What's Driving Deforestation Now?

April 14, 2016
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

UCS has just created a new set of web pages summarizing the latest scientific information on the drivers of tropical deforestation. Even though we published a 120-page book about this issue, The Root of the Problem, just five years ago, there is so much new information that what we wrote then is rapidly becoming out of date. And some of these new studies have changed scientists’ minds about the problem in important ways.

So, what is driving tropical deforestation todaynot five or fifteen or fifty years ago? Where is the forest being cleared, who is doing it, and why? How important are palm oil plantations or soybean farmers compared to loggers or cattle ranchers? What economic forces have the greatest responsibility for the land use change that causes 10% of global warming pollution?

I’d encourage you to look at all the new web pages, which go into lots of detail about many different drivers, and to share the link with friends and colleagues. But here, for a taste of what you’ll find there, are my impressions of the most important new findings in the last few years. In brief, what they show is that while many forces, regions and agricultural commodities have a role in tropical deforestation, some of them are much more important than all the others. Latin America, the Brazilian Amazon, the beef cattle industry and enormous farms and ranches—these are what dominate deforestation today.

The earth (Google's version).

The earth (Google’s version).

Let’s start with a global view, and then narrow our focus step by step to smaller and smaller areas. Sort of like “flying in” virtually to an area using Google Earth, beginning with the image of the entire planet and then successively looking at a continent, a country and a state.

At the global level, an important new study by Sabine Henders, Martin Persson and Thomas Kastner, published last December, made it clear which commodity is by far the world’s leading driver of deforestation: beef. Comparing the four most important drivers of tropical deforestationbeef, soy, palm oil and wood productshere are the amounts of deforestation for which each was responsible between 2001 and 2009:

Commodity Gross deforestation (million hectares, 2001-2009) Percent
Beef 26.5 65%
Soybeans 6.4 16%
Wood products 4.2 10%
Palm oil 4.0 10%
TOTAL 40.9
SOURCE: Henders et al. 2015, Environmental Research Letters. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125012

In fact, these percentages probably underestimate the importance of beef, because Henders and colleagues focused just on the most important countries for each driver. This included all the important countries for deforestation by soybeans (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia) and by palm oil (Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea), but left out many places in Latin America, where beef is known to be an important driverprobably the most importantof deforestation. Thus, when we get complete global data, the 65% figure for beef may well go even higher.

These numbers suggest that we should focus on Latin America, the source of the large majority of the two leading drivers, beef and soy. And indeed, a recent study by Alexandra Tyukavina and colleagues that estimated the rates of loss of natural forests on a global scale, found that fully 54% of it44 out of 77 ½ million hectareswas in Latin America. So, let’s look at a detailed examination of the drivers of deforestation in the South America (which is not all of Latin America, but most of it). This research, by Veronica DeSy and colleagues. was based on painstakingly detailed examination of satellite images taken from 1990 to 2005, systematically distributed across the continent. It found that fully 71% of the forest clearing was to create cattle pasture, versus just 12% to plant commercial crops (which include soybeans). Smallholder crops were responsible for just 2% of the deforestation.

Brazil, even with its success over the past decade in reducing deforestation, is still the country where the majority of Latin America’s deforestation occurs, so let’s focus in on it. David Lapola et al., in addition to providing data that confirms the overwhelming role of pasture for beef cattle in Brazil’s deforestation, have also shown the great importance of inequality in the ownership of cropland. Large-scale commodity agriculture increased its share of cropland from 53% in 1990 to 70% in 2011, but it produces very little of the rice, beans and cassava that are the staples of the Brazilian diet. That comes overwhelmingly from small farmers, even though they have only 24% of the country’s farmland.


What does this inequality mean for Brazilian deforestation? Recently published research by Peter Richards and Leah VanWey on the state of Mato GrossoBrazil’s third largest, but the leader in deforestation when the rate was high in the early 2000sshowed clearly how deforestation is concentrated on the largest farms and ranches. Properties under 250 hectares in size had only 14% of the total deforestation, while those larger in size were where 49% of deforestation took place. (Property size could not be identified for 33% of the deforestation.) Note also that the 250 hectare cutoff for “small” farms is actually quite large by global standard. For example, the 160-acre farm that is the traditional size in the United States covers just 65 hectares.

Richards and VanWey show that this was not only the situation for deforestation in the recent past, but is also the case for the threat of deforestation in the future. This is simply because only 3% of the remaining forest is on “small” properties, while more than ten times as much is on the larger farms and ranches (greater than 250 hectares). So, stopping deforestation by the big landholders is of overwhelming importance – not just to Brazil, but to the global climate as well.

Before these recent studies, we tended to talk about the locations and causes of tropical deforestationLatin America, Africa and Southeast Asia; beef, palm oil, soy and timber; small subsistence farmers and large-scale commodity agricultureas if all of them were more or less equally important parts of the problem. Now we know that they are not. Land ownership and economic power are extremely unequal, and so is the responsibility for deforestation. We need to focus our efforts on the drivers that are most important—not just for reasons of justice, but also because it’s going to be the only effective way to end deforestation.