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Livestock’s role in deforestation


Despite all the efforts to reduce the destruction of tropical forests and protect the natural habitats and the wildlife populations in all humid tropical areas, the beginning of the new century does not look more promising for the preservation of tropical rainforests and biodiversity. Classical approaches to conservation, such as attempts to preserve pristine habitats within national parks and other protected areas, have largely failed to halt the expansion into these areas.
Driven by a variety of social and economic pressures, local settlers continue their expansion into the last remnants of native forests, and in many cases the prevailing land use patterns are both inefficient from an economic perspective and environmentally harmful.

Livestock’s role in deforestation is of particular importance in Latin America where the largest net losses of forests and resulting carbon losses occur. Latin America is the region where expansion of pasture and arable land for feedcrops is strongest largely at the expense of forest area.  In tropical Latin America, land used for extensive grazing has increased continuously over the past decades and most of this increase has been at the expense of forests.

Throughout Latin America, rainforest conversion is dominated by the establishment primarily of pastures but also cropland, irrespective of the characteristics of soils, climate regimes, and topography. Pasture occupies the largest proportion of the agricultural land in the region and to a large extent the profitability of cattle as a productive venture is low. However, this venture is highly lucrative if it ensures land occupation and ownership and thus access to profits due to ensuing land price increases.

The most important change in land use in tropical Latin America over the last decades has been the widespread conversion of forest to pastureland.  In Central America, forest area has been reduced by almost 40 percent over the past 4 decades, with pasture and cattle population increasing rapidly over the same period.  In addition, soybean and cereal production primarily destined for feed production has unleashed a wave of events leading to the destruction of natural habitats over vast areas to deforestation.   Between 2004 and 2005 an estimated 1.2 million hectares of rainforest was cut down as a result of soybean expansion. 

The social costs and negative environmental impacts resulting from deforestation are enormous and are responsible for soil degradation and erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and loss of carbon contributing to global warming.

From this point of view, it is imperative to find alternatives to extensive livestock production in tropical Latin America which, while being financially and socially viable, will reduce environmental impacts and even contribute to restoring natural habitats.

LEAD’s approach in addressing the issues

The Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative has addressed the issues from a policy as well as technical perspective under its programme ‘Improved decision-making in addressing livestock’s role in the deforestation process’ with a focus on the Latin American region where the link between livestock and deforestation are strongest.   

The activities carried out by LEAD under ‘livestock’s role in deforestation’ thematic area focused on achieving the following objectives:

  • understanding and projecting  the spatial trends of the deforestation process in the region
  • development of benefit-sharing mechanisms at farm and community levels for biodiversity and carbon sequestration services as incentives to produce global environmental benefits resulting from integrated ecosystems management approach
  • preparation of policy guidelines for sustainable intensification of livestock production aimed at enhancing biodiversity preservation and mitigation of impacts of livestock-induced land use change.

In achievement of the first objective, LEAD with support from the regional Centre for Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education (CATIE)  initiated the first-ever continent-wide comprehensive analysis ‘Predicting land use changes in the Neo-Tropics’  with the aim of providing insight into the trends, location of the processes of agricultural (i.e. pasture) expansion and deforestation.  The results of this analysis are spatial information depicting future deforestation hotspots and a regional insight into the spatial changes and provide a framework that will be instrumental in focusing policy and research agenda. The results confirm that extensive grazing continue to expand mostly at the expense of forest cover.

Linking knowledge to policy and decision-making

Objectives 2 and 3 aimed at addressing issues of degradation on lands already converted from forest to grazing land through the regional GEF funded-project  ‘Integrated silvo-pastoral approaches to ecosystem management’ that aims to improve ecosystem management functioning of degraded pasture lands through the development of  more silvo-pastoral systems that provide global environmental services as well as local socio-economic benefits.

The project aims to demonstrate and measure, at farm and community level, the benefits of an integrated ecosystems approach to the improvement of degraded pasture lands in terms of:

  1. local environmental benefits through reduction in erosion and improvement in soil and water quality with increased production, income and employment in rural areas
  2. global environmental benefits, through improved biodiversity and carbon sequestration services
  3. initial experiences in the management of incentives required to produce global environmental benefits
  4. development of comprehensive guidelines for sectoral and environmental policies in terms of land use, environmental services and socio-economic development provided by the introduction of silvo-pastoral systems to rehabilitate degraded pastures

The project has been implemented in the three countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Columbia in partnership with CATIE (Costa Rica), NITAPLAN (Nicaragua) and Centro para la investigación en sistemas sostenibles de producción  agropecuaria (CIPAV- Colombia). The American Bird Convservancy (ABC) is providing technical assistance for the development of a common and consistent methodology for the monitoring of biodiversity at the three project sites.

Results suggest that the combination of payments for environmental services with silvopastoral techniques for sustainable livestock production is paying off both for the ranchers and for the environment.

The pilot project in the Central American countries has offered a good opportunity for the testing of concepts such as payment for environmental services and has drawn considerable interest from the region for follow-up activities. 

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