Forests in Chiquimula, Guatemala, June 2018.
Photo: ©Pep Bonet/NOOR for FAO

Inequality promotes deforestation

Greater inequality increases deforestation in Latin America, researchers say. Consequently, more equal distribution of income, wealth and land ownership is not only fairer, it also improves environmental protection.

High inequality leads to more deforestation, while lower inequality improves the long-term protection of remaining tropical forests in Latin America, researchers from the University of Bern, Austria, reported in January 2019.

Tropical deforestation is a major contributor to climate change and loss of local and global ecosystem functions. Latin America accounts for a large share of remaining tropical forests, but also features deforestation rates well above the world average. And, Latin America features some of the highest levels of inequality in the world. The biggest driver of deforestation in Latin America is the expansion of agricultural frontiers to meet the demands of international markets.

The researchers took a look at the interaction between agricultural productivity, farmland expansion at the expense of forests, and various forms of inequality. To this end, they examined three different forms of inequality: income, land, and wealth. Their findings suggest that – in a hypothetical situation of equality – increases in agricultural productivity would promote deforestation in the short-term. But in a longer-term “equality scenario”, higher agricultural productivity would actually lead to better protection of forests.

Their study shows, however, that increases in all forms of inequality ultimately promote agricultural expansion, eroding the potential environmental benefits of greater productivity. The results also indicate that the effect of income inequality is greater than that of land or wealth inequality.

One possible explanation for the findings is that income, land, and wealth inequality hinder the societal cooperation needed to protect forests, the researchers say. It could also be that agricultural expansion is easier and cheaper when land ownership is concentrated in a few hands.

(University of Bern/ile)

More information: Ceddia M.G. The impact of income, land and wealth inequality on agricultural expansion in Latin America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1814894116: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/01/23/1814894116