Deforestation is a major global challenge that poses threats to the climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, food systems and forest-dependent communities. To tackle this problem, many countries have enacted regulations targeting deforestation and are taking action to reduce deforestation that occurs in violation of their laws and regulations. Tackling illegal deforestation can help governments achieve their international climate commitments, protect remaining forests and promote sustainable land use. Comprehensive corrective actions to resolve illegal deforestation can also bring social and economic benefits, such as enhanced land tenure, reduced land-related conflicts, increased tax revenue and investment, and better access to markets.
In addition, large consumer markets, in recognition of the link between agricultural expansion as a driver of deforestation and the trade in agricultural commodities, are introducing new legislation to help reduce deforestation. The EU, the UK, and the US are at various stages of enacting stricter market access requirements for agricultural commodities linked to deforestation. These new pieces of legislation set a high level of ambition to tackle deforestation associated with commodity production by requiring companies to conduct due diligence to ensure that commodities imported into these markets are produced in accordance with the laws in the country of production.
The future EU regulation on deforestation-free products goes further with its aim to address illegal and legal deforestation by restricting the placing of beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood on the EU market if they are associated with deforestation. These new demand-side legislations, along with legal frameworks in producer countries that aim to address deforestation, serve as a promising push in cleaning up supply chains and reducing deforestation and emissions globally.
These new requirements, and producer countries’ own goals and interests, call for a pragmatic approach to monitoring the legality of deforestation. However, legality assessments are not easy tasks to complete at scale, owing to the range of legal contexts and data needs. In fact, existing approaches have tended to focus on assessing the risk of deforestation in a given area, while often falling short in evaluating the legality of deforestation or commodity production. This is because detecting deforestation and land cover change is relatively straightforward using remotely sensed imagery. But assessing whether deforestation occurred in accordance with national laws is more challenging, especially at the scale of an entire country or region. This challenge is evident in one of the most comprehensive studies of illegal tropical deforestation due to agriculture by Forest Trends. The study, which drew on best available data, struggled to make precise estimates of the extent of illegal deforestation between 2013 and 2019 for most of the 23 countries studied, given limited national reporting on compliance. The lack of data prevented the consistent use of indicators of illegality within countries. Instead, estimates were extrapolated from figures cited in a range of reports, some of which captured only a subset of legality conditions or were taken from a subnational area and applied to the national level.
In response to this challenge, this insight presents an innovative and scalable approach to assess the legality of deforestation spatially, drawing on methodologies developed for pilot cases in Brazil and Indonesia (box 1). It shows how clear indicators that reflect a jurisdiction’s regulatory framework can be assessed with accessible and trusted spatial data. By linking context-specific indicators of deforestation legality with forest cover change data, this pragmatic, five-step approach can be used to indicate the extent of illegal deforestation by jurisdiction.
Developing new methods to assess the extent of illegal deforestation and where it is occurring presents opportunities for:
- Producer governments to direct efforts towards institutional and legal reforms to improve land-use governance and targeted law enforcement to safeguard their natural resources, thereby enhancing tenurial security and improving community livelihoods. This, in turn, can attract investment, help in accessing markets concerned with sustainability issues, and support sustainability transitions when linked to monitoring progress over time.
- Consumer governments to assess the effectiveness of legislations aimed at reducing their contribution to negative environmental impacts from the trade of forest-risk commodities and support monitoring operator compliance with demand-side, commodity origin requirements.
- Companies to assess reputational risks regarding the origin of forest and agricultural products, demonstrate compliance with regulations, make informed sourcing decisions and engage better with the supply chain.
Linking legality monitoring to agricultural commodity production and trade can also have a tremendous impact on the sustainability of supply chains. Jurisdictional assessments of the extent of illegal deforestation can be used as an input to facilitate discussion among supply chain actors operating in a jurisdiction. These assessments can also serve as a basis of collaboration on shared sustainability objectives. EFI’s Transparency Pathway offers a method for bringing supply chains actors together to manage sustainability risks in commodity markets. Jurisdictional sustainability assessments are part of this process. Increased transparency of the supply chain can also serve as a tool to hold actors accountable and encourage action to reduce sustainability risks.
