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Deforestation and Land Policies

Environmental problems have become more acute during the last several centuries because of higher rates of industrialization and urbanization. The notion of global warming and climate crisis is popular in the media today, and more people are getting involved in the conversation. On September 23, 2019, a Swedish teenager and climate activist, Gretta Thunberg, addressed world leaders at the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit in an emotional speech about climate change and the associated existential threats to humanity. Gretta condemned the world leaders’ inertia over the undergoing climate crisis. At the center of this debate are the issue of global warming and the possibility of having a world that cannot support any form of life in the near future. Deforestation is one of the causal factors of climate change, and numerous policies have been made to address this problem. World leaders and other stakeholders use the available legal framework to tackle this issue.

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However, the current land policies do not seem to reduce deforestation, which raises many questions concerning their effectiveness as a useful tool for maintaining rich global biodiversity. Only over the past half a century, 17% of the Amazonian forest has been devastated (Nunez, 2019). Almost half of all trees have been destroyed since humans started cutting down trees (Nunez, 2019). Deteriorating effects of human activity are alarming, and current methods of minimizing the negative impacts are proving to be ineffective. The issue of disforestation hinges on the laws governing land use, and thus having the right policies will play a central role in ensuring the maintenance of sustainable global forest cover. The argument made in this paper is that promoting carbon uptake through afforestation, reduced forest degradation, and restoring agricultural landscapes is a better approach to deforestation as compared to the current land tenure policies. The suggested alternative approach is discussed in detail in this paper.

The Role of Policy in Deforestation

In any given country, laws governing land use and tenancy and the enforcement process determine whether deforestation is reduced or exacerbated. For instance, addressing governors from across the country in May 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt praised the Supreme Court of Maine for ruling out that tree cutting in private lands should be regulated through legislation (Roosevelt, 1908). This assertion highlights the central role of policies in addressing the problem of deforestation. However, countries have numerous policies, which require a multiagency approach for successful implementation. Therefore, the laws governing the use of land and forests together with the involved authorities form a complex web that bedevils the seamless implementation of the same to achieve the desired results.

As such, the legal context of appropriate land use to avoid deforestation depends on numerous factors, including the inevitability of deriving livelihoods from forests, the need to conserve natural ecosystems and the implementation of diverse development strategies. Larson and Ravikumar (2016) argue that most countries have “literally hundreds of regulations and norms governing land use, which are issued and enforced (or not) by multiple offices within government and by multiple levels, from national presidents to village chiefs” (para. 2). Consequently, the level of collaboration of these multiple agencies and power centers will determine the effectiveness of the laid down policies. However, how the law is structured also plays a significant role in this complex matrix. For instance, land classification specifies the different uses permitted on it and the individuals or entities that can hold what rights to it. Larson and Ravikumar (2016) note that while this process is seen as a technical one, it is normally political. In addition, many factors such as access to markets, credit, and subsidies work in the background to incentivize one type of land use over others. Therefore, this web of policies, laws, and bureaucracies might hinder or promote efforts to address deforestation.

Also, tackling the issue of deforestation on a global level requires collaboration between governments and related agencies. This cooperation is only possible when there is a uniform strategy that is manifested in both local and international policies. World Wide Fund for Nature (2019) also believes that ambitions toward afforestation can only be reached when world leaders negotiate a joint deal on recovering forest lands. Because different countries may pursue varying and possibly contradicting goals, international policies may take a long time to be set despite promising benefits.

The Problem with Current Land Policies

The current land laws and policies are made using different frameworks based on the specific needs of the targeted areas. However, the majority of these laws draw heavily from von Thunen’s model of land rent, which has three broad sets of policies (Angelsen, 2010). The first category seeks to minimize the rent of extensive agriculture in various ways. Some include withholding incentives and neglecting infrastructure that would encourage agricultural activities, creating alternative income generation opportunities, and reforming land tenancy, among other ways. The second framework aims to “increase either extractive or protective forest rent and -more importantly -create institutions (community forest management) or markets (payment for environmental services) that enable land users to capture a larger share of the protective forest rent” (Angelsen, 2010, p. 19639). The final model is concerned with limiting forest conversion through the establishment of protected areas. These strategies have worked in some cases, but the anticipated results have not been achieved, which necessitates the adoption of a new model.

