Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Tropical forest loss enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions


Tropical forests are vital for global biodiversity, carbon storage and local livelihoods, yet they are increasingly under threat from human activities. Large-scale land acquisitions have emerged as an important mechanism linking global resource demands to forests in the Global South, yet their influence on tropical deforestation remains unclear. Here we perform a multicountry assessment of the links between large-scale land acquisitions and tropical forest loss by combining a new georeferenced database of 82,403 individual land deals—covering 15 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—with data on annual forest cover and loss between 2000 and 2018. We find that land acquisitions cover between 6% and 59% of study-country land area and between 2% and 79% of their forests. Compared with non-investment areas, large-scale land acquisitions were granted in areas of higher forest cover in 11 countries and had higher forest loss in 52% of cases. Oil palm, wood fibre and tree plantations were consistently linked with enhanced forest loss while logging and mining concessions showed a mix of outcomes. Our findings demonstrate that large-scale land acquisitions can lead to elevated deforestation of tropical forests, highlighting the role of local policies in the sustainable management of these ecosystems.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Distribution of publicly available LSLAs across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Fig. 2: Share of land, forests and forest loss within investment areas.
Fig. 3: Distribution of LSLAs and influence of rates of forest loss.
Fig. 4: Forest loss in oil palm plantations in Liberia.

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are publicly available or are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


  1. Verburg, P. H., Erb, K.-H., Mertz, O. & Espindola, G. Land system science: between global challenges and local realities. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 433–437 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Liu, J. et al. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347, 1258832 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Fuys, A., Mwangi, E. & Dohrn, S. Securing Common Property Regimes in a Globalizing World (International Land Coalition, 2008).

  4. De Schutter, O. Green rush: the global race for farmland and the rights of land users. Harvard Int. Law J. 52, 503–556 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Wily, L. The Tragedy of Public Lands: The Fate of the Commons under Global Commercial Pressure (International Land Coalition, 2011).

  6. Kugelman, M. The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food Security (Island Press, 2012).

  7. Dell’Angelo, J., D’Odorico, P., Rulli, M. C. & Marchand, P. The tragedy of the grabbed commons: coercion and dispossession in the global land rush. World Devel. 92, 1–12 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  8. The Land Matrix (ILC, CIRAD, CDE, GIGA and GIZ, accessed 16 January 2020);

  9. Dell’Angelo, J., D’Odorico, P. & Rulli, M. C. Threats to sustainable development posed by land and water grabbing. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 26, 120–128 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Deininger, K. in Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability (ed. Barrett, C. B.) Ch. 4 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

  11. Davis, K. F., Rulli, M. C. & D’Odorico, P. The global land rush and climate change. Earths Future 3, 298–311 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Chung, Y. B. The grass beneath: conservation, agro-industrialization, and land–water enclosures in postcolonial Tanzania. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 109, 1–17 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Borras, S. M. Jr., Hall, R., Scoones, I., White, B. & Wolford, W. Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: an editorial introduction. J. Peasant Stud. 38, 209–216 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Wolford, W., Borras, S. M. Jr., Hall, R., Scoones, I. & White, B. Governing global land deals: the role of the state in the rush for land. Dev. Change 44, 189–210 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hall, R. et al. Resistance, acquiescence or incorporation? An introduction to land grabbing and political reactions ‘from below’. J. Peasant Stud. 42, 467–488 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Davis, K. F., D’Odorico, P. & Rulli, M. C. Land grabbing: a preliminary quantification of economic impacts on rural livelihoods. Popul. Environ. 36, 180–192 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Rulli, M. C. & D’Odorico, P. Food appropriation through large scale land acquisitions. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 064030 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Nolte, K., Chamberlain, W. & Giger, M. International Land Deals for Agriculture. Fresh Insights from the Land Matrix: Analytical Report II (Bern Open Publishing, 2016).

