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News Article

Agricultural expansion and deforestation risk in Africa


Policies needed that address growing domestic and international markets

As international markets have expanded in recent years, production of in-demand commodity crops such as soy and oil palm has moved away from areas where land use regulations are stringent and land is scarce.  Production has instead shifted to tropical regions such as Southeast Asia and South America and now multinational companies are increasingly looking to Africa with its abundant supply of agriculturally suitable land.  The continent already produces nearly 70% of the world’s cocoa, and this growing output requires over 325,000 acres of new farmland each year, which is considered a small proportion of overall agricultural expansion in Africa.  A new study, published in Environmental Research Letters provides the first comprehensive assessment of how the increasing international demand for commodity crops is affecting sub-Saharan tropical forests.

Since 2015, agricultural production in Africa has grown at the fastest rate globally.  By 2025, cropland in the region is predicted to expand by more than 10 percent.  According to the study, rates of deforestation in Africa remain well below those in Southeast Asia and South America; however, since 2000 the continent has lost an area of primary forest approximately the size of Iceland. 

African forests, located primarily in the Congo Basin, represent almost 30 percent of the world’s total and are an important source of local income.  Forest products such as logs; generate an average of 6 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, three times the world average.

The study authors selected eleven major crops that were classified as commodity crops and were produced across South America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.   So far, the expansion of commodity crop production in sub-Saharan Africa has been largely driven by small and medium scale local farmers, rather than industrial plantations, that boost the regional economy and are able to expand with less disruption to forests.  However, this is set to change.  Since 2005, in the Congo Basin, multinational companies have acquired 22.7 million hectares, equivalent to an area of land larger than Costa Rica, primarily for growing crops including soy and oil palm. An estimated one half to two thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s agro-ecologically suitable land is currently under forest, which represents nearly 25% of tropical forest carbon stocks.

“We are starting to better understand issues related to large-scale agricultural expansion in the tropics,” said lead author and graduate student Elsa Ordway from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.  “In Africa, we have the opportunity to take lessons learned from other regions and recommend preventive policies.”

Due to the regions complex land tenure and subsequent property conflicts, multinational companies are more likely to acquire land by clearing intact forest.  However, the researchers suggest that Africa could avoid the deforestation that large-scale monoculture has caused in regions such as Southeast Asia by implementing policies that focus on forest conservation  and local land controls.

“Civil society, policymakers and private companies can benefit from many years of trial-and-error with anti-deforestation policies in South America and Southeast Asia to design more effective interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” said study co-author Professor Eric Lambin from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

The authors suggest that possible solutions to this issue could involve:

1.  Promoting investment that ensures small and medium-scale farmers continue to drive agricultural expansion in order to alleviate poverty and avoid land tenure conflicts;

2.  Encouraging shade cultivation of crops such as cocoa, to stimulate conservation of forest cover;

3.  Looking at ways to engage with African consumers on deforestation issues, as they are currently the primary market for the majority of locally produced commodity crops.

“Future forest losses could be better mitigated via policies that address the shifting influence of domestic and international markets,” said study co-author Professor Greg Asner, from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

The authors hope that their findings could inform the zero-deforestation commitments made by many international companies as well as helping countries follow through with their commitments under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Journal reference

Elsa M Ordway, Gregory P Asner, Eric F Lambin. Deforestation risk due to commodity crop expansion in sub-Saharan AfricaEnvironmental Research Letters, 2017; 12 (4): 044015 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa6509

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Stephanie Cole
  • Date
  • 21 April 2017
  • Source
  • Stanford University
  • Subject(s)
  • Economics
  • Forest products
  • Management