People, Environment
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Tropical Forests Giving Way to Commercial Agriculture

An industrial-scale plantation can cause nearly 2,500 acres of land to be cleared annually.An industrial-scale plantation can cause nearly 2,500 acres of land to be cleared annually.

Larger patches of tropical forest are being lost worldwide, as governments and corporations clear more land to make way for industrial-scale agriculture, a Duke University study shows.

The newly published analysis reveals that clearings for large-scale agricultural expansion were responsible for an increasing proportion—in some places, more than half—of all observed forest loss across the tropics between 2000 and 2012, Science Daily reported.

The trend was most pronounced in Southeast Asia and South America.

"In South America, more than 60% of the increase in deforestation were due to a growing number of medium- and large-sized forest clearings typical of what you see with industrial-scale commercial agricultural activities," said Jennifer J. Swenson, associate professor of the practice of geospatial analysis at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

"Brazil, which had stricter policies limiting agricultural expansion until 2012, was the only country showing a reverse trend—its average forest clearing size actually got smaller. This unique trend may be short-lived, however, given Brazil's relaxed forest policies of the last few years."

The new findings underscore the growing need for policy interventions that target industrial-scale agricultural commodity producers in the tropics, the researchers say. A small family farm that produces sustenance crops or food for local consumption typically clears less than 10 hectares, according to PhD student Kemen G. Austin, who co-authored the report. By comparison, an industrial-scale plantation—such as one that grows and processes palm oil or soybeans for the global market—can cause nearly 2,500 acres of land to be cleared annually.

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