Letter abstract

Nature Geoscience 3, 178 - 181 (2010)
Published online: 7 February 2010 | doi:10.1038/ngeo756

Subject Category: Biogeochemistry

Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century

Ruth S. DeFries1, Thomas Rudel2, Maria Uriarte1 & Matthew Hansen3


Reducing atmospheric carbon emissions from tropical deforestation is at present considered a cost-effective option for mitigating climate change. However, the forces associated with tropical forest loss are uncertain1. Here we use satellite-based estimates of forest loss for 2000 to 2005 (ref. 2) to assess economic, agricultural and demographic correlates across 41 countries in the humid tropics. Two methods of analysis—linear regression and regression tree—show that forest loss is positively correlated with urban population growth and exports of agricultural products for this time period. Rural population growth is not associated with forest loss, indicating the importance of urban-based and international demands for agricultural products as drivers of deforestation. The strong trend in movement of people to cities in the tropics is, counter-intuitively, likely to be associated with greater pressures for clearing tropical forests. We therefore suggest that policies to reduce deforestation among local, rural populations will not address the main cause of deforestation in the future. Rather, efforts need to focus on reducing deforestation for industrial-scale, export-oriented agricultural production, concomitant with efforts to increase yields in non-forested lands to satisfy demands for agricultural products.

  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University New York, New York 10027, USA
  2. Departments of Human Ecology and Sociology, Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854, USA
  3. Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence, South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota 57007, USA

Correspondence to: Ruth S. DeFries1 e-mail: rd2402@columbia.edu


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