  19. Liao, C., Jung, S., Brown, D. G. & Agrawal, A. Insufficient research on land grabbing. Science 353, 131 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  20. D’Odorico, P., Rulli, M. C., Dell’Angelo, J. & Davis, K. F. New frontiers of land and water commodification: socio-environmental controversies of large-scale land acquisitions. Land Degrad. Dev. 28, 2234–2244 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Messerli, P., Giger, M., Dwyer, M. B., Breu, T. & Eckert, S. The geography of large-scale land acquisitions: analysing socio-ecological patterns of target contexts in the Global South. Appl. Geogr. 53, 449–459 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Carlson, K. M. et al. Committed carbon emissions, deforestation, and community land conversion from oil palm plantation expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 7559–7564 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Rulli, M. C., Saviori, A. & D’Odorico, P. Global land and water grabbing. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 892–897 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  24. Davis, K. F., Yu, K., Rulli, M. C., Pichdara, L. & D’Odorico, P. Accelerated deforestation driven by large-scale land acquisitions in Cambodia. Nat. Geosci. 8, 772–775 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Rulli, M. C. et al. Interdependencies and telecoupling of oil palm expansion at the expense of Indonesian rainforest. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 105, 499–512 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Fox, J., Nghiem, T., Kimkong, H., Hurni, K. & Baird, I. G. Large-scale land concessions, migration, and land use: the paradox of industrial estates in the Red River delta of Vietnam and rubber plantations of Northeast Cambodia. Land (Basel) 7, 77 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Gibson, L. et al. Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity. Nature 478, 378–381 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Agrawal, A. Forests, governance, and sustainability: common property theory and its contributions. Int. J. Commons 1, 111–136 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Neef, A. Law and development implications of transnational land acquisitions: introduction. Law Devel. Rev. 7, 187–205 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  30. le Polain de Waroux, Y. et al. Rents, actors, and the expansion of commodity frontiers in the Gran Chaco. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 108, 204–225 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Wily, L. A. The law and land grabbing: friend or foe? Law Land Devel. 7, 207–242 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  32. Searchinger, T. D. et al. High carbon and biodiversity costs from converting Africa’s wet savannahs to cropland. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 481–486 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Estes, L. D. et al. Reconciling agriculture, carbon and biodiversity in a savannah transformation frontier. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 371, 20150316 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  34. Seaquist, J., Johansson, E. & Nicholas, K. A. Architecture of the global land acquisition system: applying the tools of network science to identify key vulnerabilities. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 114006 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  35. Antonelli, M., Siciliano, G., Turvani, M. E. & Rulli, M. C. Global investments in agricultural land and the role of the EU: drivers, scope and potential impacts. Land Use Policy 47, 98–111 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  36. Mittermeier, R. A. et al. Hotspots Revisited: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions (Conservation International, 2005).

  37. Sanderson, E. W. et al. The human footprint and the last of the wild. BioScience 52, 891–904 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hansen, M. C. et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  39. Andam, K. S., Ferraro, P. J., Pfaff, A., Sanchez-Azofeifa, G. A. & Robalino, J. A. Measuring the effectiveness of protected area networks in reducing deforestation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 16089–16094 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  40. Abood, S. A., Lee, J. S. H., Burivalova, Z., Garcia-Ulloa, J. & Koh, L. P. Relative contributions of the logging, fiber, oil palm, and mining industries to forest loss in Indonesia. Conserv. Lett. 8, 58–67 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  41. Neef, A., Touch, S. & Chiengthong, J. The politics and ethics of land concessions in rural Cambodia. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 26, 1085–1103 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  42. Rosa, L., Davis, K. F., Rulli, M. C. & D’Odorico, P. Environmental consequences of oil production from oil sands. Earths Future 5, 158–170 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  43. Sonter, L. J. et al. Mining drives extensive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Nat. Commun. 8, 1013 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  44. Baird, I. G. & Fox, J. How land concessions affect places elsewhere: telecoupling, political ecology, and large-scale plantations in southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia. Land 4, 436–453 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  45. Magliocca, N. R., Khuc, Q. V., Ellicott, E. A. & de Bremond, A. Archetypical pathways of direct and indirect land-use change caused by Cambodia’s economic land concessions. Ecol. Soc. 24, 25 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  46. Kehoe, L., Romero-Munoz, A., Estes, L., Kreft, H. & Kuemmerle, T. Biodiversity at risk under future cropland expansion and intensification. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 1129–1135 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  47. Jayne, T. S. et al. Africa’s changing farm size distribution patterns: the rise of medium-scale farms. Agric. Econ. 47, 197–214 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  48. Grogan, K., Pflugmacher, D., Hostert, P., Mertz, O. & Fensholt, R. Unravelling the link between global rubber price and tropical deforestation in Cambodia. Nat. Plants 5, 47–53 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  49. Magliocca, N. R. et al. Closing global knowledge gaps: producing generalized knowledge from case studies of social-ecological systems. Glob. Environ. Change 50, 1–14 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  50. Global Forest Watch Database (WRI, 2016);

