Inequality fuels deforestation in Latin America, research shows

Though forest losses have slowed in recent years, Brazil still has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Photo by Vinícius Mendonça/Ascom/Ibama/Wikimedia/CC

Jan. 29 (UPI) — Inequality is likely to be a major theme in the next U.S. presidential election, but it’s also a global problem — and one with environmental impacts, according to a new study.

Scientists at the University of Bern found a correlation between levels of economic inequality and rates of deforestation in Latin America.

The expansion of agriculture and other types of human development continues to threaten forests throughout South America. Researchers have long suspected that political and economic power imbalances play a role in the loss of tropical forests, but until now, scientists weren’t sure how.

More productive farming efforts can, in theory, help conserve forests. If farms can produce more with less, then fewer trees need to be felled to meet growing demands. But as farms become more efficient and profitable, farmers are also compelled to explain — to make more money.

To better understand this contradictory dynamic, researchers analyzed the interplay between agricultural productivity, deforestation and economic inequality.

The problem with previous studies on the topic, according to Bern researchers, is that the relationship between productivity and deforestation wasn’t properly contextualized with an understanding of the regulatory environment and economic inequality.

“We know that different forms of inequality can significantly impact how environmental laws are formulated,” researcher Graziano Ceddia said in a news release. “The novelty of this study is its explicit investigation of the interaction between agricultural productivity, farmland expansion at the expense of forests, and various forms of inequality.”

Ceddia and his colleagues used real-world data to build models that simulated the influence of agricultural productivity on deforestation under a variety of socioeconomic conditions. Under conditions featuring great economic equality, agricultural productivity had negative impacts on forests in the short-term, but positive impacts in the long run. However, the models showed that as any and all kinds of inequality increase, the long-term benefits of agricultural productivity are diminished.

Authors of the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offered two hypotheses for the negative effects of inequality on forests. It’s likely social cohesion and cooperation are necessary for the effective conservation of forests, scientists surmised. It’s also possible that agricultural expansion becomes easier and more likely when resources — land and money — are concentrated in fewer hands.

“If we want to ensure that increased agricultural productivity serves to protect tropical forests, then the message to policymakers is clear,” Ceddia said. “More equal distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership is not only fairer, but also an effective means of improving environmental protection.”


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