February 12, 2019 3 min read

Commodities are Hurting Tropical Forests 

While the overall drivers of deforestation around the world are numerous, including wildfires, farming, urbanization, and so on, one of the most complex and devastating causes in the tropics is the production of commodities (raw materials to be bought and sold).

Between 2001 and 2015, the lion’s share (27%) of global deforestation was driven by expansive tracts of forests being leveled for beef, agricultural production, and timber, as well as mining and oil and gas operations.

Razing forests for these commodities is disproportionately concentrated in tropical countries, putting tropical forests on the front line of global deforestation. In 2017 some 39 million acres of tropical forest were lost to deforestation. Over the last decade more than 50% of tropical forest loss can be blamed on ‘forest-risk’ commodities like palm oil, soy, beef and leather, timber and paper products.

bar graph showing tropical tree cover loss

A Blessing and a Curse

Commodities have been a boon for many tropical economies, and as such are crucial to their citizens’ livelihoods.

Indonesia profits immensely from the production of palm oil (the world’s largest producer), accounting for 11% of the Southeast Asian country’s export revenue.

Over in South America, Brazil’s farms grow ⅓ of global soy production, worth nearly $26 billion in 2017, making it their most valuable export commodity.

natural landscape soy farm
'Soy Poo'l, Lima Pix - CC 4.0, flickr

On the other hand, these commodities have done tremendous damage to tropical forests and ecosystems. In Indonesia, the island of Sumatra has lost 70% of its forest to palm oil production, all but eliminating the habitat of many at risk and endangered species including the orangutan and 17% of the world's bird species.

In Brazil, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has even broader impacts. The Amazon basin is a critical watershed, producing 15% of global water runoff and supplying water to more than 25 million people in the region.

Tropical Deforestation is a Global Issue

But the implications of tropical deforestation extend beyond just Amazon water runoff and orangutan habitat. Losing tropical forests leads to less precipitation which can have a dramatic impact on global food production. Less rainfall also impacts hydroelectricity. New dam developments in Brazil could lose 80% of their potential output thanks to deforestation, potentially causing Brazilians to turn to non-renewable sources of energy. 

Tropical forests are also critical for the development of medicine. Plants and extracts from tropical forests are the source of $108 billion worth of medicinal products found at the pharmacy.

And even before being processed into medicines, these forests aid in disease regulation. Increasing outbreaks of infectious diseases and illnesses such as malaria, ebola, SARS, and HIV have been linked to rapid deforestation.

But one of the biggest implications of tropical deforestation is the impact it has on our climate. Tropical forests store massive amounts of global greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering some 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. Through deforestation, not only is that carbon storing potential lost, the carbon released back into the atmosphere amounts to 10% of global annual CO2 emissions.

bubble graph showing percentage of total carbon emissions from deforestation in tropical countries

Saving Tropical Forests is Possible

Mounting pressure from the international community is driving change in tropical countries. Globally focused organizations are pushing for improved forest management regulation and monitoring.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, UN Global Compact, Cities4Forests as well as numerous environmental and civil society organizations have made it their goal to persuade governments and the private sector to take tropical deforestation more seriously.

Sustainable business practices protecting tropical forests are not at odds with reaping the benefits of the forests resources. Ensuring tropical forests thrive means the communities and economies that rely on these commodities can continue to grow without causing substantial harm to the forests we all depend upon. Reforestation in tropical rainforests can also help to restore forests in the many areas that have already been degraded. 

book cover for The Little Book of Big Deforestation Drivers

The little book of big deforestation drivers

For a more in depth look at the causes, drivers and solutions to tropical deforestation, download The Little Book of Big Deforestation Drivers from Global Canopy Programme via the form above.


We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?

by Joseph Coppolino

Organic Content Creator & Enviro-fabulist



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