How is the UK causing habitat destruction worldwide?

The wonders of habitats like the rainforest and the wealth of species they contain have been transported to our homes by TV series such as Planet Earth. But they’re being exploited to fuel global demand for everyday products. Find out about some of the most at-risk habitats and how the UK is contributing to their destruction.
  Published:  12 Sep 2022    |      3 minute read

UK demand for products like chicken and palm oil is fuelling deforestation and loss of habitats and species around the globe. Here are just some of the regions.

The Amazon

What? The world’s largest tropical rainforest, spanning 8 countries. Supports 10% of the world’s biodiversity. Home to 2.7 million indigenous people.

Risk. Deforestation is escalating, with more than 1.3 million hectares of forest cleared in 2021. Cattle ranching is responsible for up to 80% of Amazonian deforestation, with big meat processing corporations like JBS guilty of buying cattle from illegally deforested land and displacing forest communities in the process.

UK impact. Annual imports of beef and leather from Brazil are equal to 315,152 hectares of land. Household names like Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Volkswagen are just some of the companies linked to JBS and illegal deforestation.

Portrait of an indigenous woman holding her young child in the Amazon
Indigenous people in the Amazon
Credit: filipefrazao via Getty Images

The Cerrado

What? A savanna (vast wooded grasslands) in Brazil. Home to many indigenous communities, as well as endangered animals like jaguars and giant armadillos. Supports 4,800 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

Risk. The soy industry is obliterating the region. In 2021, deforestation reached a 6-year high. Now, only 50% of its original vegetation remains. Reports of landgrabs are commonplace, robbing local communities of their land and livelihoods.

UK impact. Annual imports of soy from the region equate to 1.7 million hectares of land. US corporation Cargill dominates the soy trade into the UK, shipping more than 100,000 tonnes of soybeans from the Cerrado to the UK annually. Investigations revealed 800 sq km of deforestation and more than 12,000 recorded fires on land used or owned by a handful of Cargill’s soya suppliers in the Cerrado between 2015 and 2020. Around 90% of the soy imported into the UK is used for animal feed, particularly the intensive production of pork and chicken.

The tropical forests of South East Asia

Orangutan hiding among the trees in Indonesian tropical forest
Orangutan in Indonesian tropical forest
Credit: Jorge Franganillo via Unsplash

What? Some of the world’s largest rainforests across Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Known for iconic species like orangutans, elephants and sun bears. 25 million hectares of tropical peatlands store an estimated 57 gigatonnes of carbon.

Risk. Palm oil plantations are driving major deforestation. Many forest communities have been displaced, losing homes and livelihoods. Fires are often started deliberately to clear forest, which can get out of control, especially when peat begins to burn. This can lead to catastrophic fire events as in 2015 when Indonesia’s carbon emissions tripled as a result.

UK impact. The UK imports over a million tonnes of palm oil yearly, equal to 1.1 million hectares of land, to manufacture products like chocolate, soap and processed foods such as ready meals and margarine. 89% of those imports come from Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

The Guinean Forests of West Africa

What? A belt of tropical moist forests across countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Home to huge biodiversity including over 900 globally threatened species of plants and animals such as pygmy hippos and white-bellied pangolins.

Risk. 90% of West Africa’s primary forests have already been lost, much of it due to cocoa plantations. In 2021 new plantations totalling almost 6 million hectares encroached into the remaining forest, including protected areas, in these two countries alone. Most farmers don’t earn enough to cover basic necessities and can’t afford to invest in more sustainable production, forcing them to continually expand into new areas.

UK impact. Annual cocoa imports total 1 million tonnes in the UK, 80% of which are from West Africa. In 2017 major traders and chocolate companies including Cargill, Nestlé and Mars pledged to end deforestation, but 5 years later areas of forest being cleared for cocoa production remain near record highs.

The North American Coastal Plain

Cypress wetland forest in North America
Cypress wetlands in North America
Credit: Raquel Lonas via Getty Images

What? A biodiversity hotspot stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Massachusetts. Habitats ranging from cypress wetland forests to hardwood swamps. Supports hundreds of threatened species like the cerulean warbler and Louisiana black bear.

Risk. Wood pellet manufacturing is causing vast swathes of these pristine forests to be clearcut. The mills also create serious local pollution issues, which disproportionately affect those on low incomes and communities of colour.

UK impact. Timber has the biggest overseas land footprint of all UK imports, and this increased threefold between 2011 and 2019, mainly due to a surge in wood pellets. The vast majority of UK wood pellet imports, which totalled 9 million tonnes in 2020, supply the Drax power plant in Yorkshire. And some of the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturing companies supplying Drax buy their wood from North American forests.


We can take action at home and abroad to tackle the harmful impacts of UK consumption.

At Friends of the Earth, we support efforts by our sister organisations around the world to secure solutions on the ground. Friends of the Earth International is calling for the strengthening of communities’ rights to defend their lands, community forest management by local people, agroecological production, and switching the focus from maximising exports to ensuring food sovereignty for all.

In the UK, we can demand tough new UK legislation to ensure companies are required to prevent harm, both to communities and the environment, through their operations and supply chains. This includes making companies legally responsible for harm and the right for communities to seek justice if and when damage occurs.

Make companies accountable for the damage they cause

Make companies accountable for the damage they cause