Land purchases by private companies accelerate tropical deforestation, data shows

The buying up of tropical forest by private companies and foreign governments enhances deforestation in the majority of cases, new data confirms.

Palm oil, wood fibre and tree plantations were the commodities most consistently linked with increased tropical deforestation over the past two decades, according to the study. 

The assessment, published in Nature Geosciences , explores the consequences of more than 80,000 land deals made from 2000 to 2018 across 15 countries in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia.

Its findings suggest that land acquisitions may lead to “steep trade-offs” between development and preserving forests for “the communities and ecosystems that depend on them”, the study’s lead author tells Carbon Brief.

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Around one-quarter of all of the carbon stored on land can be found in tropical forests.

Rampant deforestation is causing this carbon to be released into the atmosphere. Tropical deforestation currently accounts for around 8% of all human-caused CO2 emissions.

Global tree cover loss (pink) and gain (purple) from 2001-19. Credit: Global Forest Watch

The new study examines how large-scale land acquisitions by private companies have affected tropical deforestation in the past two decades. “Large-scale” acquisitions are those that cover at least 200 hectares of land, according to the study authors. Deals can either be permanent or for a fixed period of time .

Land deals are typically made between national governments and private firms or foreign governments. At present, around 76% of large-scale land acquisitions in global south countries are made by foreign investors, the authors say.

Once investors acquire land, they can choose to leave it unchanged or convert it for activities, such as mining or for the production of commodities, including palm oil, wood fibre or timber. In their research paper, the authors write:

“Governments in the global south have often welcomed these investments as a means to potentially facilitate technology transfers and the inflow of capital as well as to promote rural development and local job creation.”

For the study, the authors compared public records of land acquisitions with satellite data showing changes to tree cover from 2000 to 2018 for 15 countries across South America, sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia.

The maps below show the distribution of large-scale land acquisitions in Mexico (top left), South America (bottom left), sub-Saharan Africa (top right) and south-east Asia (bottom right), according to the public data.

On the map, colour is used to indicate the presence of logging (orange), mining (green), palm oil (purple), new plantations (blue), established plantations (yellow) and wood fibre (black).

The distribution of public large-scale land acquisitions in Mexico (top left),...