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Return to: The International Food System and the Climate Crisis

Box 1
The Roots of Deforestation

The International Food System
and the Climate Crisis

Barcelona, Spain

The reason that land-use change is often lumped in with agriculture in the statistics on factors responsible for climate change is that much of it occurs through the conversion of forest or grassland to crop production or cattle raising. The FAO estimates that 90 per cent of deforestation is caused by agriculture, nearly all of it in developing countries. Even so, farmers are conserving significant areas of forest. A recent study using detailed satellite imagery, carried out by the World Agroforestry Centre, shows that 46 per cent of the world’s farmland contains at least 10 per cent tree cover. 1 “The area revealed in this study is twice the size of the Amazon and shows that farmers are protecting and planting trees spontaneously”, said Dennis Garrity, the Centre’s director-general.

These trees already play an important role in protecting farmers against climate change and could help more, particularly as farmers in the tropics have a staggering 50,000 different tree species to choose from. “When crops and livestock fail, trees often withstand drought conditions and allow people to hold over until the next season”, said Tony Simons, the Centre’s deputy director-general. There are clearly other important reasons, apart from farming, why forests get cut down. Logging, mining, roads, urban sprawl and dams are also major causes of deforestation. So too is small-scale collection of fuel-wood, which is often driven by lack of access on the part of the poor to public sources of energy. In many countries, deforestation is camouflaged as agricultural development by companies who want to acquire land concessions for the timber. Palm oil and rubber companies are notorious for clearing virgin forest to get at the lumber, while not following through on promises to develop the land for agriculture. 2

That said, farmers do cut down forests to get at new farm lands. But we have to ask why they do so. Population pressures are only one part of the story. As the World Rainforest Movement has extensively documented, more often the problem is not a lack of agricultural land, but the concentration of land and/or resources in the hands of an elite, or the expulsion of communities to make way for development projects. 3 Deforestation tends to happen when communities lose control over their resources. Where deforestation occurs, there are usually local communities trying to stop it -- especially communities of indigenous people. And where poor people clear forest for farmland, they were often pushed off of their former lands -- and the odds are that they tried to resist the process, as witnessed by the backlog of court cases and petitions over land conflicts in countries such as Vietnam and China.

Moreover, those converting forests and grasslands to agriculture are not, in many cases, small farmers but transnational corporations (TNC), or large-scale farmers producing for TNCs. The expansion of oil-palm plantations in Indonesia’s rain forests or sugar-cane plantations in Brazil’s cerrado are two obvious examples. 4 Indeed, it is hard to imagine how small farmers could cuase large-scale deforestation when, in many countries, they occupy only a small percentage of the agricultural land. In Latin America, in countries where such data is available, small farmers occupy only 3.5 per cent of the agricultural land in Ecuador, 8.5 per cent in Brazil and 5 per cent in Chile. 5 In Colombia and Peru, where small farmers own most of the farms (82 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively, of the holdings), they occupy only a modest share of the farmed land (14 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively). 6

1. Robert J. Zomer et al., Trees on Farm: Analysis of Global Extent and Geographical Patterns of Agroforestry, ICRAF Working Paper No. 89, World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, 2009,

2. See for example, Chris Lang, “The expansion of industrial tree plantations in Cambodia and Laos,” Focus Asien, 26 December 2006,

3. See, for example, World Rainforest Movement, “Zambia: Causes of Deforestation linked to government policies”, Bulletin No. 50, 2001,

4. Almuth Ernsting, “Agrofuels in Asia: Fuelling poverty, conflict, deforestation”; GRAIN, “Corporate power: Agrofuels and the expansion of agribusiness”, Seedling, July 2007,

5. Ecuador: Breve análisis de los resultados de las principales variables del censo nacional agropecuario 2000, III Censo agropecuario del Ecuador, 2000, Serafín Ilvay, Foro brasileño por la reforma agraria: “Repartir la tierra y multiplicar el pan”, 13 June 2000, Censo Agropecuario y Forestal de Chile,

6. Edelmira Pérez Correa and Maniel Pérez Martínez, “El sector rural en Colombia y su crisis actual”,

Published in In Motion Magazine November 4, 2009