Box 1. Assessments of the legality of deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia
In 2020, a team from Imaflora, Trase, and ICV analysed illegal deforestation associated with soy exports from the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. They compiled data on deforestation licences, which must be obtained before forest conversion, from the state’s environmental agency and deforestation data from the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais [INPE]) and Brazilian NGO SOS Pantanal to map where illegal deforestation occurred. They overlaid soy planting maps produced by Agrosatellite and land registry information to provide a plot-level assessment of illegal deforestation on soy farms between 2012 and 2017. They then used trade data from Trase to link this information to commodity traders and destination markets to estimate importer countries’ exposure to illegal deforestation from soy imports.
Source: Vasconcelos et al. 2020. Illegal deforestation and Brazilian soy exports: the case of Mato Grosso.
In partnership with the Yayasan Inobu organisation in Indonesia, the European forest Institute (EFI) developed a pragmatic and scalable approach to assess the legality of deforestation by jurisdiction (referred to in the study as planned and unplanned deforestation). Using Indonesia as a pilot case, they developed legality indicators based on the Indonesian legal framework and tested the approach using historical data on land cover, concession and protected area boundaries, and fire events from 2007 to 2018. In contrast to the approach utilised in the Brazilian study described above, this study provides jurisdictional assessments of potential illegal deforestation, taking into account multiple legality criteria. The indicators are not aimed at being used to make definitive claims of legality or illegality in specific places. However, they enable estimates of the scale of potential illegal deforestation and the types at the subnational level, using best available data. This is practical in contexts with many smallholders and when plot-level information is not available at scale. The approach also includes guidance on assessing greenhouse gas emissions associated with deforestation.
Source: Inobu and EFI. 2021. A methodology for spatially assessing the legality of deforestation in Indonesia. Unpublished.
Here we present the five steps to assess the legality of deforestation. While the overall approach can be applied to a range of geographies, within each step, the unique context of the area under study is taken into account to provide the best possible estimate considering the legal framework and the best available data.
Step 1: Understand the legal or regulatory context of the jurisdiction to identify what constitutes legal and illegal deforestation
To develop indicators, the elements that constitute legal and illegal deforestation must first be defined. A comprehensive review of relevant legislation, which may include but is not limited to regulations from the agriculture, forestry or spatial planning sectors, should be undertaken to define:
- Legal deforestation
- Illegal deforestation
It is not uncommon that the definitions of forest or deforestation are not inscribed in national law or that there is no consensus on the definition, with stakeholder groups having various understandings of the definitions. Definitions of forests also vary across geographies. Further, different definitions may even coexist in a country’s legal framework, with common confusion between legal classifications (areas officially zoned as forests), types of forests (e.g. planted or natural forests) and biophysical definitions (e.g. mature tree height and canopy cover). Therefore, it is important that definitions used in the assessment are clearly defined, especially in cases when a definition of legal deforestation must be built from various regulations. Additionally, it is important to distinguish strict legal requirements from guidelines that may not be binding. Stakeholder consultations at this stage can ensure that the most relevant legislations have been identified and that the definitions developed are consistent with general understanding of forests, deforestation and deforestation processes.
Step 2: Define indicators
Indicators are then identified that align with the legal criteria for defining legal and illegal deforestation. As much as possible, indicators should build on existing efforts and understanding. The indicators are selected based on:
- Legal and regulatory clarity and relevance for the assessment: The selection of indicators should consider those provisions relevant for deforestation and land use that are inscribed into law and are thus unambiguous. Certain criteria, such as the protection of riparian and sloping areas, although stipulated in environmental laws and regulations, may be guidelines rather than strict legal requirements. Given the total number of indicators may be large, distinguishing between the two serves to help balance capacity and ensure that the analysis is not too cumbersome.
- Data availability: Spatial assessment based on the identified legality indicators requires spatial data not only be available but also comprehensive and accessible. Spatial data for all desired indicators may not exist, especially on customary group and smallholder land and forest claims. In some cases, data for specific jurisdictions may be incomplete, not in a digital format or missing entirely. Data may be housed in disparate places (e.g. data may not be available or accessible to subnational government agencies but may exist at the national level or data may only be available through external sources). Before selecting the final indicators and the scope of the analysis, a review of the available data should be completed.
