June 22 (UPI) -- Large-scale land buys are fueling deforestation across the tropics, according to a new study.
When researchers analyzed the kinds of land acquisitions most associated with forest losses, they found purchases made with the intent of establishing new single-species tree plantations, whether for palm oil, timber or wood fiber, posed the largest threat to native tree stands.
For the study, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers surveyed the details of 82,000 land deals, penned in 15 countries across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. They compared the data with global records of annual forest cover and loss between 2000 and 2018.
The analysis showed more than three-quarters of all major land sales in the tropics -- deals involving parcels bigger than 1 square mile -- involve foreign investment.
Often, local governments and communities welcome the influx of capital and new jobs that come with foreign investment, but in addition to threatening vital ecological resources, they can also negatively impact locals who rely on the forest for their livelihoods.
"Investments to establish new oil palm or tree plantations seem to consistently have higher rates of forest loss, and that makes sense because basically, you have to completely clear the land in order to convert it," lead study author Kyle Davis, assistant professor of geography and spatial sciences at the University of Delaware, said in a news release. "If you want to establish a tree plantation or a palm oil plantation in place of natural vegetation, you've first got to cut down the forest."
Researchers found large-scale land acquisitions for logging, mining and other kinds of development were associated with mixed outcomes. Large logging land buys actually had a small protective effect on forests.
By identifying the kinds of economic activities associated with forest losses, researchers can help policymakers identify regulations to help protect natural resources and keep forest intact.
"If you see deals in one country that aren't leading to enhanced forest loss but the same type of investment in another country is accelerating deforestation, then this suggests that there are opportunities to compare the policies in both places, and leverage what's working in one country and adapt that to another context," Davis said. "But it also clearly shows that countries will inevitably experience deforestation should they seek to promote certain investments such as palm oil, wood fiber, and tree plantations."