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


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.

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Figure 1: Trends in agricultural exports, urban population and rural population for the countries in this study.
Figure 2: Regression tree derived from 10 demographic, agricultural and economic variables for countries in the study.
Figure 3: Per cent forest loss versus annual urban growth and agricultural trade by region.


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Authors and Affiliations



R.S.D. conducted data analysis and drafted the manuscript; T.R. participated in data analysis and writing; M.U. advised on statistical analysis and participated in writing; M.H. guided the use of the forest cover data and participated in writing.

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Correspondence to Ruth S. DeFries.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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DeFries, R., Rudel, T., Uriarte, M. et al. Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century. Nature Geosci 3, 178–181 (2010).

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