The failure can also be demonstrated in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas produced as a result of forest degradation – in 2010, 17% of total emissions were caused by forest loss (Pfaff et al., 2010). This percentage is even higher today because of extensive land use and conversion. Legislation that limits forest rent and protects lands has its drawbacks because it does not incentivize all people. As a result, while some people contribute to saving trees, others are forced to cut them because of basic necessities. The following section discusses the current land policies to highlight their inherent weaknesses and an explanation of why they have failed so far.

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Agricultural Policies

Reducing the overall agricultural rent – This policy is based on the claim that minimizing the number of acreages under agricultural activities would contribute significantly to saving forests. According to Kant and Alavalapati (2014), this model worked well in Gabon, whereby agricultural exports were heavily taxed, rural roads were neglected, and smallholder farmers received limited support from the government. However, such policies work against the mainstream objectives for rural development as a way of reducing poverty by boosting agricultural production. Therefore, any conservation recommendations against small-scale farming are politically incorrect, and thus they normally fail. Reductions in agricultural rent, while beneficial to saving forests, are harmful to minorities that have no other opportunities except for raising crops. Neglecting their interests may cause unrest and political conflicts. Not all agricultural products are grown for export – restraining agriculture may lead to price fluctuations in the domestic market causing economic instabilities. Therefore, such policies are often surrounded by endless debates, which pose a hindrance to legislation enforcement. These unsolvable disputes only waste resources instead of making a positive impact; thus, such a policy is not suitable for encouraging deforestation.

Economic development – The premise of this approach is that raising the opportunity cost of labor to lower agricultural rent leads to a pattern called forest transition (Angelsen, 2010). In this scenario, forest cover declines to a minimum level before increasing gradually to stabilize at a certain point. This economic development path ultimately seeks to create more employment opportunities, thus pulling labor from agriculture. The idea is that if people in rural areas have other and more beneficial employment opportunities, they will not be motivated to engage in agricultural activities and thus will not clear lands by cutting trees. However, there are certain weaknesses, and the problem with this model is two-pronged. First, creating nonfarm employment in rural areas does not translate into increased forest coverage. While people may have less tendency toward cutting trees, the policy does not provide any incentives for contributing to forest recovery. Furthermore, the situation may become even worse if, because of the economic developments, the rural areas get exposed to the urbanization process – the land will have to be cleared to accommodate more residents. Second, with the ever-rising population growth, it might be difficult to create enough employment opportunities to match the trend.

Targeting intensive agriculture – This premise hinges on the extension of von Thünen’s model, whereby other productive inputs are used in agriculture apart from the land. For instance, “improved small-scale irrigation systems in the lowlands of the Philippines pushed up labor demand and wages and pulled labor out of a more extensive agricultural sector in the uplands, reducing forest clearing by almost 50%” (Angelsen, 2010, p. 19640). As such, the land under agriculture is minimized to allow the growth of forests. However, such an approach may be counterproductive in the long term. Higher profits realized from using such improved methods could be used to clear more land for the commercialization of farming activities. As the world population rises, more and more companies will be willing to invest in technological advancements in agriculture to be able to serve broader markets and make more profit. This tendency will inevitably lead to massive forest losses because large-scale commercial facilities will have to be built. In this context, deforestation will not be the only factor in the climate crisis – advanced agricultural activities will result in more carbon dioxide dismissed into the air causing more damage to the environment. Therefore, targeting intensive agriculture may eventually lead to more long-term harm than short-term benefits.

