authors’ findings as “extremely interesting.”
“To my knowledge, it is the first study looking at how elections affect deforestation across a sample of tropical countries, not just single case studies,” she told Mongabay.
“It seems like the competitiveness of an election could make a difference,” she added, though despite the paper’s discussion, “it is not immediately clear what the mechanisms behind these patterns would be.”
Eklund said using near-real-time, satellite-based data to look at deforestation at a finer resolution and shorter time spans than one year could prove helpful for revealing the relationship between elections and deforestation.
Morpurgo said he agrees that “we need to look at the effects at smaller scales or over a shorter time span,” but added, “But for many tropical countries, that kind of data is often not yet available or difficult to obtain.”
“The effects of elections on deforestation are really tricky to identify on a global scale,” Sharon Pailler, an economist who published the 2018 study looking at election incentives in the Brazilian Amazon but was not involved in this study, told Mongabay.
“Not all competitive elections are equal,” Pailler said. For example, if the currently serving official is running for reelection, they have the ability to manipulate resources, leading to more deforestation. But if they can’t run for reelection, the candidates who are running probably cannot change policies or enforcement, which may also mean more deforestation.
“These nuances can get lost in global-level analysis,” she added, “and can lead to inaccurate generalizations about the effects of elections on deforestation.”
According to the study, around 1.5 million square kilometers (579,000 square miles) of tropical forest, an area the size of Mongolia, was deforested between 2001 and 2018. The largest loss was in Brazil, followed by Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
To better protect forests, the authors recommend that the integrity and transparency monitoring schemes in place to monitor elections, such as the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors, include natural resources monitoring. Morpurgo also suggests those who want to learn more about elections look to the Global State of Democracy (GSOD) and Rules, Elections, and Irregular Governance (REIGN) data sets.
Additionally, conservation organizations and the media should be extra vigilant in the lead-up to competitive election years, the paper says, looking out for activities such as land-gifting practices for forest exploitation. There are laws and regulations against monetary and real estate bribery, but often not against the exploitation of natural resources.
“This way,” Morpurgo said, “we can hopefully prevent democratic elections from being accompanied by deforestation, destruction of ecosystems and exploitation of natural resources.”
Morpurgo, J., Kissling, W. D., Tyrrell, P., Negret, P. J., van Bodegom, P. M., & Allan, J. R. (2023). The role of elections as drivers of tropical deforestation. Biological Conservation, 279. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109832
Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P. V., Moore, R., Hancher, M., Turubanova, S. A., Tyukavina, A., … Townshend, J. R. (2013). High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science, 342(6160), 850-853. doi:10.1126/science.1244693
Pailler, S. (2018). Re-election incentives and deforestation cycles in the Brazilian Amazon. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 88, 345-365. doi:10.1016/j.jeem.2018.01.008
Kanyam, D. A. (2020). A wait‐and‐see approach to investments: Do elections play a role? Review of Development Economics, 24(1), 106-124. doi:10.1111/rode.12632
Banner Image: Sections of the Amazon Rainforest are set on fire by farmers to be cleared for agriculture. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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