“Inequality also harms the environment”

“More equal distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership is not only fairer, but also an effective means of improving environmental protection.” That’s the conclusion of CDE researcher Graziano Ceddia, based on the results of his study showing that inequality in Latin America promotes deforestation.

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

You examined the interaction between deforestation, agricultural expansion, inequality, and the political framework in ten Latin American countries.

Graziano Ceddia © Manu Friedrich


What was the starting point for your research?

A major share of remaining tropical forests is found in Latin America. At the same time, the deforestation rate there is way above the global average. One of the main reasons for this is the expansion of agricultural areas. It’s causing massive losses of biodiversity, diminishing the functions of forest ecosystems, and driving climate change. Recent research shows that 20–25% of greenhouse gas emissions stem from land use change – including conversion of forests into agricultural land.

“If you want to protect the environment, you need functioning public institutions”


That’s one part of the story. The other part concerns social inequality, which is particularly high in Latin America. Numerous studies show that high inequality harms society in a variety of ways: Countries with high levels of inequality typically perform poorly according to various social indicators; they have higher rates of crime and corruption, higher infant mortality, more teen pregnancies, etc. And inequality also harms the environment.

In what way?

Inequality undermines cooperation and collective action. And it erodes institutions, that is, the “rules of the game” that are needed to maintain public goods – including tropical forests. If you want to protect the environment, you need corresponding laws and functioning public institutions that enforce them. Both are frequently missing in places with lots of corruption. In Latin America, there’s a clear link between high inequality and deforestation, or the expansion of agricultural land.

“Technology is not a panacea”


Social inequality relates to the distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership. What role do these factors play in the expansion of cropland?

Land ownership is decisive, as it influences inequality very directly. Wherever land ownership is highly concentrated, there’s a risk that people will be forced into new areas due to lack of access. Argentina vividly illustrates this sort of development: Large-scale soya production by agribusinesses is the main direct cause of deforestation and has forced indigenous groups and smallholders into peripheral areas. In the Chaco ecoregion, this is now impacting the last remaining forests. The story is similar in Brazil: Pressure from soya producers is pushing cattle herders deeper and deeper into the Amazon regions. In both cases, there’s a lack of institutions to counteract this.

People often argue that increases in productivity can enable us to produce the same amount of food, or even more, on less land. So, isn’t it also a question of having the necessary technology to increase productivity?

That’s a widely held belief, but it’s too simplistic. Technology alone is not a panacea. On the contrary, without clear legislation to protect forests and strong institutions, technology can cause even more tropical deforestation. Indeed, technology-based increases in productivity make farming more profitable and more tempting to expand. My research shows that it’s the quality of existing institutions which determines whether increases in productivity lead to more or less land under cultivation. In other words, better technology without the necessary strong institutions is like driving a Ferrari without a steering wheel or brakes.

“Industrialized countries bear a lot of responsibility”


For example?

Formal recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights, for example, clearly leads to reduced deforestation in these regions – even in areas that would be very suitable for agriculture. A completely different example helps illustrate the importance of institutions in the sense of “rules” and “regulations”: Famines usually don’t have anything to do with actual food scarcity, but instead result from the failure of institutions to provide adequate access and distribution of existing food. That’s one reason why it’s so important to address inequality. It prevents countries from building strong institutions.

The agricultural industry in Latin America is primarily focused on production of goods for export. So it’s not just a homemade problem…

Yes, it’s mainly about production of agricultural commodities that are traded globally – especially soya, as animal feed. As a result of increasing meat consumption worldwide, Latin American countries can earn more revenues in US dollars. They need the foreign currency to pay down external debts. Industrialized countries bear a lot of responsibility.

What does this mean for policy? What concrete measures are needed?

For one thing, philanthropy cannot substitute for well-functioning institutions. My results confirm previous evidence that inequality ultimately undermines provision of public goods, including protection of tropical forests. The implications for policy are obvious. Just a few days ago, Oxfam published a report presenting inequality statistics. According to the report, 26 people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population combined. If we really want to tackle inequality, we need progressive income and wealth taxes, as well as higher land value taxes. Indeed, more equal distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership is not only fairer, but also an effective means of better protecting the environment – including tropical forests.

Media release of the University of Bern, 25 January 2019

Inequality promotes deforestation in Latin America

Agricultural expansion is the main cause of deforestation in Latin America. Improvements in agricultural productivity can either enable forest conservation, or promote more deforestation. A new University of Bern study highlights the role played by inequality: High inequality leads to more deforestation, while lower inequality improves the long-term protection of remaining tropical forests.

The impact of income, land and wealth inequality on agricultural expansion in Latin America

Ceddia MG, 2019.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1814894116