Vast tropical tree farms push into biodiversity hotspots

Matthew Fagan

Much of the tree growth in the tropics in the first decade of the century consists of plantations — not natural forest. The LCLUC project  findings by PI Nick Magliocca, Co-I Mathew Fagan and team got featured in Nature's Research Highlights.

Commercial tree plantations make up a much larger share of the increase in tree cover in the tropics between 2000 and 2012 than national data would indicate1.

Tropical forests store large amounts of carbon, making them crucial for climate-change mitigation. This has led some countries in the tropics to pledge to increase tree cover. But many nations plan to do this in part by expanding plantations, groves of a single type of tree — such as oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) — that is grown for agriculture or logging. Plantations are less wildlife-friendly and tend to be more fire-prone than natural forests.

Matthew Fagan at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and his colleagues examined satellite images gathered between 2000 to 2012, showing tree cover in tropical countries ranging from Indonesia to Brazil. The researchers found that natural growth accounted for less than half of the increase in cover during this period.

Plantations accounted for around 32 million hectares of the increase — substantially more than the 21 million hectares reported by national governments. More than 90% of this expansion took place in biodiversity hotspots, such as the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

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An oil-palm plantation stretches to the horizon in Sarawak, a state in Malaysia that is a biodiversity hotspot. Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images
Monday, October 31, 2022