During the past century, humans converted extensive areas of tropical forest into cultivated lands. Three distinct processes, each predominant during a different historical period, have driven the destruction of the forests. This review describes each of these deforestation dynamics: natural resource degrading poverty traps that predominated during the colonial era, new land settlement schemes that prevailed for two decades after decolonization, and finally, financialized, large enterprise dynamics that have predominated during the past quarter century. Each dynamic has, over time, given rise to different opportunities for conservation. Peasants emigrated from the sites of the poverty traps, and regrowth began to cover these degraded landscapes. Smallholders in the new land settlement areas became better acquainted with tropical tree species and allowed some trees to recolonize their fields, creating silvopastoral and agroforested landscapes. The heads of large enterprises relied on credit to clear land, so government regulators found that they could curb corporate-led deforestation by restricting access to credit when landowners failed to comply with laws against forest clearing. These links between deforestation's dynamics during past eras and conservation policies during the present era illustrate how a historical understanding of tropical deforestation can provide the basis for effective conservation policies.