Illegal Deforestation: An Introduction

Why does illegal deforestation matter?

At least half of all tropical deforestation is caused by commercial agro-conversion that is illegal. Illegality is a major driver of deforestation, by enabling clearance of forest that may not otherwise have occurred. It is also an important factor in some of the worst impacts associated with both deforestation and large-scale agriculture. In particular, by driving land conflicts, the abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples and other communities, and inequitable sharing of the benefits of development.

In several countries, particularly those experiencing unprecedented growth in commercial agriculture such as Indonesia, Cambodia and in Central America, land conflicts have become one of the most high-profile issues confronting policymakers. These conflicts have catalysed grassroots resistance movements of communities risking their lives to defend their land. In a growing number of documented cases, rural people are being killed for standing up to illegal land grabs.

Tackling illegality has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to reduce overall deforestation in the tropics. This is particularly the case when approached holistically with other measures, such as statutory recognition of indigenous peoples’ and other local communities’ tenurial rights. By far the greatest success story to-date in the fight against tropical deforestation was the dramatic 70 percent decline in deforestation seen in Brazil in the ten years from 2004. Measures taken by the Brazilian government to enforce the law against illegal conversion of forests for commercial agriculture were among the critical components of this success, along with private sector action and increasing legal recognition of tenurial rights.

Conversely, when not addressed illegality holds back other efforts to tackle tropical deforestation. Evidence suggests that private sector initiatives aimed at producing “sustainable” commodities and state efforts to improve forest governance are critically undermined when illegality is ignored. While the recent spate of “zero deforestation” commitments by large corporations involved in producing, trading, or consuming agri commodities is to be applauded, such voluntary efforts cannot substitute for good governance, and their impact will be restricted unless actions are also taken by governments to address illegality.

Why does the international trade in commodities matter?

A focus on the international trade in commodities associated with illegal deforestation has considerable potential to reduce illegality and support improved enforcement and reform in producer countries. Demand-side actions by consumer country governments on timber and wood products taken in the last two decades have helped to reduce illegal logging in producer countries. And just as illegality hinders reform efforts within producer countries, it similarly hinders efforts by companies involved in international supply chains to source sustainably-produced commodities.

Undiscerning overseas demand that disregards the legality of sourcing holds back efforts by producer countries to make the production of these commodities both legal and sustainable. The responsibility for tropical deforestation does not lie with tropical forest countries alone.

It took the international community more than 20 years to learn the importance of addressing legality and good governance in relation to the impact of the production and trade in tropical timber on forests and the people dependent upon them. The fundamental lesson was that a focus on broader sustainability and an onus on voluntary action by international consumers would not be effective unless legality and governance was addressed first. There are many parallels between the timber and agriculture industries, and it is essential that efforts to tackle deforestation caused by commercial agriculture and associated trade integrate these lessons more quickly.

The Importance of Commercial Agriculture as a Driver of Tropical Deforestation

Many studies confirm that agriculture is by far the largest proximate driver of deforestation in most tropical countries worldwide. Indeed, the growth of commercial agriculture is cited as an important driver of deforestation by nearly all tropical countries in their national REDD+ strategy documents, which serve as the basis for international donor programs to combat climate change.

At a global level, two studies have sought to estimate the proportion of recent global tropical deforestation due to agriculture. The first, published in 2012, concluded that 73 percent of tropical and subtropical deforestation during the decade leading up to 2010 was caused by agriculture: 40 percent due to commercial agriculture and the rest to local or subsistence farming. The second study, produced for the European Commission in 2013, concluded that 65 percent of deforestation in the tropics and subtropics between 2000 and 2008 was due to agricultural expansion. Though these figures are high, methodological issues indicate that it is very likely both studies significantly underestimate the recent impact of agriculture on tropical deforestation and that the 2012 study also underestimates the importance of commercial agriculture.

The Role of Global Demand for Commodities

The emergence of commercial agriculture as the greatest threat to the world’s tropical forests is closely linked to increasing global demand for the internationally traded commodities of soy, beef, palm oil, tropical timber, and plantation-grown timber. In most of the tropical forest countries where these products are produced, a large majority of production is destined for export. The one notable exception is beef from Brazil, where the majority of production is consumed domestically.

Seventy percent of the soy in international trade, a third of the beef, and all of the palm oil and tropical timber originate in tropical forest countries. The EU is the largest market for soy and palm oil exports from tropical forest countries, taking 29 percent and 18 percent of total exports respectively; the EU also consumes 7 percent of beef exports from tropical forest countries. China is the second-largest market for soy, palm oil, and beef exports from tropical forest countries, and the largest market for tropical timber. One-third of beef exports from the tropical forest countries of Latin America remain within the region. Other important buyers of these forest-risk commodities include South Asia (taking one-quarter of all palm oil), Southeast Asia (for soy and palm oil), Russia (the largest single buyer of forest-risk beef) and the Middle East (for beef).

The importance of overseas demand for relevant commodities is set to grow even further as global population and wealth increases. The size of the global middle class (which consumes a disproportionate share of agrocommodities) is set to almost triple by 2030, from 1.8 to 4.9 billion people, with most of the growth taking place in China.

Because most of this increased demand is expected to take place outside the tropics, the role of exports in driving tropical deforestation is likely to increase. For example, even if the rapid growth of planting in Indonesia and Malaysia were to continue, it is estimated that the world will need an additional 7 Mha of suitable land in the tropics to be converted to oil palm by 2020 – as much oil palm as has been planted so far in Malaysia. Exports of beef from Latin America are expected to increase by 30 percent between 2013 and 2026 while Chinese imports of soybeans are expected to double between 2010 and 2020. The FAO projects that a further 7 Mha of land in Latin America will be turned into soy plantations by 2022.

Addressing deforestation driven by illegal agricultural expansion is among of the world’s most pressing challenges.