The stop-deforestation campaigns have a broad range of targets. Depending on who’s talking and what action and reaction are sought from the audience, livestock farming, soy production, timber logging, and palm oil production are presented as the main culprits. No doubt, each has a role to play, but are we not increasingly ignoring the root causes of deforestation? In this article, I shall explore the cause that stands behind all the other causes: Poverty. I shall make the argument that poverty is the main driver of deforestation worldwide.

This is not to deny what is happening under our eyes. Former forest areas in Brazil and Indonesia are increasingly used for livestock and agriculture. Logging companies are cutting down trees en masse for tropical timber products, simultaneously endangering vulnerable species and limiting the habitat of indigenous peoples.

Commodities are traded worldwide in response to consumer demand. The public in Europe and North America buys Argentinian steaks, hardwood furniture. Chinese pigs are fed with Brazilian soy chips and the demand for palm oil is increasing.

The deforestation campaigns link our consumption patterns to the loss of forests and biodiversity, while we are at the same time blamed for inhibiting local indigenous groups from exercising their stewardship over natural resources. Of course, consumption patterns offer an effective subject for campaigns and fundraising. They hit home and people who are always also consumers are prodded to donate money for the good cause.

But we need to look beyond what all those campaigns say, we need to look at the facts, in short, what causes deforestation.

The agricultural drivers of deforestation: How important?

UNEP’s 2020 report says that between 2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was an estimated 10 million hectares per year. The World Resource Institute alerts about the impact of commodity production on deforestation pointing to seven commodities: livestock, oil palm, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee, and plantation wood fiber. The analysis is based on the period 2001-2015 in which some 280 million hectares were lost. In this period, 55% of the total loss is caused by non-agricultural activities, like mining, building infrastructure, timber logging, or charcoal production.

The tree cover loss over the period due to agriculture is thus 45% and the seven commodities highlighted by WRI account for 57% of agriculture-related tree cover loss.

To sum up: The seven commodities account together for a quarter (26%) of the worldwide total tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015 and almost three-quarters (74%) of tree cover loss occurs for other reasons, and the area once occupied by forests is now occupied for other purposes.

Olivier Honnay, a conservation biologist who teaches at the Catholic University of Leuven, notes that the mentioned figures come out of a study of Curtis and others who actually quantified the share of deforestation from slash and burn agriculture versus resource-driven deforestation.

What is noteworthy is this: Slash-and-burn agriculture is as big a driver as the seven commodities combined and in Africa, it is the only relevant driver responsible for 92% of all tree cover loss.

Who carries out “slash and burn agriculture”? That is the type of agriculture commonly practiced by the poorest farmers, especially in Africa, usually referred to as “subsistence farmers”, i.e. smallholders that live off their crops and livestock, with little or no surplus left for trade.

But the point is this: Subsistence farmers, in order to survive, have no choice but to destroy natural resources.

The Science for the EU AU partnership report (published in 2017), in presenting the findings of a multi-year collaboration between the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and many organizations and institutions across Africa, underscored smallholder activity as a cause of the loss of natural resources:

“Unlike other tropical regions, deforestation and forest degradation in Africa are mainly caused by small-scale processes rather than large-scale agriculture; thus, deforestation here is more closely related to the livelihoods of subsistence farmers, small-scale charcoal producers and the gatherers of wood for fuel. About 60 % of new agricultural land came from intact forests in the 1980s and 1990s, and was mainly used for small-scale and subsistence agriculture and farming ….”

The smallholder activities combine agricultural and non-agricultural drivers.

Alain Huart, a sustainable agriculture and environment expert with a long African experience, particularly in DR Congo, reports in a LinkedIn post in 2020 that:

“84% of forest disturbances in the region are due to small-scale, non-mechanized clearing of forests… it is a vicious cycle of poverty that makes them responsible for deforestation; the drivers of deforestation are in order of importance: shifting slash-and-burn agriculture because people use the land to produce food; forest degradation for the production of charcoal marketed in urban centers; informal artisanal logging (because in the DRC 90% of the wood produced and exported comes from illegal logging).”

Between 1990 and 2016, UNEP (in the above-mentioned report) estimated that approximately 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses. Historically, it started with people using wood for cooking, heating, and growing. Timber for housing and shipbuilding in later stages of development caused much of the deforestation in Europe.

What happened to the Quintana Roo jungle in Mexico in the last century illustrates well how deforestation happens and how it accelerates. It all began on the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán when chicleros and loggers were among the first to enter the Quintana Roo jungle. They collected “chicle”, the natural ingredient for chewing gum, and they cut sleepers for railroads.

In 1937, the “Sabán ejido”,  a large area of communal land with usufruct rather than ownership rights, was awarded to a group of chicleros who had come from other parts of Mexico. When the market started to use synthetic chewing gum in World War II, their business collapsed.