Roads – One of the many explanations as to why the Amazon in Brazil is disappearing at an unprecedented rate is the presence of good road networks in the region (Jusys, 2018). The logic behind this argument is that roads make forests accessible for exploitation due to improved transportation of timber and other products. However, the causality element in this statement might be overstated. For instance, in some cases, roads are built after forests have been cleared for settlement. Therefore, the available conservation guidelines are incomprehensive because they are not clear on how transportation infrastructure reduces or increases deforestation. There have to be better policies that regulate settlement instead of concentrating on the relationship between road infrastructure and forest loss. The decision-making framework should be transparent to people and be strictly controlled by the government. In the case of Amazon, which is one of the most vital forests in the world, the international community should be able to influence the decisions made by the Brazilian government. Roads, on the other hand, should not be considered as the critical factor in forest degradation. The Brazilian Amazon case might be the exception as opposed to being the rule in the relationship between deforestation and road networks.

Property rights – As mentioned earlier, policies determine how and who uses land and for what purposes. In this case, property rights to land use give owners a form of tenure security, which then influences the way land is used. Therefore, land reforms are geared towards minimizing tenure security with the aim of decelerating deforestation due to reduced investments. However, the concept of land tenure could be endogenous, whereby land users take specific measures to increase security. Angelsen (2010) argues that forest conversion promotes tenure security, and thus deforestation becomes one of the viable strategies of establishing title. As such, property rights might be abused to exacerbate the problem of loss of forests. As the government interferes with the law on land tenure, insecurity caused by such administrative actions forces people to clear land for growing crops and increasing tenure security. In this context, other socio-economic factors may also be relevant. The level of education and the relationship between land residents and forests may also play a significant role. Therefore, the government should seek to provide other means of securing land tenures and work on educating the population that resides in remote areas.

Increasing and Capturing Forest Rent

This second model mirrors that of agricultural rent in many ways. For instance, higher demand for forest products with a limited supply of the same could lead to massive deforestation. Therefore, governments seek to reduce the demand for such goods through taxation or giving incentives for the usage of alternatives. For instance, trees are often used in real estate construction and paper production. Forest use can be discouraged by taxing wooden building materials and reducing taxes on alternatives. The same strategy can be applied for paper – the cheaper recycled paper will be more attractive to consumers, thus increasing the demand. Manufacturers, on the other hand, will be encouraged to invest in recycling rather than making new papers from expensive taxed wood. However, weak and contested property rights govern land usage in most tropical forests. Therefore, the majority of such users lack the incentives to pursue any form of forest rent in their activities and decision-making (Koch, Ermgassen, Wehkamp, Filho, & Schwerhoff, 2019). Consequently, policies are created to assign individual property rights to forests. In other words, private entities or citizens are allowed to increase forest rent, which is associated with numerous benefits.

Nevertheless, this approach has failed in many instances due to customary and statutory laws that mainly classify land as a public entity. As such, policymakers focus on community forest management (CFM) as a more sustainable way of maintaining countering the devastating effects of deforestation. In this case, decisions concerning forests are moved from individuals to the community level. This model has worked with a considerable degree of success in many places around the world. The concept of land ethics emerges, and “it enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals” (Leopold, 1949, p. 239). In this context, people evolve from being conquerors of land to become its members and citizens. In one study, 69 cases of CFM were evaluated to establish the effectiveness of the model on forest conservation, and 58 percent were considered successful (Angelsen, 2010). However, this framework has its shortcomings, especially in cases where communities are large, poor, and heterogeneous. In such scenarios, realizing collective outcomes is difficult due to diverse interests. Financial incentives may drive the majority of the population, thus creating conflict. Additionally, government policies are not supportive of such models, and thus communities are deprived of the opportunity to control valuable forest resources.

