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Huge Land Buys Are Driving Tropical Forest Destruction

In recent years, there has been a rise in foreign and domestic large-scale land acquisitions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where investors are taking out long-term contracts to use land for various enterprises.

In some cases, the acquisitions lead to new jobs for local communities, and governments welcome the transfers of technology and inflow of capital. But such investments can also have adverse effects on local people who rely on the land for food and income, but have no legal claim to it.

An international group of researchers just published a study in Nature Geoscience to see which types of large-scale land investments—defined as being at least roughly one square mile—may be associated with increases in tropical deforestation. They found that those focusing on establishing new single-species tree plantations, for palm oil, timber or wood fiber, consistently had higher rates of forest loss than surrounding non-investment areas.

Above, rain forest near the city of Pucallpa, in the Peruvian Amazon, being cleared for an oil-palm plantation. Below, oil-palm seedlings. (Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute)

The study shows that large-scale land acquisitions can lead to elevated tropical deforestation, says lead author Kyle Davis, a former Earth Institute postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Delaware. Other authors include former Earth Institute postdoc Milad Kharratzadeh and Heejin Irene Koo, who did the research as a Columbia undergrad with funding from the Earth Institute.

The researchers used a database of more than 82,000 land deals, covering 15 countries in Latin American, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and combined that with global data on annual forest cover and loss between 2000 and 2018.

They found that since the start of the century, 76 percent of all large-scale land acquisitions in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania can be attributed to foreign land investment. These land acquisitions covered anywhere from 6 to 59 percent of a particular country’s land area, and 2 to 79 percent of their forests.

The information came from the Global Forest Watch database, run by the World Resources Institute, as well as government ministries, which provide information for thousands of individual investments that show the exact areas, boundaries and intended uses.

“Investments to establish new oil palm or tree plantations seem to consistently have higher rates of forest loss, and that makes sense because basically, you have to completely clear the land in order to convert it,” said said Davis, an assistant professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences. “If you want to establish a tree plantation or a palm oil plantation in place of natural vegetation, you’ve first got to cut down the forest.”

For other investment types, such as logging and mining, however, the results were more mixed. Logging investments, in fact, served a small protective role; the rates of forest loss in logging concessions were slightly lower than the rates of forest loss in comparable surrounding areas. Davis attributed this to the specific requirements for the logging industry, in which often only trees of a certain size or species can be harvested.

The spread of large-scale land acquisitions is in large part the result of rising globalization. “There’s been a rapid increase in land investments in recent decades due to growing global demands for food, fuel, and fiber,” said Davis. He pointed to the global food crisis in 2008, when many import-reliant countries realized they were vulnerable to food or resource shortages. To help offset that vulnerability, they pursued investments abroad to expand the resources available to them in case another large-scale shock occurs.

Davis said it is important for governments to provide detailed information on land investments, to ensure that deals are carried out transparently, and to allow researchers to objectively assess their effects. He also said that by performing this comparison across countries, it becomes possible to start identifying policies that are most effective in protecting forests.

“If you see deals in one country that aren’t leading to enhanced forest loss but the same type of investment in another country is accelerating deforestation, then this suggests that there are opportunities to compare the policies in both places, and leverage what’s working in one country and adapt that to another context,” said Davis. “But it also clearly shows that countries will inevitably experience deforestation should they seek to promote certain investments such as palm oil, wood fiber, and tree plantations.”

Adapted from a press release by the University of Delaware.

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