Forest conversion: agriculture and plantations

Forests conversion involves removing natural forests to meet other land needs, such as plantations, agriculture, pasture for cattle settlements and mining. This process is usually irreversible.

Aerial view of palm oil plantation on deforested land, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
© / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

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Disappearing forests

Conversion of forests – from South America's tropical forests to Russia’s temperate forests – to meet worldwide demand for consumer products is leading to deforestation and a range of ecological and social impacts.

As a result, agriculture is widely believed to be one of the main causes of deforestation. Around the world, forests are giving way to plantations for oil palm, soy, rubber, coffee, tea, and rice among many other crops.

Of increasing concern is the soaring popularity of biofuels. Biofuels are generated from oils extracted from plants such as oil palm - which are often grown on land cleared of natural forests.

Social impacts of agricultural expansion

There are also concerns about the social impacts of agricultural expansion. For example, in the expanding soy plantations of Brazil, poor people are lured from villages and deprived neighbourhoods to remote soy estates where they are put to work in barbaric conditions, sometimes at gunpoint, with no chance of escape.

Worker abuse is especially prevalent where there is strong agricultural expansion, such as in the Amazon states of Pará and Mato Grosso. Although this abuse happens in remote farms, the landowners who are responsible are closely connected with the rest of the world through their soy trading activities.

Forest conversion facts

  • Soy supplies one-fourth of vegetable oils globally.
  • Demand for soy is expected to rise to 300 million tons by 2020 globally.
  • Global palm oil production is expected to nearly double by 2020.
  • Malaysia and Indonesia dominate the global market for palm oil with 90% of all exports.
  • Half of the world´s commercial timber is used for paper production. This wood often comes from plantations that replace native forests.

The problem with paper

Some members of the pulp and paper industry are leaving an unacceptably large ecological footprint on the planet. Irresponsible pulpwood harvesting and expanding pulpwood plantations threaten fragile ecosystems and create social problems.
In some places, such as in Indonesia, deforestation caused by unsustainable pulpwood harvesting contributes to climate change.

The pulp and paper manufacturing industry is among the world’s largest users of energy and emitters of greenhouse gases, and a significant source of water pollution and landfill waste.

Paper production is causing a large ecological footprint on forests, as around 40% of the world's commercially cut timber is processed for paper.

While some of this timber is grown in well-managed forests, too much of it is the result of illegal logging and the irresponsible destruction of old-growth and high conservation value forests.

Some proposed new pulpwood plantations and mills threaten natural habitats in many places with high conservation values.

For example, the remaining natural forests in SumatraBorneoNew GuineaRussian Far East, Southern Chile and the Atlantic forest region in Brazil are endangered because of growing demand for pulpwood, among other threats. This has a knock on effect on several rare species including tigersAsian elephantAsian rhinos, and orangutans.
 / ©: Edward Parker / WWF
Seedling from the FSC Sweden Nursery.
© Edward Parker / WWF
WWF's Check Your Paper scheme is WWF's global benchmarking tool for responsible producers and buyers of paper products.

What is causing forest conversion?

  • Rising demand for soy, palm oil, cocoa and coffee is translating into expanding plantations for these crops worldwide. Versatile products like soy and palm oil are found in anything from animal feed to bread, and from lipstick to burgers - hence their popularity. This human 'footprint' on the Earth shows how our behavior in one part of the world can have negative impact on tropical forests and the people living in other part of world.
  • Cheap land, labour, and government subsidies are creating more and more supply of agricultural goods, and to meet needs for increased production.
  • Poorly implemented environmental regulations are added incentives for some landowners and producers to convert forests for plantations inside protected areas, intimidate local people so that they are driven off their land, and set fires to clear land with little fear for interference by authorities.
  • Global trade arrangements and trade barriers, such as the EU
    trade barriers for meat compared to 0% tariffs for soy beans.
 / ©: Machado et al, 2005
Cerrado distribution: original cover until 2002
© Machado et al, 2005

The threat to the red man of the forest

The orangutan, known as the red man of the forest, is losing vital habitat as the forests of Sumatra and Borneo are in demand for conversion to palm oil plantations.
Habitat conversion from natural forests to oil palm plantations has been shown to have a devastating impact on tropical forests, along with plants and animals that depend on them.

In 2006, about 6 million of the 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations globally were in Indonesia. In many areas, these plantations are taking over rainforests, the natural habitat of endangered species such as orangutans.

Scientists estimate that less than 60,000 orangutans now remain in the wild on Borneo and Sumatra.

The palm oil industry, which is causing clear-cutting of forests, forest fires, and also facilitates greater access for hunters and traders, is one of the most important factors in the dramatic reduction of orangutan populations.


  • Forest conversion makes it easier for hunters and poachers to target orangutans.
  • Forest fires are set to clear the land, directly endangering orangutans.
  • Some farmers and plantation owners shoot orangutans as they consider them pests.

How you can help

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Forest conversion and you

  • Many of us unwittingly contribute to forest conversion in our consumption of everyday products. For example:

    • Palm oil is used to make a whole range of cosmetics, detergents and food products including shower gel , margarine, and ice cream.
    • Pulpwood plantations clear acres of forest to satisfy demand for paper products.
    • Soy beans are used to make cooking oils, bread, puddings and sweets as well as in the manufacture of paints, adhesives, fertilizer and insect sprays.
  • logo / ©: WWF

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