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Protected Areas (PAs)

Policymakers settled on this model as one of the sustainable approaches to reducing deforestation as a way of addressing the problem of climate change. The available literature shows that the loss of forest cover is lower within protected areas as compared to other places with open access (Angelsen, 2010). A study by Pfaff, Robalino, Herrera, and Sandoval (2015) showed that PAs have the potential to reduce deforestation by over 65 percent. Even when differences in locations are factored in, the effectiveness of PAs in maintaining forest cover ranges around 50 percent (Pfaff et al., 2015). This approach seems to work because international bodies such as the World Bank and the United Nations are involved in funding and policy development to maintain such areas and protect them from human encroachment.

However, like all other models, this approach has several weaknesses, which impede its effectiveness. For instance, some local communities hold that the benefits that they get from conservation efforts are fewer as compared to what they would gain from deforestation. It also creates space for corruption when external parties pay to the protecting side to use the forests. It is especially true for people that have no other means to feed their families except for utilizing wood. While ensuring that forest areas are protected, the government should also ensure that local communities have sufficient employment opportunities. Failure to meet the needs of the local population will prove the policies to be inefficient – it will be too challenging to enforce the legislation that deprives people of possibilities to have financial income. In addition, some protected areas like the Amazon have been exploited for economic gains, especially through resource extraction (Bebbington et al., 2018). Another drawback to this model is the likelihood of having a high loss of agricultural productivity per every hectare of saved forest. This assertion holds because the current policies do not guarantee that only less productive areas would be saved for afforestation. As such, the most productive lands would be allocated for PAs, which would affect agriculture productively negatively together with the livelihoods of the local communities.

An Alternative Model

Based on the arguments raised in this paper so far, it is clear that the current policy framework for reducing deforestation and reversing the negative effects of climate change is weak and inefficient. Therefore, there is a need for a better model to ensure that humanity is not wiped from the earth due to unsustainable practices regarding the environment. This section discusses an alternative model that could offer better results to combat global warming and climate change.

At the start of the 20th century, the world was dotted with beautiful parks and forests, which marked its rich biodiversity. Writing on the same, Muir (1901) argues that forests are fountains of life. Forest reserves and national parks were a common phenomenon, but this scenario has changed drastically over the last century. In 2008, during a climate change forum held in Bali, Indonesia, the international community showed its commitment to fight deforestation through the formation of the United Nations Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD). This approach seeks to tackle deforestation in developing countries through policy and economic tools to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

To address the existing problems, there is a need to redefine the relationship between land and forests. According to Martin (n.d.), “forest island and land is money, power, and authority” (para. 21). The current laws in different countries allow public land to move into private hands as long as the petitioner can improve the land. In most cases, measures for land improvement involve removing forest cover for economic activities. In addition, governments offer land grants for people to move to remote areas as a way of expanding their political base and power. For instance, the various governments “holding Texas since the late seventeenth century – Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States – successively awarded land grants to settlers and to companies expected to sell the land to raise funds for transport infrastructure” (Martin, n.d., para. 27). Therefore, the alternative model proposes the integration of forestry projects into carbon credits markets. As noted earlier, forests are normally cleared to advance economic activities and support livelihoods. Consequently, this model is based on an economic theory seeking to strengthen REDD’s objectives through carbon credits.

The economic theory works through three assumptions, which include, “market failure can be overcome through incentive payments, public investment in REDD is merited and can be supported politically, and markets can achieve REDD objectives better than government controls” (Martin, n.d., para. 33). The first assumption holds that the lack of market for carbon would drive agents to clear forests for other profitable ventures. Therefore, the catch for this model is to create value for the carbon stored in forests and pay agents for the same. This form of incentivizing land users to keep carbon in trees would be more effective as opposed to imposing government policies imposing penalties for the same.

The second assumption is hinged on the premise that by removing transaction costs, those who gain from removing stored carbon in trees would compensate those who lose in the process in a merited investment. This scenario could be classified under the utilitarian principle whereby the best option is the one that ensures the common good for the greatest number of individuals in the long term. The public good, in this case, is greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Therefore, those emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere would compensate those removing it through afforestation. This model would go further to create systems for those who win by minimizing emissions (everyone) to motivate those who lose, especially individuals that gain economically through deforestation.

