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Agriculture threatens the livelihoods of forest-dependent people

26 October 2021
Tropical forests are far from being empty as they harbor numerous forest-dependent communities. However, where agribusiness agriculture advances, the livelihoods of these communities are threatened via the destruction of forests that they rely on, and their displacement to marginal lands. This concludes a study conducted by an international team of scientists at VU Amsterdam, Humboldt-University Berlin and institutions in Argentina and Canada.

There are few places on the globe where tropical forests are disappearing as rapidly as in the South American Gran Chaco, a tropical dry forest region twenty-five times the size of the Netherlands. Deforestation there mainly happens for the production of beef and soybeans for international markets, including for the Netherlands. This causes widespread environmental destruction and globally relevant carbon emissions, which have been widely documented, but the social impacts of deforestation often remain hidden. A main reason for this is a lack of data on where people live inside tropical forests. This is a huge problem, because many local people living in the Chaco, including the last uncontacted Indigenous People outside Amazonia, crucially depend on its forests. Mapping forest-dependent people is hence a much-needed step to better consider them in sustainability planning.

Chaco forests far from being empty
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows how putting forest-dependent people on the map is possible. Using high-resolution satellite images, the research team digitized individual homesteads of forest-dependent people across the entire Chaco and tracked what happened to these homesteads over a 30-year period. “We estimate that there were about 28,000 homesteads in 1985, spread across almost half of the Chaco forests”, explains Christian Levers, Assistant Professor at VU Amsterdam, and lead-author of the study. “This was a surprising result and shows that Chaco forests are far from being empty lands and forest-dependent communities can be found across huge areas of forests.”

Deforestation drives disappearance of forest-dependent communities
Forest-dependent communities in the Chaco use the forests surrounding their homesteads in many ways, for example for firewood and timber, livestock grazing, subsistence hunting, or collecting honey. According to the researchers, advancing agribusiness agriculture has put enormous pressure on forest-dependent people. “Since 1985, more than 5,000 homesteads have disappeared”, Levers explains. “But even more importantly, many more homesteads lost the forests in their surrounding due to agriculture expanding around them – forest on which they depend.”

Ecological marginalization puts livelihoods at risk
A key finding of the study is that deforestation leads to an increasing ecological marginalization of forest-dependent people. “What we mean here is that local people experience a massive erosion of their livelihood basis as the forest is converted“, Prof. Tobias Kuemmerle from Humboldt-University Berlin, senior author of the study, explains. “We could also show that those homesteads that persist or have emerged are often in places that are not very suitable for agriculture, which is another form of marginalization”, Kuemmerle summarizes.

Our consumption affects communities in distant places
Hotspots of disappearing homesteads were mainly located where agribusiness agriculture expanded most drastically. “This clearly shows how our consumption impacts on forest-dependent people around the world, people who are vulnerable and poor”, Levers states. “Agriculture expands into many tropical dry forests around the world, and we urgently need to consider the impacts this has on forest-dependent people more seriously – alongside the huge impacts on biodiversity and the global climate.” According to the researchers, mapping where forest-dependent people live and how deforestation impacts on them is a first and much-needed step to more adequately representing them in land-use planning and policy discussions.

Image: satellite images reveal where forest-dependent people live inside the forests of the South American Gran Chaco, and how deforestation for cattle ranching and crop production leads to an erosion of their resource base. (Background photo: Google Earth, inset photo: I. Gasparri).