The Root of the Problem—Drivers of Deforestation (2011)

What is driving tropical deforestation today?
June 2011
In order to act effectively to reduce deforestation, we must understand the complex forces that drive it.

Dangers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation

Deforestation and forest degradation have been occurring for thousands of years.

Both deforestation, which completely removes the forest canopy, and degradation, which maintains the canopy but causes losses of carbon, are important sources of global warming pollution, as well as threats to biodiversity and to the livelihoods of forest peoples. Thus it is important to understand the causes of these changes—the "drivers" of deforestation.

In this report, the Union of Concerned Scientists explains these drivers and shows that they have changed fundamentally in the twenty-first century. The report focuses on the economic agents that play a critical role in deforestation.

Economic Drivers of Deforestation

For many years, tropical deforestation was attributed to expanding populations of subsistence farmers cutting down the forest for small-scale agriculture and firewood.

But many recent scientific studies show that large, commercial agriculture and timber enterprises are the principal agents of tropical deforestation, which is responsible for about 10 percent of global warming pollution worldwide.

The drivers of deforestation differ by region: soy and cattle are key in South America while timber, paper, and palm oil are more important in Southeast Asia.

Some of the most important drivers include: 

Soybeans: Over the past two decades soybean cultivation in the Amazon by large, commercial farmers has undergone a dramatic transformation. In just a few years, it grew to become one of the main causes of Amazon deforestation; however, with a recent voluntary moratorium on soybean expansion into the forests in Brazil, this is changing.

Cattle and Pasture: Using cattle to produce food for humans requires large amounts of land to generate relatively small amounts of food. As ranchers clear forests for pasture land, cattle and their pasture land has been an important driver of deforestation in South America.

Timber and Paper: The global market for wood and wood products creates pressure on tropical countries to destroy their forests and produce cheap timber and pulp (used to make paper). This demand has increased logging of tropical forests and is a major driver of deforestation. If the demand for furniture, paper, building materials, and other wood products continues to increase, primary tropical forests will likely remain at risk for logging.

Palm Oil: Palm oil production has more than doubled in the last decade, now dominating the global market for vegetable oil. Most palm oil is produced on large industrial plantations, driving tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. The harvested area of palm oil in Southeast Asia has tripled in just a decade.

The demand for these products is global and originates primarily in urban areas. We also examine the role of population and diet, which are key underlying factors in the demand for tropical commodities causing deforestation.

Recent actions to deal with some of the drivers of deforestation, such as pressure to change the soybean industry in Brazil, have proven successful, showing how deforestation can be slowed—and even stopped—in the next few decades.

The End of Deforestation: How do we get there?

Reducing growth in demand for commodities that drive deforestation will be important to future successes, but so will increasing the productivity of currently-used lands and directing agricultural expansion into grasslands rather than forests.

The spread of biofuel production, which would create a demand for deforestation not linked to food, could create strong new pressures on tropical forests.

However, if recent successes can be duplicated in other tropical countries, we can envision the end of deforestation in the next few decades. This would be a truly historic achievement.

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