By the 1950s most of them had left, only a few native Mayan chicleros remained and had no choice but to live in the forest using the archaic slash-and-burn technique, or “roza-tumba-quema”. In the decades since, the place was repopulated by Maya farming families who came from the northern state of Yucatan in search of tall forests.

By 1978 this growing group of indigenous farmers had cleared all the primeval forests in the Sabán ejido, with a total area of ​​20,000 hectares. This had happened in just two decades when the village grew to 250 families with about 550 farmers.

In other cases, declining yields would push farmers to migrate to new virgin lands according to the logic of shifting cultivation. The land they left would require at least 40 years of fallow. During this period, a group of families this large can be expected to destroy another 40,000 hectares elsewhere. This is not counting the fact that they are also likely to have grown in number and are therefore likely to destroy even more forests.

Seema Jayachandran, a North-Western University economist with studies in forestry, argues that high-resolution images from satellites show the pattern of tree felling and that we have been underestimating the rate of deforestation in poor countries. “In many developing countries,” she notes, “people are clearing forests to grow some cassava or other crop to feed their family.”

The debate around man-made wildfires

The state of the plot left behind by slash-and-burn farmers will determine its fate in the next stages of development, i.e. is it left fallow or used for other purposes?

In many cases, forests have been degraded to such an extent that they can be easily cleaned up for new activities such as animal husbandry or planting of commodities with improved techniques and fertilization. If used for pastures, the lands are also regularly cleaned before the rainy season, setting the tall grass on fire. The ash from the burnt organic material has a fertilizing effect and stimulates the regrowth of the grass.

The European Space Agency, through its Remote Sensing of the Environment study based on the high-resolution imaging capability of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission, found that in 2016, 4.9 million square kilometers of land in Africa had been burned.

Remarkably, that is 80% more than reported with information from coarser-resolution satellite sensors.

These newly found areas consisted mainly of burnt areas smaller than 100 ha. Small fires have been linked to land-use change, especially if they are set up to clear land for farming or grazing, as can be learned as well from the NASA comment on the fires in South East Asia.

The fires in the Amazon basin have been heavily politicized since Bolsonaro took office. It even let French President Macron suggest in a populist way that it was grounds for not signing Mercosur’s trade deal with the EU. However, the thousands of fires burning in the Amazon do not look like the great wildfires in Europe or North America – instead, they are mainly fuelled by branches, vegetation, and other by-products of deforestation in cleared areas.

This does not mean that logging companies, big-scale ranchers, and agricultural companies do not have their part in the deforestation or to taking into production degraded areas.

Yet in South America, many fires are related to shifting cultivation in the land frontier and to clearing existing pastures in the pampas of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and southwest Brazil.

Looking at the problem across the world, Olivier Honnay, a conservation biologist and professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, states that 12% of the loss in developing countries is driven by commodities, but another 40% by unaccounted activities that often do not enter national agricultural statistics.

In short, what we are seeing is mainly poor peasants’ use of woods.

Studies on deforestation, look at the changing patterns of land use, crop expansion, and other uses in former forest areas. They do not illustrate the process of degradation of forests, to the point that there are new crops using the land on a more permanent basis.

For this degradation process, shifting cultivation, pasture cleaning, wood collection, charcoal production, and small-scale logging are very important factors pushing the land frontier. These are activities of small farmers.

The number of farmers worldwide is incredibly high: 1.4 billion. More than 84% of them manage agricultural land of less than 2 hectares and most of them very tiny plots. Together these smallholders manage only 12% of farmland, illustrating their state of poverty because production in such a small area can never meet the needs of so many people.

This low percentage of land under the management of smallholders – a statistic that captures their situation in one year – occults the impact of shifting cultivation on land use during their lifetime.

Every two to three years, an estimated 400 – 600 million shifting cultivators must seek new fertile lands with regrown or even primeval forests. Most of these are poor farmers by default, unemployed people with no other option than to search a plot in the forests to try and make a living on it.

The conclusion is obvious: Policies tackling deforestation should pay more attention to the role of poverty. But there is another argument for that conclusion: the role of black carbon, especially in Africa.

Black carbon as a deforestation driver

Africa contributes only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to IPCC statistics. Most public attention is, therefore, on adaptation measures and to protect Africa from the impact of climate change. However, there are other air pollutants at work.

Black carbon is the most harmful air pollutant in terms of human and environmental health, the environment, and global warming. Africa alone contributed 16.8% to global black carbon emissions in 2012. The main source is the combustion of firewood (including vegetable waste and manure), mainly from the domestic sector (66% of African black carbon emissions).

