What Drives Tropical Deforestation? Beef and Plywood, of Course, but also Barbies and Girl Scout Cookies!

Surprise, surprise: It turns out small farmers aren’t as destructive to the world’s forests as multi-national corporations.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists places most of the blame for deforestation on industry, not local farmers. Smallholder and subsistence farmers have historically been blamed as leading culprits in ripping down tropical forests, but new data shows that commercial agriculture (beef, soy, and palm oil in particular) and timber production are now the leading culprits.

Small-scale farming has become less important to deforestation in recent decades, as rural populations have leveled off or declined and large businesses producing commodities for urban and export markets have expanded into tropical forest regions.

Deforestation has changed from a “state-initiated” process to an “enterprise-driven” one. The major agents of deforestation are corporations that analyze it as an economic alternative, and choose it instead of other options because it is advantageous in terms of dollars and cents.

Deforestation contributes somewhere between 15% — 20% of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Greenpeace has been trying to raise awareness of the corporate impacts: Last year, the organization ran a successful KitKat campaign that forced Nestle to cut ties with companies that represented a “high risk” to deforestation.


Greenpeace is currently targeting Barbie doll’s parent company, Mattel, with its Barbie got dumped campaign — promising to aggressively campaign against the company if it doesn’t work to address deforestation in its production of the doll.

Also, two 15-year old girls recently started a campaign to take palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies after learning the treats were contributing to habitat loss for orangutans and climate change.

It will take more campaigns like these to radically shift industry practices and halt deforestation. Now that deforestation has shifted from a “state-initiated” process to an “enterprise-driven” one, according to UCS, empowered consumers may be able to make a bigger impact on the problem.

— Tyce Herrman