As the human population and our consumption of resources grow, more and more land is being turned over to agricultural production. This is at the expense of natural habitats such as mangroves, wetlands and, of course, ancient forests. In particular, it's the growing importance of soya beans and palm oil as global commodities are key drivers of deforestation.
Soya, land grabbing and slavery
As global demand for soya has increased, Brazil has matched that demand by clearing huge areas of the Amazon rainforest to make room for plantations. In 2005, it became the world leader in soya exports but this has been at a terrible price.
Soya farming is now one of the leading causes of deforestation in Brazil - in 2004-5 alone, 1.2 million hectares of soya were planted in the rainforest where land-grabbing and illegal deforestation are common.
Land grabbing goes hand in hand with violence and even murder, while communities are forced from their homes and slave labour is used to clear the land. More than half of all reported incidents of slavery in Brazil are in Parà and Mato Grosso states, where much Amazon soya is grown.
As with destructive and illegal logging, very little of the enormous profits generated from soya production trickle down to the local population. Instead, they end up in the pockets of the agricultural multinationals driving the soya invasion, including ADM, Bunge, Dreyfus and Cargill (which also happens to be the largest privately-owned company on the planet) as well as a Brazilian company, Grupo André Maggi. As a result of our work on Amazon soya, in July 2006 these traders announced a two-year moratorium on buying soya from newly deforested areas.
Palm oil and monocultures
Meanwhile in South East Asia, oil palm plantations are laying waste to huge areas of the Paradise Forests. Palm oil is used as an ingredient in many supermarket products including biscuits, chips and chocolate, and with the growing interest in biofuels demand is set to rise further still. Touted as an alternative to fossil fuels and a solution to climate change, the production of biofuels could actually means further deforestation, and could actually accelerate climate change rather than minimise its effects.
Deforestation is not the only consequence of industrial-scale agriculture in such vulnerable ecosystems as tropical rainforests. The links between monocultures and loss of biodiversity are well established.
They also result in increased pest outbreaks and this, along with the poor tropical soil, means massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are needed to boost harvests. Even then, the soil is soon exhausted and farmers move on to newly deforested areas to begin again.
There are alternatives to this continuing destruction. More protected forest areas with better policing are an obvious answer, but in addition the agricultural industry and its investors need to change their policies and support more environmentally responsible and socially just methods of providing their crops.
And as consumers, if we demand that our food or energy does not come with deforestation, social conflict and climate change included in the price, companies will be forced to listen.