  51. Maps Catalogue (Open Development, 2014);

  52. Direito do Uso e Aproveitamento da Terra (MITADER, 2016).

  53. Anseeuw, W., Lay, J., Messerli, P., Giger, M. & Taylor, M. Creating a public tool to assess and promote transparency in global land deals: the experience of the Land Matrix. J. Peasant Stud. 40, 521–530 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  54. Gridded Population of the World v.4 (GPWv4): Population Count (SEDAC, 2016).

  55. Global Agro‐Ecological Zones (GAEZ) v.3.0 (IIASA/FAO, 2012).

  56. Sekhon, J. S. Multivariate and propensity score matching software with automated balance optimization: the Matching package for R. J. Stat. Softw. 42, (2011).

  57. Rosenbaum, P. Observational Studies (Springer-Verlag, 2002).

Download references


K.F.D. was supported in part by Columbia University’s Data Science Institute. K.F.D, J.D., P.D., M.C.R. and M.T. were partially supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) through NSF grant DBI-1052875. J.D., M.C.R. and P.D. are part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) Innovative Training Network (ITN) grant agreement no. 861509 – NEWAVE.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



K.F.D., J.D., P.D., L.J.K., T.K., N.R., M.C.R. and L.E. designed the research; K.F.D., H.I.K., M.K., D.M. and A.d.J.R.P. performed the research; K.F.D., H.I.K., M.K., M.C.R. and M.T. analysed the data; and K.F.D., J.D., P.D., L.J.K., M.K., T.K., N.R., M.C.R., M.T. and L.E. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kyle Frankel Davis.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Clare Davis; Xujia Jiang.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Map of study countries.

Land area under contract in these 15 countries currently makes up 51% of the world’s LSLA area for all intended uses8.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Annual rates of forest loss.

Forest loss plots are separated by region between Latin America (a), sub-Saharan Africa (b), and Southeast Asia (c).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Annual rates of deforestation for random pixels within oil palm concessions and ‘matched’ non-investment pixels.

Significant enhancements of forest loss within oil palm concessions were observed in (a) Cameroon, (b) Republic of Congo, (c) Indonesia, (d) Liberia, and (e) Malaysia. Data on contract year (blue histograms) came from the Land Matrix19. For Cameroon, Indonesia, and Malaysia, 1, 1, and 21 oil palm deals, respectively, had reported contract years before 2000 (not shown). Insufficient data on contract year were available for oil palm concessions in Republic of Congo. Y-axes scales vary between panels.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Annual rates of deforestation for random pixels within investments and ‘matched’ non-investment pixels.

Significant enhancements of forest loss within investments were observed in: wood fiber concessions in (a) Republic of Congo, (b) Indonesia, and (c) Malaysia; tree plantations in (d) Indonesia, (e) Liberia, and (f) Malaysia; mining concessions in (g) Brazil, (h) Colombia, and (i) Peru; logging concessions in (j) Central African Republic; and economic land concessions (ELCs) in (k) Cambodia. Data on contract year (blue histograms) came from the Land Matrix19. Insufficient data on contract year were available for panels (a), (c), (e), (h), and (j). Y-axes scales vary between panels.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Contract year of LSLAs in study countries.

Frequency distribution of contract year reported by Land Matrix19 in all countries for (a) all investment types, (b) logging investments, (c) mining investments, (d) oil palm investments, (e) tree plantation investments, and (f) wood fiber investments.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–37.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Davis, K.F., Koo, H.I., Dell’Angelo, J. et al. Tropical forest loss enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions. Nat. Geosci. 13, 482–488 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing