What's Driving Rainforest Deforestation?

Meaghan Weeden | June 15, 2022 | 5 min read

rainforest Deforestation is a Major threat to Biodiversity around the world

Deforestation is a major threat to forests around the world, and rainforest deforestation is an alarming concern, given that these types of forests account for a large portion of the earth's biodiversity. lthough the 2022 State of the World's Forests report found that the overall rate of deforestation is declining, we're still losing a very high number trees each year. In 2019, a football pitch of primary rainforest was lost every 6 seconds, and the tropics lost 11.9 million hectares (119,000 square kilometers) of tree cover overall. 

 What are the main drivers of deforestation in the rainforest? While the overall drivers of deforestation around the world are numerous, including wildfires, farming, and urbanization, one of the most complex and devastating causes of rainforest deforestation, especially in the tropics, is agriculture, or the production of commodities (raw materials to be bought and sold). 

Amazon rainforest deforestation, in particular, is something that gets talked about a lot — and with good reason: also in 2019, Brazil accounted for a third of the world’s tropical primary forest loss. But deforestation in the amazon rainforest is just one part of a larger story that, unfortunately, includes tropical forest loss in every major tropical region — with consequences for climate change, animals and plants, the rights and livelihoods of local communities, and more. 

Recent research and improved spatial data and monitoring is giving scientists an increasingly nuanced understanding of what's happening on the ground. These observations show that the drivers of deforestation are more complex and more rapidly changing than previously understood. A recent study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) found that, currently, the three major tropical regions are primarily affected by:

  • Latin America:  pasture and shifting cultivation, including cattle ranching and, in some areas, smaller scale agriculture
  • Africa:  subsistence agriculture and shifting cultivation, as well as managed forests, wildfires, roads, and commercial agriculture
  • Asia:  shifting cultivation and other subsistence agriculture, commercial palm oil, and managed forests.

Watch the video to learn more about the deforestation definition and deforestation effects 

4 main drivers of deforestation in Tropical Areas

Regardless of region, consistently, the four main drivers of tropical deforestation have been identified as beef, soy, palm oil and logging. 

tropical deforestation beef cattle

1. Beef

Beef production is consistently identified as the top driver of deforestation in the world’s tropical forests. This is primarily in the form of forest conversion actions that cattle farmers undertake to create more pasture land and to grow feed. Beef production also promotes the conversion of non-forest landscapes like grasslands and savannas, and is a particularly prevalent driver in Latin America, where the Amazon Rainforest, the Cerrado Savannah, and the Gran Chaco dry forest are under threat.  

tropical deforestation soybeans

2. Soybeans

The second biggest driver of tropical deforestation is soybeans — and global soybean production has increased more than 15X since the 1950s. But before you shun the tofu, keep in mind that demand for soy is closely connected to demand for beef and other animal proteins. In fact, approximately 80% of all soybeans grown go directly into feed for cattle, poultry, and pigs. A significant amount of soy is also used to produce vegetable oil and biodiesel.

WRI forest risk commodities graphic
tropical deforestation palm oil

3. Palm Oil

A ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods — as well as personal care products, biofuels, and vegetable oils, Palm oil is a major driver of tropical deforestation in Southeast Asia. Deforestation for palm oil is particularly harmful to the climate because plantations often are established in the carbon-rich soils of peatlands. Peatlands contain up to 28X more carbon dioxide than most forests. If peat soils are drained for oil palm plantations, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions significantly larger than the carbon loss from the forest biomass. As a result, palm oil contributes more global warming emissions than any other agricultural commodity besides beef. 

tropical deforestation logging

4. Logging

An estimated 380,000 hectares of forest are cut every year to meet the global demand for wood and wood products — and account for around 60% of forest degradation. Another 25% of forested areas are degraded for fuelwood and charcoal. The two main categories of wood products are: pulp and timber. Pulp is made from tree fibers and is used to produce paper and related products — and primarily drives deforestation in Indonesia. Timber, which is used for building construction and high-end wood products, usually results in extracting "valuable" trees from a forest. Areas that are degraded in this way are much more likely to be slated for conversion and other extractive uses. 

how to Stop Deforestation

Currently, international initiatives to address tropical deforestation focus on halting the expansion of commercial agriculture for export markets. And many corporations are working to remove deforestation from their supply chains. These actions are really important and impactful, but work to halt deforestation shouldn't stop there. 

IIASA found that 1/3 of worldwide protected areas are under immense human pressure. These pressures include subsistence farming, shifts in agriculture and pastures, poor forest management, and industrial farming for cash crops like palm oil. Due to these pressures, deforestation is still happening — albeit to a lesser degree than in unprotected areas — particularly in Asia. In other words, more efforts are needed to protect protected areas from large-scale human activity, including policy change, advanced monitoring systems, and working with communities to find solutions that address basic survival needs.

At a larger scale, instead of sacrificing tropical (and other) forests in pursuit of economic recovery, which threatens the long-term health and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, governments should work to build back better. Investing in the restoration and proper stewardship of forests will create jobs, contribute to more sustainable economies, and protect the incredible resources found in our world's tropical rainforests

Want to do more? Consider planting a tree in the Amazon Rainforest today!

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