These statistics, however, do not even include emissions from savanna combustion and forest fires (sic!). (Science for the EU AU partnership, 2019:75-77). Since these emissions are linked to poor people’s practices, their impact on global emissions will only increase as the African population, and thus the number of the poor increases in the coming decades.

It is a matter of concern that the additional impact of small fires is underrepresented in environmental, health, and climate calculations. Yet not all hope is lost: History shows that reforestation is possible and happens perhaps even faster than most of us are aware of.

Reforestation in our future?

In recent years, soy and oil palm have replaced fewer forests than has historically been the case. In general, the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s to an estimated 10 million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020, according to UNEP.

This may be attributed to the campaigns against these commodities. Soy, palm oil, and cattle are notorious targets of NGOs. More likely, however, the slow-down of deforestation is the result of the intensification of production, economic development, the advancement of science, and changes in the economic structure.

These factors were also responsible for halting deforestation in Europe and later even allowed the reforestation of the continent. This reforestation process is evidenced by the dynamic map is on the website of Wageningen University. Consider how Europe is greener now than it was 100 years ago, particularly Western Europe despite the growth of cities:

Likewise, development slowed the rate of deforestation in Quintana Roo. Migration inherent in shifting cultivation was no longer an option in the 1980s due to population density at the time, land rights acquired through the ejido system, access to wells, and the benefits of living in the village with health care, electricity, and a primary school.

Development reduced the push factor. It also enabled the farmers of Sabán and other villages to earn additional income by working outside the ejido, although this work was often still in agriculture. The real change came for these farmers with the construction boom in the 1990s because of tourist investments in the Riviera Maya, Cancún, and Playa del Carmen. It was the outlet for the former farmers of Sabán and many other hamlets in Quintana Roo to leave their villages to work in construction and thus slow the pace of natural resource destruction.

The development of economies offers new opportunities for rural residents, leading to an exodus from poverty and a reduction in the degradation of natural resources.

The role of export commodities in development

Export commodities are exported goods that play a similar role in the economic development of the producing countries as the positive outcome of trade with colonies for the early industrializing countries. It is the source of capital that accelerates development. With the export of these commodities, like soy from Brazil, Argentina, or palm oil from Malaysia, and Indonesia, the countries get the foreign currencies to access technology and capital goods.

Opposition to the production of commodities must be viewed with skepticism from a development point of view. Both soy and oil palm, like beef, are excellent products, with an important role in the food chain and for human and animal consumption. A by-product of soy is used as feed for pigs. Palm oil is used in many processed products, such as vegan ones. Oil palm is more efficient in land use than any edible oil. It is also a permanent crop that often replaces degraded areas after the shifting cultivators have left, as happens in Peru.

Deforestation – like almost every aspect of development – is a U-shaped phenomenon on its timeline. These curves show how at some point of development deforestation is increasing, because of population growth and the need for currency. Hannah Ritchie head of research @OurWorldinData says:

“Most rich countries are now regrowing forests, while poorer countries are losing them.”

Since deforestation is linked to poor people’s practices, it is likely to increase in Africa with population growth and thus increasing poverty in the coming decades. Depending on the way in which the structural transformation takes place and how the need for raw materials from agriculture evolves, a phase of the production of raw materials can continue to cost forest cover. In later stages of development, deforestation will slow down and reforestation will occur, just like in Europe.

Fight poverty to reduce deforestation

The greatest gain in the deforestation and reforestation cycle would, therefore, result when

(1) the exodus of poor farmers to other sectors of the economy stops the expansion of the farmland frontier, and

(2) the remaining farmers deploy the most climate and land-efficient production methods on already cleared land.

As Seema Jayachandran observes: “.. the income people are generating by clearing forests is small. If .. compensate them for the lost income, then protecting the forest actually makes them better off than clearing it. …, that could cost a lot less than other ways of reducing carbon emissions.” The same holds for deforestation.

However, following this strategy, they would still remain poor. What is needed is an authentic boost to economic development in developing countries and particularly in rural areas to lift the poor out of poverty, intensifying agricultural production, and promoting the structural transformation of economies through job creation in rural areas.

This development recipe was given by the Task Force Rural Africa that set the rural agenda for the new European Union – African Union partnership. It gives a comprehensive framework for action among governments, civil society organizations, and companies of both continents. It envisages an investment and job creation agenda that plugs into authentic territorial development initiated by farmers beyond the tipping point.

This road to counter deforestation may look a bit more complex than public campaigns against timber, soy, meat, or palm oil. However, those campaigns are eventually nothing more than looking away from the root cause of deforestation: poverty.

This article was originally published by Impakter under Creative Commons License.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Vision of Humanity.


Kees Blokland



Impakter is an online magazine with a mission to create an open dialogue between millennials and key decision-makers with a platform dedicated to impactful start-ups and sustainable consumer goods.