Soybeans and forests in Brazil’s Arc of Deforestation: A temporary truce?

Researchers highlight possibility of maintaining reductions in deforestation amid Brazil’s booming agricultural economy.

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By Christine Padoch
Programme Director, Forests and Livelihoods Programme


With global demand for commodities like palm oil, soy and beef rapidly increasing, and the supply of usable lands dwindling, can forests survive? Can the planet’s growing billions be better fed, clothed and housed without destroying tropical forests? A new article by scientists from several US and Brazilian institutions suggests that promoting more efficient agricultural land use while also enforcing anti-deforestation measures may have achieved just that in what was once the tropics’ most notorious area of forest loss: the infamous “Arc of Deforestation” at the southern edges of Brazil’s Amazonia.

Focusing their study on recent trends in soy production and changes in forest cover in the state of Mato Grosso, Marcia Macedo and her collaborators show that the seemingly inevitable link between agricultural growth and forest loss can be broken, and the goals of forest conservation and more food, fibre, and fuel can be simultaneously realised.

The authors focused their research on Mato Grosso during 2006–2010, when the frontier state saw its notoriously high rate of deforestation fall to only 30% of what it had been over the previous decade. In the same five-year period, agricultural production in Mato Grosso reached unprecedented highs.

Macedo and her collaborators used a combination of remotely sensed data and statistical information on changes in land cover and agricultural production gathered by the Brazilian government. They found that while 78% of increases in soybean production in 2006­–2010 were due to agricultural expansion into new areas (Mato Grosso leads all Brazilian states in soy production), a full 91% of that expansion occurred on lands that had been previously cleared, often for cattle pastures. The expansion did not require the cutting of forests. Another 22% of the increase in soybean production was due to higher yield per area.

The authors do point out that the decline in forest clearing “coincided with a collapse of commodity markets”, but that same period also saw policies implemented to reduce deforestation. This last change suggests that it was not only the financial crisis that spurred a downturn in deforestation. Indeed, profitability in Mato Grosso’s soybean sector later came back to pre-2006 levels, but deforestation continued to decline, indicating that “anti-deforestation measures may have influenced the agricultural sector”. These data are very promising indeed, but they also lead to several important questions that the authors attempt to address.

One such concern is “leakage”, or the possibility that the deforestation avoided in Mato Grosso may merely have moved elsewhere. Macedo et al. found little evidence of “direct leakage of soy expansion” into nearby highly threatened cerrado regions of Mato Grosso, and during that time deforestation rates in several neighbouring forest-rich states in the Brazilian Amazon also fell. But the authors do caution that it is not possible to discount the possibility that there was undetected “indirect land-use changes and leakage to more distant regions”.

The other question is, of course, can expansion of agriculture with no added deforestation last in Mato Grosso and beyond? According to the authors, some recent changes suggest that it may. The Brazilian government has invested heavily in monitoring and enforcing anti-deforestation measures, and both the government and some industry groups have “created powerful disincentives for expansion into forest lands”. But maintaining reductions in deforestation amid Brazil’s booming agricultural economy, the authors warn, will continue to require new policy incentives that promote efficient use of degraded lands, especially as infrastructure development makes the region’s remaining forested lands more accessible and new technologies make their potential use more profitable.

The authors’ cautions are timely. More recent reports from the region indicate that an upswing in deforestation rates may already be underway, and the effects of a proposed controversial forest code in Brazil remain uncertain. It is difficult to predict what new pressures the next major economic upsurge and boom in commodity prices may bring to bear on the remaining forestlands of the tropics.

It is clear, however, that societies and governments will need to carefully consider appropriate, context-specific, and multi-faceted strategies and policy incentives if they hope to balance economic pressures with the need to preserve forests and their multiple services. In this article Macedo et al. succeed in showing that, in at least one place, the balance can be achieved (at least for a while).

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Further reading

Macedo, M.N., DeFries, R.S., Morton, D.C., Stickler, C.M., Galford, G.L. and Shimabukuro, Y.E. 2012 Decoupling of deforestation and soy production in the southern Amazon during the late 2000s. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1111374109

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