FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

FAO: Commercial agriculture accounted for almost 70 percent of deforestation in Latin America

It is not necessary to cut down forests in order to produce more food, says The State of the World's Forests 2016 report.

While deforestation remains high in the region, in 2015 the rate of defroestation has been reduced by almost 50% compared to 1990

July 18, 2016, Santiago, Chile - In Latin America, commercial agriculture is the main cause of deforestation, according to a new FAO report, The State of the World's Forests 2016 (SOFO).

SOFO notes that commercial agriculture generated almost 70% of deforestation in Latin America between 2000-2010, but only one third in Africa, where small-scale farming is a more significant factor in deforestation.

In the Amazon in particular agribusiness production for international markets was the main factor behind deforestation since1990, as a result of practices such as extensive grazing, cultivation of soy and palm oil plantations.

"Commercial agriculture in the region cannot continue to grow at the expense of the region's forests and natural resources ," said Jorge Meza, Senior FAO Forestry Officer.

Meza -who heads FAO's regional initiative for sustainable use of natural resources- emphasized that policies such as linking agricultural incentives  with environmental criteria, the adoption of silvopastoral practices, payment for environmental services and the recovery of degraded pastures  can prevent the expansion of the agricultural frontier at the expense of forests.

“Hunger eradication and food security can be reached through agricultural intensification and  measures such as social protection, rather than through expansion of agricultural areas at the expense of forests,” Meza said.

While deforestation remains high in the region, in 2015 the rate of deforestation has been reduced by almost 50% compared to 1990. This reduction has also been significant in the Amazon, the product of sustainable development policies driven by countries sharing the Amazon basin.

According to SOFO, over 20 countries succeeded in improving food security while maintaining or increasing forest cover since 1990, demonstrating that it is not necessary to cut down forests in order to produce more food.

Expansion of pastures: main cause of deforestation

A study cited by the SOFO on the causes of deforestation in seven countries in South America (De Sy et al., 2015) showed the relationship between deforestation and the expansion of extensive grazing.

According to the study, between 1990-2005, 71% of deforestation in Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela was due to increased demand for pasture; 14% due to cash crops; and less than 2% to infrastructure and urban sprawl.

The expansion of pastures caused the loss of at least one third of the forests in six of the countries analysed. The exception was Peru, where the increase of small scale farming was the dominant factor driving deforestation, causing 41% of the total.

In Argentina, the expansion of pastures was responsible for 45% of deforestation, while the expansion of commercial agriculture  accounted for more than 43%. In Brazil, more than 80% of deforestation was associated with forests being cut down for pasture.

Linking agricultural subsidies to environmental standards

In several countries, agricultural subsidies have encouraged large-scale deforestation as they increase the profitability of agricultural production and generate pressure to expand the agricultural frontier. Examples in the region are extensive grazing and soybean production on an industrial scale.

One policy option to avoid this is to link the incentives and public funds that commercial agriculture receives to environmental standards and norms.

SOFO notes that a single reform of this kind in Brazil, which linked subsidies to rural credit with environmental criteria, prevented the loss of 270 thousand hectares of forests that would have been deforested to increase beef production.

The "Bolsa Verde" Brazilian initiative is another example: a conditional cash transfer program that delivers resources to thousands of poor families in exchange for keeping vegetation cover and sustainably managing their natural resources.

Costa Rica: the value of environmental services

According to SOFO, after deforestation reached its peak in Costa Rica in the 1980s, today forests cover 54% of its surface, thanks to structural changes in the economy and the priority given to the conservation and sustainable management of forests.

Incentives for forest plantations were replaced in the mid-1990s by the Payment for Environmental Services, PES. This program has been used to strengthen the system of protected areas and create biological corridors covering 437 000 hectares.

The program offered incentives to farmers who planted 5.4 million trees, in addition to supporting forest conservation in indigenous territories.

In total, between 1996 and 2015, investments in PES projects related to forests in Costa Rica reached 318 million USD; 64% of these funds came from taxes on fossil fuels and 22% from World Bank loans.

"These initiatives have also been developed by other countries in the region, such as Ecuador's SocioForest Program and forestry development policies in Guatemala" Meza said.

The role of plantations and the private sector

One way to reduce pressure on native forests is the development of forest plantations.

In Uruguay, for example, the forest plantation area increased by about 40 thousand hectares per year in the period 2008-2011, with an estimated  annual investment of $ 48 million.

In Chile, since 1990, more than 1 million hectares of plantations have been created. From 2025, these plantations should sustainably produce about 50 million cubic meters of wood per year.

According to SOFO, plantations in Chile have reduced pressure on natural forests, where industrial logging was reduced from 16.1% of total logging in 1990 to 0.8% in 2013.

Since 1990 there has been an increase of 8% of the area of primary forest and other naturally regenerated forests in Chile. However, the SOFO warns that in some cases plantations have replaced natural forests.