- Feasibility of spatial analysis: Although there may be many regulations that determine the legality of deforestation, not all the regulations may be taken into account in a spatial assessment. This may be the case especially when land registry or concession data is unavailable or linked to other public records (e.g. to consider a law requiring a field survey of threatened species before forest conversion, information on survey completion would need to be linked to a plot of land via permit issuance, through a public cadastre or other means). Therefore, the selection should also consider only those indicators that can be measured spatially, while noting potential limitations of the indicator selection in fully capturing the extent of illegal deforestation.
Box 2. Data considerations
When compiling data on legality indicators, the following considerations should be kept in mind:
- Resolution – The resolution of available data may not be adequate to accurately detect the legality of deforestation based on the criteria defined in the study. For example, the coarseness of the land cover data from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (6.25 hectares) meant that smaller patches of deforestation were not detectable. Laws regarding burning for smallholders set a maximum threshold of two hectares. Therefore, instead of using national data to measure an indicator on burned area, MODIS data with 500m spatial resolution was used.
- Extent and completeness – Datasets may not cover the entire area or may be incomplete. To fill this gap, multiple datasets, such as the four land tenure datasets used to identify rural properties in the Brazil study, may be used, although this may not always be possible. When using multiple datasets, the results of the analysis should be interpreted with caution given differences that may arise from the data sources. In the Indonesia study, challenges related to the completeness of concession and other data at the provincial level that may have affected the reliability of some findings.
- Continuity – Data may not be collected or available for each interval in the period of interest. In Indonesia, until recently, deforestation and land cover data were not produced annually, which posed a challenge for linking historical deforestation data with information, such as the year of issuance of concession, across the time series. However, gaps can be filled using other data sources, for instance the Global Forest Change dataset for annual deforestation data, although this may impact the accuracy and (perceived) legitimacy of the results.
In the Brazil case study, deforestation was considered illegal when it occurred in an area without a deforestation licence. Under the Brazilian Forest Code, deforestation on private lands is permitted only after obtaining a licence. Given the focus on soy farms and illegal deforestation associated with them for this study, the presence of deforestation licence was identified as the only indicator. The scope of the Brazilian case study was the state of Mato Grosso where spatial data on deforestation licences was made available by the state’s environmental agency (SEMA).
In the Indonesian case study, several potential indicators of potential illegal deforestation were first identified following a review of the legal framework. The indicators were then simplified and reduced based on expert assessments and public consultations. A set of six indicators were then selected:
Deforestation caused by fire
Deforestation that overlapped with a burned area detected in the same year was parsed from deforestation occurring independently of burning. The former was deemed possible smallholder agricultural activity for which deforestation was likely in accordance with the prevailing laws, at least if limited in scale. Larger areas of deforestation that occurred in areas with burning was considered as potentially illegal.
Scale of deforestation (to determine smallholder or commercial scale clearing)
Deforestation <5 hectares outside burned areas or <2 hectares inside of burned areas was considered likely to be smallholder activity and legal. Correspondingly, deforestation>5 hectares outside burned areas was considered likely to be agro-industrial deforestation and was further investigated as potentially illegal deforestation. However, it is understood that smallholder operators are likely to operate in groups or clusters, so the above cut off limits may not accurately reflect the situation on the ground.
Deforestation in moratorium areas
Deforestation detected within the moratorium area was deemed as likely to be a violation of regulations. The moratorium has been in effect nationally since 2011, although regularly revised in extent – in the study, seven versions of the moratorium were considered between 2011 (the original) and 2018 (revision no. 14).
The moratorium prohibits commercial deforestation, namely entailing forest concessions, yet in many rural areas in Indonesia, smaller-scale traditional agricultural practices are tolerated within its extent, even if technically unplanned, due to the existence of customary forest-use rights in the region. Hence the previous application of the five-hectares threshold to limit the consideration of such agricultural deforestation here.
