Illegal agriculture driving worldwide decrease of tropical forests

A study from non-profit organisation Forest Trends has indicated that the decline of tropical rainforests is due to the prevalence of illegal agriculture.

The report by Forest Trends indicates that 44% of the worlds tropical forests have been wiped out in Latin America and the Caribbean alone, with 77 million hectares of tropical forests lost between 2013 and 2019 in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia – of which 46 million hectares were a consequence of commercial agriculture.

They estimate that 69% of this agricultural forest clearing – agro-conversion – was illegally executed against national laws and regulations, responsible for cultivating commodities such as soybeans, palm oil, and beef, which in the last seven years has equated to 31.7 million hectares of the Earth’s  tropical forests.

Ecologist Arthur Blundell, the lead co-author of the report, said: “We don’t need to clear more forests in order to grow food. People need to understand the role of commercial agriculture in driving illegal deforestation and how important tropical forests are.”

From the analysis of data obtained from 23 countries, it is estimated that 31% of forest loss occurred in Asia, with 76% of this being caused by commercial agriculture, and further loss of 25% to the global tropical rainforests demonstrated in Africa; here, commercial agriculture accounted for 10% of illegal deforestation.

Geographer Eraldo Matricardi, an associate professor at the University of Brasilia (UnB), who did not take part in the study, said: “Unfortunately, the forest is not yet considered as something viable, hence the interest in deforesting to make it productive. Agribusiness, in turn, has economic viability and high incentives from a financial point of view.”

The researchers reiterate that for social and economic reasons, deforestation is a necessary evil. However, it does follow set limits and technical criteria, meaning that its impacts can be controlled, whereas illegal deforestation cannot.

Across the regions, the levels of illegal deforestation fluctuate considerably, with 88% shown in Latin America, 66% in Africa and 41% in Asia. Major export such as Indonesia’s palm oil was responsible for 81% of illegal clearing, with beef and soy production in Brazil accounting for 74% and 20%, respectively.

Blundell said: “Producers of agricultural commodities need to reinforce their laws and stop illegal deforestation, but consumers internationally also have a role. They need to make sure that what they buy is not linked to forest loss. If you’re buying something from Brazil, for example, there is so much evidence it may be coming from deforestation.”

Furthermore, the environmental impacts of butchering tropical rainforests are considerable; emissions from illegal agro-conversion are liable to 2.7 gigatons of CO2 annually, dwarfing India’s 2018 fossil fuel emissions.

“We cannot address climate change unless we address illegal deforestation, and we cannot address illegal deforestation without addressing commercial food,” concluded Blundell.

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