Clearing for commodities


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Over the last three decades, the area devoted to soybeans, oil palm, cocoa, and coffee in developing countries has doubled, from 50 million hectares to 100 million hectares. That is an area three times the size of Germany. Much of this growth came at the expense of forests. Rising populations, incomes, and urbanization are fueling rapidly growing demand for these products, while cheap land and labor and government subsidies are pushing up supply. Expanding the area planted, rather than higher yields, accounts for a majority of the increased production. It is not even clear how much developing countries benefit from all this because rising production drives down prices and booms are followed by busts.

“Commodities and Conservation: The Need for Greater Habitat Protection in the Tropics”, edited by E.T. Niesten, R.E. Rice, S.M Ratay, and K. Paratore from Conservation International, looks at the expansion of these four crops, as well as pastures and timber plantations. They are worried it threatens biodiversity and feel that it is not enough to just get farmer to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices.

Brazil grows thirteen million more hectares of soybean today than it did thirty years ago, and now accounts for almost one quarter of world production. Most of that growth came in the wooded savanna areas of South-Central Brazil, but it has gradually been moving northward into the Amazon.

Opening up new areas to produce cocoa has been the main cause of deforestation in Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, and parts of Indonesia, which together provide 70% of the world’s cocoa. If you look at the history of cocoa you will find that regions typically boom for twenty or thirty years. Then they decline due to diseases, aging trees, and other problems, while new regions open up.

Of the twenty five global biodiversity hotspots identified by Conservation International, three-quarters are major coffee-growing areas. Together they have more than ten million hectares of coffee. In recent years, Vietnam in particular has been clearing a lot of forest to grow coffee.

The demand for beef in developing countries is expected to almost double in the next fifteen years. Most of this beef will be produced within the countries themselves; and a lot will come from extensive cattle ranches that require large areas.

The authors’ solution to all this is more parks. Whether that will work remains to be seen. Perhaps the next time you are at a Starbucks or Burger King or drink a cup of Nestle’s chocolate you can give the question some thought.

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Further reading

To request free electronic or printed copies of the document, you can write Terhi Majanen at

You can also send comments or queries to Dick Rice at

The full reference for the documents is: Niesten, E.T, Rice, R.E., Ratay, S.M. and Paratore, K. 2005. Commodities and Conservation: The Need for Greater Habitat Protection in the Tropics, Washington D.C., Conservation International.