Surprise! The world has more trees than you probably think

New study finds that trees cover a significant portion of the world’s farmlands.

Trees grow near rice fields in Bali, Indonesia.

People often blame agriculture for deforestation: Farmers, the thinking goes, clear trees to plant their crops.

But a new study by scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre, whose headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya, casts doubt on this paradigm.

Satellite imagery reveals that trees cover a significant portion of the world’s agricultural lands – more than 247 million acres in all.

Some regions have more trees over fields than others:

In Central America, for instance, farmed land has at least 10 percent tree cover. (Note: This is a correction. The original omitted "10 percent.")

In South America and Southeast Asia, about 80 percent of the farmlands have more than 10 percent tree cover. (Note: This is a correction. The original omitted "more than 10 percent.")

In sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America, trees shade 40 percent of cultivated land. That’s especially notable for Europe and North America, say the authors, given these regions’ dominance by large-scale, industrial agriculture.

The greater point: Contrary to popular conception, trees are an integral part of the agricultural landscape around the world.

The authors also note that high population density doesn’t always correlate with low tree cover – another common assumption. Some sparsely populated areas have few trees; some densely populated ones have many.

And the pattern can’t always be explained by climate either.

In the authors’ view, this discovery highlights the importance of nonenvironmental factors in tree planting and retention. Among them are land tenure rights and availability of markets for tree products. If a farmer has nowhere to sell the product, there’s no incentive to plant that tree.

Editor’s note: This article is one of a series of brief updates on environmental studies of interest. For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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