The system of carbon credits has been around for some years now, but it has not been fully integrated into forestry projects. According to Van der Gaast, Sikkema, and Vohrer (2016), such projects are “surrounded by uncertainties about the permanence of carbon sequestration in trees, potential replacement of deforestation due to projects (leakage), and how and what to measure as sequestered carbon” (p. 42). However, emerging technologies are improving the standards for accounting for carbon sequestration. As such, individuals seeking to engage in carbon credit trading can now do that without the fear of not reaping the associated benefits. Policymakers should focus on addressing challenges that impede the integration of forestry programs into the emissions trading schemes (ETS). Some of these include carbon leakage, the permanence of forests, and the complexity in accounting (Van der Gaast et al., 2016). Once these problems have been addressed, people will start enjoying the benefits of carbon credits through engaging in activities that keep carbon sequestered in trees.

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Despite favorable prospects, the alternative model can be effective only if relevant stakeholders are genuinely interested in contributing to afforestation and the environment. Currently, there are two sides that argue on REDD initiatives. On the one hand, there are people who believe that there are no challenges related to the feasibility of the carbon credit system but problems with opportunity costs (Pfaff et al., 2010). These individuals think that the value of afforestation is equal to the opportunity cost of the same land being cleared for other ventures. In other words, because costs are comparable, reducing carbon emissions is feasible.

On the other hand, however, some people believe that it is almost impossible to achieve the goals set by REDD. They claim that the actual costs of implementing the required programs are a lot higher than the estimates because the program needs a holistic approach to be successful (Pfaff et al., 2010). Among the areas that will require sufficient expenditures are land tenure policies, which will have to be reviewed ubiquitously. There also has to be a system that will allow distributing payments, and any robust information system today costs millions of dollars. Governments should also think about meeting the demand for wood and agricultural products with alternative commodities. Governance quality, public opinion, and other institutional factors also influence the cost of implementing REDD. Because reforming any of these areas may require substantial investments, afforestation strategies proposed by REDD may not become widely accepted (Pfaff et al., 2010). For instance, improving governance will need reforms in government institutions, which is not cheap. Influencing public opinion requires massive propaganda and media coverage, which is costly in contemporary markets. Therefore, the estimated costs of implementing REDD only reflect the lower boundaries.

However, the REDD initiative can achieve its objectives as time passes. As environmental degradation becomes more evident, the media will naturally start to broadcast these events, thus shaping the opinions of ordinary citizens. This public pressure will force governments to invest in implementing REDD strategies without calculating the opportunity costs and trying to find the most economically profitable route. Instead, nations will be driven by the need to solve problems that may threaten human existence on the planet. Wealthier countries, including the United States, will need to provide financial assistance to poorer nations that are rich in forests. Performance indicators should also be determined to evaluate whether interventions are generating the necessary impact.


Climate change and global warming are some of the hotly debated topics in contemporary times. One of the major contributors to these problems is deforestation, which continues to increase due to ineffective policies. Laws governing land use and tenancy play a central role in determining whether forest cover would be reduced or improved. The current laws are lacking in many aspects, which explains why people are concerned with the vanishing tropical and rainforests across the world. Nevertheless, an alternative model has been proposed in this paper. This framework involves integrating forestry projects into the carbon credit trade. This approach would incentivize people to preserve forests due to the associated monetary gains. However, policymakers should come up with a comprehensive solution to address the issues surrounding the accounting of such credits for appropriate compensations. Based on the arguments presented in this paper, it suffices to argue that promoting carbon uptake through different strategies would be a better solution to deforestation as compared to conventional land policies. Currently, REDD objectives encompass the proposed solution, but to meet the goals, extensive financing may be required. This amount of necessary funding may discourage parties that find deforestation to be cheaper than pursuing REDD. However, over time, the objectives will become more feasible because of public pressure and the need to intervene to avoid extinction. The role of the wealthier nations is critical in this context.


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