Deforestation within concession area
For deforestation outside the moratorium area to be deemed potentially unplanned, it must have occurred outside the extent of forest concessions and/or forest-use designations wherein deforestation is permitted. Specifically, such deforestation must have occurred outside the extent of a current concession as delineated by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
Deforestation in protected or conservation forests
Deforestation that occurred in official forest use designations that prohibit deforestation, namely either in: protection forest or conservation forest, was defined as unplanned deforestation.
Deforestation occurred in the same year or after the concession was issued
Cases of deforestation inside concessions and inside the extent of official forest-use areas but in the year before concession issuance was considered unplanned deforestation. The application of this indicator is based on several assumptions. First, it is presumed that current concessions are not renewals of prior concessions. Rather, any deforestation occurring before a current concession’s issuance is presumed to be unrelated to any previous concession extent. With this assumption, the analysis is not hindered if there is limited availability of historical concession data. Second, deforestation occurring before but in the same year as concession issuance would be deemed planned, whereas it is more likely unplanned. Third, where the date of a concession issuance was unknown, it was assumed that they were issued before the study period.
The indicators used in both studies were identified by researchers based on the legal frameworks of the relevant jurisdictions. They are not indicators officially endorsed by governments in either geography and do not necessarily constitute the legality definition for deforestation in those areas.
Considerations for indicators
The detailed consideration on each indicator also extends to the setting of thresholds for some selected indicators. Some indicators are binary, meaning that the outcome can only have one of two values. For example, deforestation may have occurred either within or outside a moratorium area. While others, especially in cases where indicators are only suggestive, rather than affirming, of the legality of deforestation, may be non-binary and can take on any value, such as the scale of deforestation in hectares. In these cases, thresholds must be established based on the legal framework and the reality of deforestation processes in the area of interest. For example, when the scale of a deforestation event is larger than the designated threshold of five hectares outside burned areas in the Indonesia case study, the deforestation event moves from being considered legal to illegal in the study. Even with a clear legal framework, analysts may need to use their discretion in establishing thresholds. A moratorium has been in effect nationally in Indonesia since 2011, although it has been revised biannually in extent. Given the rest of the data used in the Indonesia study was annual data, the researchers chose only one of the revised moratorium boundaries for each year. Much like in the selection of indicators, decisions regarding thresholds can benefit from input from stakeholders who know the context well.
Step 3: Overlay deforestation and legality indicator data
The spatially explicit data based on the legality indicators and the deforestation layer are overlaid to identify instances of probable illegal deforestation and to estimate its extent over a given period and across jurisdictions (figure 1). In the Brazilian study, deforestation data were overlaid with farm boundaries and a soy production area map. From there, researchers could identify where and when deforestation occurred illegally on soy farms. This information could then potentially be linked to responsible actors or others along the supply chain, as was done to link illegal deforestation to importer countries.
Figure 1. Map of extent of illegal deforestation by municipality in Mato Grosso, 2012–2017.
Source: Vasconcelos et al. 2020. Illegal deforestation and Brazilian soy exports: the case of Mato Grosso.
When multiple illegality scenarios are assessed, results can show the dominant types of illegal deforestation (e.g. deforestation within protected areas, without a permit, etc.) and compare trends across time and jurisdiction. A sequence, or decision tree, to assess indicators can be established to enumerate the instances of illegal deforestation when there are several legality criteria (figure 2). This can be helpful in situations where criteria overlap, such as when deforestation is covered by a concession permit but occurs within a protected area. Utilising a sequence can also be useful when automating the spatial analysis, ensuring that the analysis is carried out consistently over time. The legality conditions can then be linked to deforested plots and summary statistics produced.
Figure 2. Decision tree indicating planned (legal) or unplanned (illegal) deforestation from the Indonesian case study.
In the Indonesia case study, nine legality scenarios were produced: three scenarios of what indicates planned (legal) deforestation and six scenarios of what indicates unplanned (illegal) deforestation (Table 1).
