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Understanding the role of illicit transactions in land-change dynamics


Anthropogenic land use has irrevocably transformed the natural systems on which humankind relies. Advances in remote sensing have led to an improved understanding of where, why and how social and economic processes drive globally important land-use changes, from deforestation to urbanization. The role of illicit activities, however, is often absent in land change analysis. The paucity of data on unrecorded, intentionally hidden transactions makes them difficult to incorporate into spatially specific analyses of land change. We present a conceptual framework of illicit land transactions and a two-pronged approach using remotely sensed data to spatially link illicit activities to land uses.

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Fig. 1: Adding illicit transactions into an action arena for land use (following refs. 6,12).
Fig. 2: Two approaches to address illicit land transactions involving remote sensing data.


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We thank K. Benessaiah, D. Wrathall, K. McSweeney, S. Sesnie, J. Sullivan, A. Endsley, A. Agrawal, V. Galaz, J. T Erbaugh, and H. Eakin, who provided comments on this manuscript. We also thank the participants of the 2017 AAG sessions on Clandestine Land Transactions, whose research inspired this piece and is cited within. An earlier version of this Perspective was published as a panel contribution to the Population–Environment Research Network Cyberseminar, ‘People and Pixels Revisited’ (20–27 February 2018) ( Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement (grant no. 1657773) and the National Science Foundation Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research Project ISN (grant no. 1837698).

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B.T. and B.L.T. II conceived of the original idea, N.R.M. contributed to substantial reframing and conceptual figures, and all authors wrote and commented on the paper.

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Correspondence to Beth Tellman.

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Tellman, B., Magliocca, N.R., Turner, B.L. et al. Understanding the role of illicit transactions in land-change dynamics. Nat Sustain 3, 175–181 (2020).

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