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What is forest conversion?

The world’s tropical forests are being cleared for agriculture and mining. This is known as forest conversion and it’s the leading cause of deforestation today.

ClientEarth is working to minimise the negative impacts of forest conversion on people and the environment. We are doing this by showing how weak legal frameworks create risks and how legal tools can address them.

What is forest conversion?

Forest conversion is the clearing of natural forests (deforestation) to use the land for another purpose, often agricultural (growing crops like palm oil or creating pasture for cattle), but also for mines, infrastructure or urbanisation.

Forest conversion is the largest cause of global deforestation today. It is being done by businesses and individuals, for economic reasons, or simply for survival.

Forest conversion has complicated roots, but one emerging global trend is that big, commercial investments are increasing and with them, rates of deforestation.

Where does forest conversion happen?

Across the world’s forests, conversion is most widespread in developing countries in tropical regions.

For the past 20 years, forest conversion in tropical regions has been extensive throughout south-east Asia and Latin America. This is driven by the trade of palm oil, pulp and paper, beef and soy.

The forests of sub-Saharan Africa had, until recently, remained relatively untouched by forest conversion. However in the coming years, forest conversion is predicted to expand in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Congo Basin.

What causes forest conversion?

The main cause of forest conversion is the growing demand for land for infrastructure and urbanisation, or to produce agricultural commodities and mineral resources.

There is significant evidence that agriculture is the main cause of deforestation in the tropics.

The main commodities driving forest conversion are soy, palm oil, beef, leather, cocoa, coffee and sugar.

Although these agricultural commodities are produced on deforested land in tropical countries, most are not consumed domestically, but are exported for consumption by developed countries.

What issues may result from forest conversion?

  •  Increased deforestation, leading to a loss of the Earth’s plants and wildlife;
  • Climate change impacts as forests’ ability to absorb and store large quantities of carbon dioxide is reduced;
  • Conflicts over land rights caused by insecure land tenure and ineffective land use planning;
  • Pressure on local communities’ rights, leading to ongoing land conflicts, evictions and loss of livelihood; and
  • Increased illegal timber. Conversion timber – that is the timber from the conversion of natural forest areas to non-forest use – harvested in violation of national laws (for example without the correct permits or without environmental impact assessments) fills the timber market.

What are the risks that timber coming from forest conversion is illegal?

Forest conversion results in illegal timber when it violates national laws.

While this definition may seem straightforward, determining (il)legality is not as easy as it sounds. Existing forestry, mining, agriculture, land and environmental laws (among others) are often cobbled together to form the rules for deforestation.

This means regulating forest conversion is complicated by overlaps or contradictions between laws in some countries, or by an absence of relevant laws in others.

Adding to the regulatory challenge are the many different groups (communities, private investors, government ministries) concerned with forest conversion.

The complexity of the laws governing forest conversion has led to an increased risk of operating outside the law, or illegality (whether deliberate or not). It is thought that just under half (49%) of tropical deforestation from 2000 to 2012 was due to the illegal conversion of forests.

What does ClientEarth do on forest conversion?

We support key stakeholders at national, regional and international levels, by:

  • Increasing access to analysis and information on how forest conversion and land tenure is regulated in tropical timber-producing countries;
  • Using that information to inform the discussion on the key risks associated with weak legal frameworks governing forest conversion and land tenure; and
  • Developing legal tools to address these risks.

For information on the national legal frameworks governing forest conversion in tropical timber countries, see our legal briefings.

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