Table 1. Conditions indicating planned (legal) and unplanned (illegal) deforestation
- Planned (legal) deforestation
- 1. Burned land but in a small area indicating deforestation by smallholder
- 2. Not burned but still in a small area indicating deforestation by smallholder
- 3. Complies with all legality indicators in this study
- Unplanned (illegal) deforestation
- 4. A burned area large enough to be considered as forest fire
- 5. Occurred within moratorium area
- 6. Have a concession permit but occurred within protected/conservation area
- 7. No concession permits and occurred within protected/conservation area
- 8. No concession permits but occurred beyond protected/conservation area
- 9. Outside protected/conservation area, have a concession permit but occurred before the permit issued
Brazilian case study results
In the Brazilian study, 97% of the 1.7 million hectares of deforestation between 2012 and 2017 in Mato Grosso was deemed illegal. Turning specifically to illegal deforestation associated with the soy trade, 95% of deforestation on soy farms in Mato Grosso, was illegal. Illegal deforestation was found on 2,252 soy farms, about 10% of all farms in the state. Illegal deforestation was highly concentrated, with half of the deforestation taking place on 100 farms, mostly medium to large-sized. Illegal deforestation was also concentrated in jurisdictions, with more than half occurring in just 15 municipalities.
Indonesian case study results
An indicative assessment of unplanned (illegal) deforestation was conducted across seven provinces in Indonesia using historical data from 2007 to 2018. To illustrate the output of the approach, the results presented below are aggregated for one province, Central Kalimantan. During the study period, 1.7 million hectares of deforestation occurred in the province, of which 59% was indicated as potentially unplanned deforestation.
There were two main types of unplanned deforestation detected in the study: unplanned deforestation outside protected/conservation areas with no concession permit and unplanned deforestation within the moratorium area (box 3). These two indicators covered 77% of the deforestation that was potentially illegal in Central Kalimantan over the study period (figure 3).
The approach applied in the Indonesia study allowed for the disaggregation of deforestation by legality scenario, which provides additional insight into the deforestation process across jurisdictions (figure 3). Compared to Central Kalimantan, unplanned deforestation occurring before permits were issued made up a greater proportion of total deforestation in Jambi province, while in Central Sulawesi, most deforestation in the province was unplanned within restricted areas. Knowledge of the conditions in which deforestation is occurring allows actors to better direct actions appropriate to reduce unplanned (illegal) deforestation in a given context. This shows the importance and value of jurisdictional approaches and serves as a reminder that one-size-fits-all approaches may be less effective.
Figure 3. Percentage of deforestation by legality condition in Central Kalimantan, Jambi, and Central Sulawesi provinces, Indonesia, 2007–2018.
Box 3. Using spatial legality analysis to understand the effectiveness of a deforestation moratorium
In Indonesia, the deforestation moratorium entered into force in 2011 with the issuance of Presidential Instruction (Inpres) Number 10 and was extended in July 2017. In 2019, it was finalised with the issuance of Presidential Instruction Number 5 regarding the permanent cessation of the issuance of new licences in primary forests and peatlands (Ministry of Environment and Forestry Republic of Indonesia, 2020). The moratorium prohibits conversion of primary natural forests and peatlands for oil palm, pulpwood and logging concessions. The moratorium has the potential to significantly reduce emissions from deforestation if it is understood, implemented, monitored and enforced at the local level although with limitations (Austin et al., 2014; Busch et al., 2015). In practice, however, implementation appears to have been lacking, and as shown by the Indonesia study, a large proportion of deforestation occurred within the moratorium area. Results from the ground checking suggested a lack of awareness and information about the moratorium policy. These results are consistent with more recent research on the effectiveness of the different moratoria issued by the Indonesian Government (Chain Action Research, 2021).
Step 4: Identify potential limitations
After generating results, it is important to consider any limitations that may affect the quality or applicability of results. It is important to note that the results from some spatial assessments may only be indicative of whether deforestation was illegal, depending on the indicator used. For example, in the Indonesia study, deforestation in a burned area of more than two hectares was considered unplanned (illegal) deforestation. However, it may be that the burning was done by smallholders, in which case the deforestation would be legal. Because this indicator does not capture the actor responsible for the burning, definitive claims of legality based on this indicator are not possible. In contrast, the Brazilian study used the presence of deforestation licences as an indicator for illegal deforestation. This indicator provides greater certainty about legality claims on soy farms. However, the scope of the analysis is comparatively more limited.
