Extracting timber, mineral and fossil fuel resources from a tropical forest prior to its clearance for agriculture remains the irresistible business model that powerful investors have relished since colonial times. Amongst these direct causes of deforestation, agricultural commodities have become by far the most important, their profile varying in each forest region.

The dominant forces in South America are cattle ranching and soy crops. Studies conclude that demand for beef accounts for more than 80% of deforestation in Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest as a whole. Oil palm plantations and the pulp and paper industries are the main culprit in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia supply almost 90% of the global market.

Destruction of forests to clear land for these four commodities, beef, soy, palm oil and pulp, is believed to be the cause of a third of all tropical deforestation. Palm oil in particular has become the lubricant of consumerism, a core ingredient of about half of our packaged supermarket products. Its global consumption tripled in the years 2000-2014 and  strong rates of growth have continued. Some observers believe that tropical forests in Africa will come under pressure from demand for this commodity, as is already the case for cocoa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have been driven by the imperatives of extreme poverty that undermine wise management of natural resources. Poor farming communities often seek quick returns through “slash and burn” methods of shifting cultivation at the forest periphery.

The widespread lack of rural energy utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a further direct cause of deforestation. There are 1.1 billion people without access to electricity and at least another billion whose supply lacks capacity to power cooking facilities. The consequence is 3.0 billion people relying on traditional biomass methods of cooking, for which the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel is the dominant choice.

The significance of poverty draws attention to the fact that most tropical forests are located in developing countries, where governance resources may be limited. For example, departments responsible for environmental issues may lack leverage over powerful forest ministries. Laws designed to protect forests and their communities often remain unenforced.

According to a recent report, illegal deforestation accounts for a third of global trade in tropical timber. Countries contributing the most to this statistic are Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, around 90% of timber exports are sourced illegally.

These indirect causes of deforestation – shortcomings of governance and laws – are within the powers of respective governments to rectify. There are even more powerful indirect forces that lie beyond their control; global population growth and rising household incomes in richer countries will continue to boost demand for both forest resources and food production. The inevitable long term rise in world commodity prices lies in wait to trigger the economic forces which may ultimately destroy tropical forest assets.


more Forests briefings (updated April 2018)
Importance of Tropical Forests
Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation
Consumer Solutions to Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links