Losing Ground in the Amazon

Deforestation uptick raises questions about sustainable intensification

Perhaps the most depressing GIFs I’ve seen are the ones showing the time-lapsed encroachment of deforestation into tropical rainforests. Seen from space, deforestation looks like matte brown polygons marching across a landscape of deep green. On the ground, it looks like farmers chopping down trees, burning them to clear the area, and planting crops like soy to sell for export.

We can’t talk about deforestation without talking about agriculture, which is why so much of the literature on conservation is concerned with topics like soybean demand, beef production, and demand for vegetable oils. Agricultural expansion is a key driver of forest loss, not only in the Amazon but in other important conservation regions like central Africa and Indonesia. This link between agriculture and conservation helped motivate our desire to do a deep dive on food and farming topics with our ongoing series The Future of Food.

A recent New York Times piece presents some disheartening news from the Amazon basin: after years of zero-deforestation pledges from governments and agricultural companies, deforestation seems to be again on the rise. In Brazil, deforestation increased last year after a decade of decline, while in neighboring Bolivia forest loss has been steadily accelerating since the 1990s. Why? Rising demand for soy production, mostly to use for livestock feeds.

Policymakers in developing and middle-income countries face a trade-off between capitalizing on the tremendous agricultural potential of tropical regions and preserving their forests. One of the experts quoted in the Times piece puts it quite starkly: “The forest is seen as useless land that needs to be made useful.” The socialist government in Bolivia views soy production as a way to promote food sovereignty in the developing nation and has explicit plans to continue clearing forest for farmland in the coming decades.

Broadly speaking, the way to reconcile this trade-off between crop production and conservation is through sustainable intensification. That means growing more crops on existing farmland by increasing yields, or growing crops on degraded or other previously developed land, rather than clearing forests. When agricultural giants like Cargill sign zero-deforestation pledges, they still want to increase production, so their only hope is sustainable intensification.

But even as intensification drives cropland productivity up and deforestation rates down globally, we are still losing the battle to protect some of Earth’s most treasured and biodiverse ecosystems. It is tragic, but no coincidence, that some of the world’s most productive farming regions are the tropic climates that are also home to some of the world’s oldest and largest rainforests. Indonesia may be the perfect place to grow oil palm, which is a higher yielding oil crop than competitors like soybean oil, but that is meager consolation when we look at the vast areas of forest habitat that have been lost there due to oil palm expansion.

The recent reported uptick in deforestation in the Amazon is a worrying sign that efforts at sustainable intensification may be stalling. We should not lose sight of the real progress that has occurred, however: even with the increase in deforestation last year, Brazil’s rate of forest loss is still much lower than it was in the early 2000s.

An ecosystem as vast as the Amazon requires conservation planning at a regional level, and a patchwork of policies across Brazil, Bolivia, and elsewhere will leave too many gaps for exploitation. As satellite imaging gets better and more frequent, it will provide important data for governments and NGOs to track forest loss and identify priorities. What areas have already been cleared, where could production be intensified on existing croplands, and where are the most sensitive ecological areas to focus protection efforts? These questions should guide new eco-regional planning approaches, which are our best hope to preserve rainforests amid the unrelenting pressures of agricultural expansion.