February 09, 2010
Urbanization And Exports Drive Deforestation

The hope in some circles was that urbanization would decrease pressures on forests. A new study finds that urbanization does not help prevent loss of forests.

The drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted in the early 21st century to hinge on growth of cities and the globalized agricultural trade, a new large-scale study concludes. The observations starkly reverse assumptions by some scientists that fast-growing urbanization and the efficiencies of global trade might eventually slow or reverse tropical deforestation. The study, which covers most of the world’s tropical land area, appears in this week’s early edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

I am not surprised that exports drive deforestation. Affluent countries and developing countries like China can afford to buy growing amounts of timber and crops. So, for example, parts of the Amazon get cut down to expand Brazilian agricultural output for international markets. But the result with urbanization is surprising to me.

Large industrial farms are replacing rural dwellers and driving into forests.

Deforestation has been a rising concern in recent decades, especially with the recognition that it may exacerbate climate change. Studies in the late 20th century generally matched it with growing rural populations, as new roads were built into forests and land was cleared for subsistence agriculture. Since then, rural dwellers have been flooding into cities, seeking better living standards; 2009 was recorded as the first year in history when half of human lived in urban areas. Large industrial farms have, in turn, taken over rural areas and expanded further into remaining forests, in order to supply both domestic urban populations and growing international agricultural markets, the study suggests.

I read news reports of big investments in African farm operations by business interests in Saudi Arabia, China, and other countries. I expect this trend to continue. As people become more affluent they eat higher on the food chain. Instead of living directly on grains they get more of their calories from meat and milk. Of course this requires much more grain to feed livestock.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

DeFries and her colleagues analyzed remote-sensing images of forest cover across 41 nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia from 2000-2005, and combined these with population and economic trends. They showed that the highest forest losses were correlated with two factors: urban growth within countries; and, mainly in Asia, growth of agricultural exports to other countries. Rural population growth was not related.

Since the world's population is headed toward 9 billion and much of Asia is industrializing much more of the remaining rain forests will go under the plow.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 February 09 08:56 PM  Trends Habitat Loss

James Bowery said at February 10, 2010 7:44 AM:

Hey, if you're among the cognitive elite, you live in an urban area and anyone who lives in an urban area knows a grocery store doesn't take up _that_ much land area.

Carbon said at February 10, 2010 8:56 AM:

Except.... large scale industrial farming is less land-intensive, than say slash and burn subsistence agriculture. Greater roductivity drives lesser land use. Also, cities seem to always be, at least comparatively, demographic sinks. People tend to pop out fewer kids in an urban setting.

Carbon said at February 10, 2010 9:05 AM:

Whoops, got cut off.

roductivity= productivity

Remember that you're comparing urbanization to the alternatives, not just observing the absolute resource costs of urbanization.

th said at February 10, 2010 5:08 PM:

Anheuser light beers are 90% rice, not much silicon, but it helps subsistence poor destitutes in far away lands and is fat free and green when its alive, isn't that enough?

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