Spatial assessments may not capture the full extent of illegal deforestation if all relevant indicators of legality are not included in the study because of the scope of the analysis, inability to assess legality criteria spatially, or data availability among other factors. The Brazil study only considered one indicator in a narrow scope (soy farms), but there may be other legality criteria, such as deforestation in protected areas, that would be relevant at a wider scale or for an alternative context. In that case, the total extent of illegal deforestation in the municipality may not be fully captured. Additional limitations arise because of data availability. All relevant data may not be available or easily accessible (such as in the case that data is decentralised at the lower administrative levels or not digitised). In such cases, assumptions or proxies may need to be developed to assist spatial assessments.
Identifying these limitations is not only important for interpreting results but may provide an impetus for improved transparency and accountability. Government actors may be encouraged to make available data that could be used for the spatial legality analysis to produce better estimates of illegal deforestation. This can, in turn, support government in making more informed decisions on where to take actions to reduce deforestation and increase law enforcement. Increased data disclosure also allows for independent monitoring, which can, on one hand, lead to increased credibility of government information systems, and on the other, be used as a tool to hold actors accountable (e.g. improved law enforcement, farmer information dissemination, sustainable sourcing of agricultural commodities).
Step 5: Consider needs for further investigation in certain laces
As a final step, it is important to consider where further investigation may be needed. This need may arise when assessing the accuracy of results. Comparisons with other respected data sources or ground truthing can be used to verify the results of the analysis can lend greater legitimacy to the findings, especially when there are limitations of spatial and administrative data, possible differences or disputes among different data sources, and lack of clarity in the legal framework. In the Indonesian study, several sites were sampled for field checks and focus group discussions were conducted with community leaders about the condition of selected areas. Results were modified following the field assessment.
While this methodology provides a straightforward approach to measure the legality of deforestation spatially, the real world is often messy. A complete analysis of the legality of deforestation, including of not only the extent of illegal deforestation but also why it occurs and how it might be stopped, may require further investigation. There may be gaps between the legal framework and the rules that those on the ground abide by. For example, in the Indonesia study, illegal deforestation was indicated within the moratorium area. Through interviews and focus group discussions, researchers learnt the story behind the deforestation event. In some cases, local people did not know the status of the land or the boundaries, or there had not been any dissemination of information to landowners regarding the land status. With knowledge of both the type of illegal deforestation occurring and potential reasons why, stakeholders have a clearer path for what actions may be implemented to reduce illegal deforestation. In this case, the results point to the areas that should be the focus of law enforcement, farmer sensitisation, tenurial conflict resolution and independent monitoring and where visits by government and law enforcement officials will be crucial.
This insight presents a practical and adaptable methodology to spatially assess the legality of deforestation. This five-step approach leverages available spatial data to estimate the extent of illegal deforestation, where it is occurring and under what contexts. It considers specific legal contexts and is flexible to respond to changing legal frameworks. It can be used at various scales, from a single jurisdiction to the national level, depending on data availability and the purpose of the analysis. The Brazil case study offers an example of a straightforward legality assessment in a relatively clear legal context, while the Indonesia case study shows the versatility of the approach in a complex legal setting. The methodology can be further refined through application to other countries and legal contexts.
Improved understanding of the extent of illegal and legal deforestation across jurisdictions can help governments to identify and target interventions, such as increased patrols, information sharing or capacity building, to reduce illegal deforestation. Results from legality assessments may also reveal broader issues that governments may need to tackle (e.g. lack of clarity in the legal framework, tenure insecurity, risk of exclusion of smallholders from supply chains, etc.). Assessments can also support sustainable land use by providing greater visibility and market and financial incentives to those jurisdictions engaged in legal practices and encouraging investment in those areas. Considering the potential additional benefits for partner countries and non-state actors, a wide use of the approach can be a game changer in the collective journey towards sustainability.