Science: Deforestation of Brazilian Amazon is "Boom and Bust"

An average of 1.8 million hectares of forest are lost annually in the Brazilian Amazon, corresponding to nearly one third of global tropical deforestation, and releasing approximately 250 million tons of carbon.
[Image © Alexander Lees]

A study of nearly 300 municipalities across the Brazilian Amazon rainforest shows that deforestation—the conversion of forests to fields for agriculture, cattle-ranching, and logging—generally produces prosperity at first, but typically is followed by decline, researchers say in the new issue of Science.

This region is among the poorest and least developed in Brazil, and a wide variety of people migrate there to look for new jobs and opportunities. However, these findings indicate that, overall, deforestation creates a boom-and-bust impact on local residents, and that municipalities which have cleared their forests are no better off than those which did not.

Ana Rodrigues from the University of Cambridge, along with colleagues from Imperial College London, the University of East Anglia, and the Institute of People and the Environment in Belém, Brazil, say that new policies and financial incentives are needed to promote more sustained development in the region.

In their study, the researchers used the Human Development Index designed by the United Nations Development Program to reach their conclusions. This index of relative welfare averages together the life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living of people in a particular region of the world.

Rodrigues and her team used the Index to assess the welfare of 286 municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon, each in different stages of deforestation.

They found that the relative welfare of these municipalities increase as deforestation begins, but then decline as the frontier evolves, so that pre- and post-frontier levels are similarly low.

"It is generally assumed that deforestation is the price to pay for local development," Rodrigues wrote in an email interview. "But our results show that deforestation is associated with a merely transitory, rather than a sustained, improvement in life quality."

Since the Brazilian Amazon harbors 40% of all Earth's remaining tropical rainforest, it plays a vital role in global biodiversity conservation and biogeochemical cycles. Its destruction also releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to global climate change.

But these researchers say that it is easy for the global community to call for protection of the Amazon—and much harder for the local people to give up their legitimate aspirations of development.

"The problem lies in the asymmetric distribution of costs and benefits from conservation," Rodrigues said. "The greatest benefits... are mostly enjoyed at the global scale. But the costs of conservation are mainly felt at the regional and local scale. These costs include not only management costs, but more importantly the so-called 'opportunity costs,' or the foregone income from deciding not to convert the forest into something else."

The researchers suggest that new financial incentives and policies aimed at creating opportunities for more sustained development, not based on the depletion of ecosystems and natural resources, would be more beneficial for all parties involved.

"The current development model is resulting in a lose-lose-lose situation. It is not good for people, and it is certainly not good for biodiversity or the global climate," Rodrigues concludes. "The challenge now is creating a development path that is a win-win-win: something that promotes sustained improvement in human well-being without compromising the region's extraordinary ecosystems, and with minimum carbon emissions."

Rodrigues and her colleagues say that the conditions for this improved scenario are currently being crafted. "National level policies are already playing an important role, but we suspect the biggest change will come from global incentives. Ongoing negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are discussing the financial mechanisms for avoiding carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation."