Subnational institutions and power of landholders drive illegal deforestation in a major commodity production frontier


Deforestation is a main threat to the biosphere due to its contribution to biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, and land degradation. Most deforestation is illegal and continues unabated, representing around half of the total deforestation in the tropics and subtropics. Quantifying illegal deforestation is challenging, let alone assessing the social and institutional processes underlying its occurrence. We tackle this challenge by quantifying the relative influence of individual (i.e., landholders’ power, landholding size) and contextual (i.e., subnational institutions, agricultural suitability) factors on the type and size of illegal deforestation in the Argentine Dry Chaco, a major commodity production frontier and global deforestation hotspot. We build a Bayesian network fed with data of 244 illegal deforestation events, obtained from journalistic articles, grey literature, key informant interviews, and geospatial analyses. The results reveal that more powerful landholders were associated with larger illegal deforestation events. Policy simulations suggest that higher concentration of land in the hands of powerful landholders and more flexible subnational forest regulations would escalate illegal deforestation. This points to the need for a smart policy mix that integrates across economic, agricultural, and environmental sectors to halt illegal deforestation at commodity production frontiers. A land tenure reform can facilitate forest protection, while incentives to land-use diversification and the criminal prosecution of illegal deforestation are critical to shift landholder behavior towards more balanced production and conservation outcomes.

Global Environmental Change