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The Key to Stopping Deforestation May Lie in Reducing Inequality

New research has found that higher levels of inequality lead to more deforestation, whereas better equality leads to better forest protections.

The world is losing its tropical forests at an alarming rate, despite increased efforts to save them. A recent study now shows that the best way to tackle deforestation, at least in Latin America, is to reduce inequality.

In a new report on the subject published in January, scientists found a direct correlation between agricultural expansion at the expense of forests and levels of inequality. In other words, higher levels of inequality lead to more deforestation, whereas better equality leads to better forest protections.

"More work needs to be done to increase the sensibility of inequality," says Michele Graziano Ceddia, a professor at the University of Bern's Centre for Development and the Environment. "It's striking how little we focus on this social disease."

Scientists are increasingly looking for new ways to save tropical forests as an essential tool in the fight against climate change. A recent report by Global Forest Watch found that tropical forest loss accounts for some 8 percent of the world's annual carbon dioxide emissions, ranking just below the United States, and significantly more than the European Union.

In Latin America, agriculture is one of the leading causes of tropical forest loss. Commercial agriculture generated almost 70 percent of all deforestation in the region between 2000 and 2010, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.

One of the major debates among scientists is whether more productive farming efforts can save tropical forests. Some argue that it can, with higher yields per acre resulting in a halt to the expansion of cropland. This is also known as land-sparing, as it is expected to save land for nature. Others argue that it actually does the opposite, as more productive farming methods provide an incentive to expand, and thus cut down more trees. This is also called the Jevons paradox, which says increases in technological efficiency stimulates consumption, and ultimately has a bigger impact on the environment. Economists also refer to this as "rebound" or "backfire."

Ceddia's research says the answer is both—it all depends on the strength of institutions. This includes the environmental policies, rules, and regulations in place, and the political will to implement them.

Previous research has already shown that countries with higher rates of inequality suffer from a number of problems, including weak institutions, Ceddia says. These weak institutions are less likely to implement regulations, including controls on agriculture expansion.

"Institutions are the rules of the game, and they are important for protecting the environment. So a country with high corruption, for example, is less likely to enforce proper environmental protections," Ceddia says.

Scientists have long debated whether social and economic power imbalances play a role in deforestation. Ceddia's study is the first to find significant links between agriculture productivity in Latin America, whether or not it leads to farmland expansion at the expense of forests, and different forms of inequality (wealth, income, and land).

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study looks at a variety of real-word data from 10 Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela) over a 20-year period (1990 to 2010).

Across the board, the pattern of the role of inequality was "consistent and statistically robust," Ceddia says.

Inequality and Deforestation Connections

But how does inequality trigger agriculture expansion and further deforestation? The study provides two hypotheses.

First, unequal land distribution—when land ownership is concentrated in fewer hands—makes it easier for agriculture to expand, as there are fewer land owners to deal with and fewer costs of acquiring more territory. One example highlighted in the study comes from the states of Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil. Here, agriculture expanded significantly from 2000 to 2005 as producers sought out areas where land ownership was fragmented and concentrated.

High inequality could also cause ruptures within communities, making it harder for collective action initiatives to arise that could otherwise protect the public interest and the environment. Where equality is higher, communities are more likely to cooperate, Ceddia says.

Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for Amazon Watch, has long been working with indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest. Though their struggle here is not directly related to agricultural expansion, Mazabanda says he has seen several cases where indigenous communities have stopped major infrastructure or extraction projects because they are organized and work collectively against the encroaching party.

"The indigenous organization in the Amazon is very strong, and when there's a conflict, like with a mining or oil company, they become stronger," Mazabanda says, citing the example of the Shuar community that has driven oil companies out of its territory several times to protect the forest.

In areas where poverty is higher, where indigenous communities are no longer able to live off the land and are forced into consumerism, communities are more likely to be fragmented and see further environmental damages. Collective action here fails because communities don't see any other option, Mazabanda says.

Corroborating Evidence

Several other studies have found similar results, that when indigenous land rights are recognized, deforestation goes down. One study by the World Resources Institute found that, by securing indigenous land rights in just Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia, nearly 60 million tons of CO2 per year could be prevented from entering the atmosphere through avoided deforestation.

The University of Bern study suggests a number of policies that could be implemented that would address inequality and also protect forests. These include adding land value taxes, creating better inheritance laws and land reforms; and recognizing indigenous peoples' land rights.

Ceddia says he supports policies created to curb inequality, but considers taxes on land more effective, as they are harder to hide compared to taxes on income and wealth.

The report came out at the same time that Oxfam released new global inequality figures, showing that the world's 26 richest billionaires own as much wealth as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world's population. It also finds that, in some countries, the poorest 10 percent of the world are paying a higher proportion of their incomes in tax than the richest 10 percent.

"There is a lot of reliance ... on the good deeds of philanthropists," Ceddia says, but "ultimately the sheer presence of such wealth disparities have detrimental effects for society.

"Any [policy] action on any form of inequality is urgent," he says.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.