A new study has shown that increased social and economic inequality has a tangible impact on deforestation.
The study, conducted through the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the direct links between inequality of income, land and wealth; agricultural developments; and the expansion of farmland which causes deforestation. The research focused on Latin America, a region which combines a sizeable portion of the world’s tropical forest habitats with levels of deforestation well above the global average.
In addition to contributing to climate change, deforestation in tropical regions can have a devastating impact on habitats, imperilling indigenous species and affecting ecosystems both locally and globally. In Latin America, the primary cause of deforestation is the increased expansion of agricultural territories due to amplified international trade demands; and while increasing the per-hectare productivity of farmland has the potential to meet those demands while alleviating the pressure on existing forest areas, the risk remains that by making farming more profitable, farmers may be incentivised to extend their cropland further by culling forests.
The study appeared to show that, in a hypothetical scenario of wide-ranging economic equality, the associated increase in agricultural productivity would lead to an initial short term surge in deforestation; however, in a long term “equality scenario”, forests would be better protected and less likely to be destroyed. By contrast, increased inequality led to increased expansion of farming territories – as opposed to maximising the productivity of existing farmland – and by extension increased deforestation. The effects were shown to be stronger in cases of income inequality than inequality of land or wealth.
Graziano Ceddia, who conducted the research, said: “We know that different forms of inequality can significantly impact how environmental laws are formulated. If we want to ensure that increased agricultural productivity serves to protect tropical forests, then the message to policymakers is clear. More equal distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership is not only fairer, but also an effective means of improving environmental protection”.