Foreign investments in land increase tropical deforestation
New study shows that tropical forest loss is enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions
Fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly scarce and this has led to a rise in land acquisitions in the Global South in recent years. Such land deals imply that foreign countries and multinational investors broker long-term contracts to use the land for various purposes, such as agriculture or mining. Land deals can have positive outcomes, for example when new jobs are created for local communities, or technologies are transferred. But there is also considerable concern that land deals do lead to higher pressure on the environment and have negative outcomes for local people.
An international group of researchers led by the University of Delaware’s Kyle Davis and with participation of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin’s (HU) Geography Department now has published a study in Nature Geoscience that analyzed how land investments relate to tropical deforestation. They found that many investments eventually lead to the conversion of tropical forests – at rates higher than could be expected without these land deals.
“There’s been a rapid increase in land investments in recent decades due to growing global demands for food, fuel, and fiber” Tobias Kuemmerle, professor for Biogeography at HU and co-author of the study explains. “The study shows that these large-scale land acquisitions preferentially target areas where there is still tropical forest – and that particularly those land acquisitions aimed at establishing tree crops and tree plantations, such as for producing rubber and palm oil, lead to deforestation of these forests.”
The researchers used a large georeferenced database of more than 82,000 land deals—covering 15 countries in Latin American, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—with global data on annual forest cover and loss between 2000 and 2018. “These unique datasets provided us with information on the exact area, boundary, and intended use of each deal. This allowed us to understand whether large-scale land investments are associated with increased rates of forest loss,” said Davis, assistant professor at the University of Delaware’s Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences highlights.
The study shows that that since the start of the century, 76 percent of all large-scale land acquisitions in the Global South can be attributed to foreign land investment. These land acquisitions covered anywhere from six to 59 percent of a particular country’s land area and two to 79 percent of their forests. The researchers also found that investments to establish new oil palm or tree plantations seem to consistently have higher rates of forest loss. Yet, for other investment types, such as logging and mining, the results were more mixed. Logging investments served a small, protective role where the rates of forest loss in logging concessions were slightly lower than the rates of forest loss in surrounding, comparable areas.”
“The living world is on the brink. We urgently need to strengthen governance and trade regulations to protect what’s left of our forests”, Laura Kehoe, another co-author and former PhD Student at HU’s Geography Department explains.
The researchers emphasize the importance of governments to provide detailed information on land investments, to ensure that these deals are carried out transparently and to allow researchers to objectively assess their effects. Their findings also provide concrete starting points for policy makers to avoid deforestation: “We see the same type of deal leading to enhanced forest loss in one country, but not in another country. This suggests that there are opportunities to learn and adapt if they want to avoid land deals resulting in negative environmental outcomes,” Tobias Kuemmerle concludes.
Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Tobias Kümmerle, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Geographisches Institut, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Davis K.F., Koo H. I., Dell’Angelo J., D’Odorico P., Estes L., Kehoe L., Kharratzadeh M., Kuemmerle T., Machava D., de Jesus Rodrigues Pais A., Ribeiro N., Rulli M. C. & Tatlhego M. (2020): Tropical forest loss enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions. Nature Geosciences, in press.