23 November 2022

Land speculation drives deforestation ‘for nothing’ in the tropics

In tropical regions, agriculture causes up to 99 percent of deforestation. But at least one-third of deforested land gives no contribution to food production, researchers have found

By Matteo Cavallito


Deforestation in tropical areas is caused almost entirely by agriculture, according to a study published in the journal Science. The survey raised estimates of the true extent – previously estimated at around 80 percent – of what has long been considered the main driver of forest destruction, but it also uncovered a surprising finding: indeed a significant portion of deforestation, the authors say, does not result in an actual expansion of agricultural activity.

More accurate estimates

“New methods and data have advanced our understanding of deforestation and subsequent land uses,” says the study by 21 experts from several universities (including the universities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, in Sweden, University of Wageningen, in the Netherlands, and the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin) and research centers. “However, only a handful of studies estimate agriculture-driven deforestation across the entirety of the tropics.” The numbers range from 4.3 to 9.6 million hectares annually.

According to the authors, the application of a new survey methodology capable of distinguishing “between the different ways in which agriculture contributes to deforestation” allows them to reduce the level of uncertainty by placing estimates in a narrower range. The size of tropical land clearing, they conclude, would range between 6.4 and 8.8 million hectares annually. But this is not the only key finding of the study.

Deforestation ‘for nothing’

“While the overwhelming majority (90 to 99%) of tropical deforestation occurs in landscapes where agriculture is the dominant driver of tree cover loss,” according to the research. However, “a smaller share (45 to 65%) of deforestation is due to the expansion of active agricultural production into forests.” A significant portion of land clearing, in other words, seem to be the result of mere speculative activity that does not consequently contribute to food security.

Patrick Meyfroidt, professor at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, and co-author of the survey, calls it of “deforestation for nothing.”

Indeed, he points out, “While agriculture is the ultimate driver, forests and other ecosystems are often cleared for land speculation that never materialised, projects that were abandoned or ill-conceived, land that proved unsuitable for cultivation, as well as due to fires that spread into forests neighboring cleared areas.”

New law enforcement strategies are needed

This finding has major implications. The study, for example, identified a few specific commodities – meat, resulting in a need for grazing land, soybeans and palm oil – that contribute the most to ecosystem destruction . However, the authors warn, “although public and private policies promoting deforestation-free international supply chains have a critical role to play, their ability to reduce deforestation on the ground is fundamentally limited.”

Moreover, they add, “the majority—approximately three-quarters—of the expansion of agriculture into forests is driven by domestic demand in producer countries, especially for beef and cereals, including much of the deforestation across the African continent.” For these reasons, therefore, initiatives to fight the phenomenon should be based in particular on direct interventions in areas at risk with the aim of strengthening sustainable rural development and land protection.