Article image

Global land rush threatens biodiversity

Since the beginning of this century, the world has experienced a massive global land rush, with thousands of transnational land investments being made by a variety of foreign entities. This has led to a significant surge of large-scale land acquisitions. Collectively, these acquisitions have resulted in an area larger than South Africa that is now officially put under contract for agriculture, mining, and logging.

Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Delaware (UD) has found that, when used specifically for agriculture, these transnational agricultural large-scale acquisitions (TALSLAs) lead to massive forest loss, posing a major threat to biodiversity in the Global South.

TALSLAs have surged since the beginning of the century due to the global food crises from 2008 and 2010, which led to sudden spikes in food prices and export bans. “Because of those events, many countries that rely on food imports realized that they were potentially vulnerable to these kinds of global or remote disruptions,” said study lead author Kyle Frankel Davis, an assistant professor of Geography and Spatial Sciences at UD. “To address these vulnerabilities, investments specifically targeted at agriculture rose partly as a result of that.” 

Moreover, a rising interest in renewable fuels – such as those related to biofuel crops like corn, oil palm, or sugar cane – gave many countries an incentive to invest in places where agricultural land was cheap.

In their study, the experts assembled the first global dataset of TALSLAs in 40 countries and investigated the historical environmental effects of these acquisitions, as well as their potential impact on biodiversity. “We looked at four different regions most targeted by land investments: Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. We found that, for Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, these types of investments tend to be associated with accelerated forest loss,” Davis reported.

The analysis revealed that, while in Asia there was a substantial spike in the rates of forest loss after contracts were signed – suggesting that such investments directly lead to increased deforestation – in Africa, forest loss tends to happen before the contract year occurs. “That suggests that even though they are associated with increased forest loss, the investments in this region may be taking advantage of places where there has already been clearing so the observed forest loss isn’t directly caused by the investment,” Davis explained.

Finally, the researchers examined the potential impact of these developments on two measures of biodiversity – species richness, or the number of individuals per species, and species abundance, or the number of species from a particular location – and discovered that, while 91 percent of the investments would be expected to lead to a decline in species richness, the impact on species abundance is likely to depend upon what type of investment the land was going to be used for.

“We estimated that abundance could potentially increase because you have maybe an area that is not a very productive natural system but it gets converted into a tree plantation or an oil palm plantation,” said Davis. “That type of agriculture can support large numbers of certain types of species but not necessarily a large number of species.” 

However, considering that 39 percent of these TALSLAs occur at least partially in biodiversity hotspots, it is crucial for these factors to be considered when foreign land investments are made. “Depending on the context, depending on the region, and depending on the intended use of the investment, you can have really serious implications for forests and for biodiversity in the places where these investments are occurring. These types of things need to be kept in mind when policies are being developed to govern these types of investments and to do so responsibly,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day