Global study challenges view blaming poor for forest clearing

Local forest clearing is not based on needs alone.
Researchers have set out to identify how assets affected a household’s decision to clear forests.

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BOGOR, Indonesia — A global study questions the idea that poverty drives forest clearing.

Households with medium- to high-level assets close to markets are more likely to cut down trees than the poorest and market-isolated households, the study says. Researchers also suggest that a strategy of developing market access to alleviate poverty and eventually contain deforestation may backfire.

The global study is the product of the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), a collaborative effort led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The largest quantitative global-comparative research project to date on forests and rural livelihoods, it analyzes data gathered from some 8,000 households in 24 developing countries.

“Forest clearing in rural livelihoods: Household-level global-comparative evidence” is one of five initial papers to emerge from the global study; they appear in an upcoming issue of the journal World Development.

“The debate on the underlying causes of forest clearing and what drives agents’ behavior is complex,” said Ronnie Babigumira, a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and principal author of the study. The study tried to address this complexity by testing the role of a range of variables under seven broad categories: human, physical, social, natural and financial capital; mediating factors; and vulnerability indicators.

“There is a strong narrative in the literature dating back to the UN conference in Stockholm in 1972 that says poverty drives environmental degradation,” added Arild Angelsen, an NMBU economics professor and co-author of the paper. “We’ve found it’s not that simple.”

The researchers set out to identify how assets affected a household’s decision to clear forests. “I’ve always thought that having the ‘means’, or the capability, to clear forests was more important than needing to do it as a livelihood strategy,” Angelsen said. “Because it’s not a simple matter to cut down trees and plant crops. It’s hard work for yourself, or [you] need the resources to hire people. In some cases, it’s semi-illegal, so you also need political connections.”

Indeed, the study found that needy households with the least amount of assets tended to clear less forest. Those in the middle range, who aspired to improve their livelihoods and had enough assets to expand cultivation, were more likely to engage in deforesting activities. There was little difference between middle-range and more asset-rich households.

“Our results suggest that local forest clearing is not based on needs alone,” said Babigumira. “Having assets gives households the means to clear forests, and seize opportunities to improve their livelihoods by enlarging their cultivated areas.”

Researchers also explored the popular notion that better access to markets will alleviate poverty and, eventually, reduce deforestation.

“We found that when farmers are oriented towards markets, they are more likely to clear forests,” Babigumira said. “In fact, market sales may increase a household’s assets to the point that they have the means to clear forests, and proximity to markets also provide an outlet for higher production.”

These findings should inform current debates around REDD+ (Reducing Deforestation and forest Degradation) and climate-smart agriculture that promote intensification of land use, Angelsen said.

“On the one hand, you can produce more food on less land and take pressure off forests through intensification, but you also increase profitability, which may encourage people to clear forests,” he said. “We found limited evidence to suggest that intensification takes pressure off forests.”

One surprise for the researchers was the insignificance of roads to forest clearing, except in Latin America, which has a much more pronounced focus on markets.

We will dig into the data to shed light on other aspects of the poverty-environment nexus

Ronnie Babigumira

The study also revealed interesting differences in why forests were cleared. In Africa and Latin America, smallholders overwhelmingly removed trees to clear land for crops. In Asia, more than one-quarter of households cleared forests to grow trees. That’s one reason why the researchers prefer to speak of “forest clearing” rather than “deforestation.” The other, and perhaps most important reason is that this self-reported forest clearing includes temporary/cyclical clearing, which is not categorized as deforestation according to the FAO definition.

“About two-thirds of the trees cut were from natural forests that were removed to expand agriculture onto virgin land, but much of the clearing was part of a rotation system,” Angelsen said. “Since there is not always a permanent conversion to land, it would be misleading to call the process ‘deforestation’.”

With such a rich data set, the researchers have plans for further studies. These include examining indicators for environmental degradation not directly linked to deforestation. “We will dig into the data to shed light on other aspects of the poverty-environment nexus,” Babigumira said.

For his part, Angelsen wants to look at the relationship between carbon loss and forest clearing: What is the opportunity cost of forest conservation — the carbon price that must be paid to make forest clearing unprofitable?

“The data never speak for themselves,” he said. “There are a lot of variables, so it’s like searching for the Holy Grail to find the story. In fact, there is so much heterogeneity and diversity that there may not be a single narrative, but actually several.”

For more information about the issues in this article, please contact Arild Angelsen at

Financial support for the global study was proved by ESRC-DFID, DANIDA, USAID (BASIS-CRSP), IFS and CIFOR.

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