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Tropical rainforests have an outsized role in the world, with their significance marked by the World Rainforest Day. Of the Earth’s ecosystems, rainforests support the largest variety of plants and animal species, house the majority of indigenous groups still living in isolation from the rest of humanity, and power the mightiest rivers. Rainforests lock up vast amounts of carbon, moderate local temperature, and influence rainfall and weather patterns at regional and planetary scales.

Despite their importance however, deforestation in the world’s tropical forests has remained persistently high since the 1980s due to rising human demand for food, fibre, and fuel and the failure to recognize the value of forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. Since 2002, an average of 3.2 million hectares of primary tropical forests—the most biodiverse and carbon-dense type of forest—have been destroyed per year. An even larger area of secondary forest is cleared or degraded.

Below is a brief look at the state of the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforests.

Note: All figures below are based on 2020 data from the University of Maryland (UMD) and World Resources Institute (WRI) using a 30% canopy cover threshold. Tree cover loss does not account for regrowth, reforestation, or afforestation.

1. The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon is the world’s largest and best known tropical rainforest. As measured by primary forest extent, the Amazon rainforest is more than three times larger than that of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest. The Amazon rainforest accounts for just over a third of tree cover across the tropics.

The Amazon River, which drains an area nearly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States, is the world’s biggest river. It carries more than five times the volume of the Congo or twelve times that of the Mississippi. By one estimate, 70% of South America’s GDP is produced in areas that receive rainfall generated by the Amazon rainforest. This includes South America’s agricultural breadbasket and some of its largest cities.

Due to its size, the Amazon leads all tropical forest areas in terms of its annual area of forest loss. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 30 million hectares of primary forest was cleared in the region, or about half the world’s total tropical primary forest loss during that period.

The Amazon is thought to house more than half the world’s “uncontacted” tribes living in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. However the vast majority of indigenous peoples in the Amazon live in cities, towns, and villages.

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world rainforests amazon

Extent: 628 million hectares of tree cover, including 526 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: About 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest lies within the borders of Brazil; the balance is found in parts of Peru (13%), Colombia (8%), Venezuela (6%), Bolivia (6%), Guyana (3%), Ecuador (2%), and Suriname (2%), as well as French Guiana (1%), a department of France.

Most famous species: Jaguar; tapir; capybara; river dolphins; various monkeys and parrots. Bulk numbers: more than 40,000 plant species, including 16,000 tree species; 3,000 fish; 1,300 birds, 1,000 amphibians; 430 mammals, and 400 reptiles.

Deforestation trend: Rising in most countries, led by Brazil. The Amazon lost over 30 million hectares of primary forest (5.5% of the 2001 extent) and 44.5 million hectares of tree cover (6.6%) between 2002 and 2019.

2. The Congo Rainforest

The second largest block of tropical rainforest is found in the Congo Basin, which drains an area of 3.7 million square kilometers. The majority of the Congo rainforest lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which accounts for 60 percent of Central Africa’s lowland primary forest. Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea account for nearly all the rest of the Congo Basin rainforest.

Until the early 2010s, deforestation in the Congo Basin was relatively low. War and chronic political instability, poor infrastructure, and lack of large-scale industrial agriculture help limit forest loss in the region. Most deforestation was driven by subsistence activities, though degradation due to logging was substantial. The situation is changing however: deforestation has been trending sharply upward in recent years.

world rainforests congo

Extent: 288 million hectares of tree cover, including 168 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (60% of the Congo’s primary forest), Gabon (13%), Republic of the Congo (12%), Cameroon (10%), Central African Republic (3%), and Equatorial Guinea (1%).

Most famous species: Forest elephants; okapi; great apes including gorillas, bonobos, and chimps.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly though it remains lower on a percentage basis than other major forest regions. The Congo lost over 6 million hectares of primary forest (3.5% of the 2001 extent) and 13.5 million hectares of tree cover (4.5%) between 2002 and 2019.

3. Australiasian Realm

The Australiasian rainforest includes tropical forests on the island of New Guinea and northeastern Australia as well as scattered islands that were connected when sea levels dropped during that last ice age. As a consequence of this linkage, both land masses have common assemblages of plants and animals, while conspicuously lacking groups found on islands further west. For example, cats, monkeys, and civets are absent from New Guinea and Australia, but both have an unusually high diversity of marsupials like kangaroos, wallabies, cuscuses, and opossums.

Virtually all this region’s primary tropical rainforest is on the island of New Guinea, which is roughly split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse island on the planet with some 800 languages. There are believed to be a few uncontacted groups in remote parts of New Guinea.

Among major forest areas, Australiasia had the second lowest rate of primary forest loss since 2001, but deforestation is trending upward due to logging and conversion for plantations.

world rainforests australia

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 64 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (51% of the region’s primary forest), Papua New Guinea (49%), and Australia (under 1%).

Most famous species: Tree kangaroos; cassowaries; giant ground pigeons; saltwater crocodiles.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly due to plantation agriculture, especially oil palm. The Indonesian part of New Guinea lost 605,000 hectares of primary forest since 2002 (1.8% of its 2001 cover), while PNG lost 732,000 hectares (2.2%). New Guinea is seen as the last frontier for large-scale agroindustrial expansion in Indonesia.

4. Sundaland

Sundaland includes the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java, among others as well as Peninsular Malaysia. Most of the region’s remaining forest is on the island of Borneo, which is divided politically between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Sundaland lost the world’s largest share of primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019. Borneo lost 15% of such forests, while Sumatra lost 25%. Deforestation for oil palm and timber plantations, as well as fires set for land-clearing, are the biggest drivers of deforestation. However deforestation has been slowing since the mid-2010s.

world rainforests sundaland

Extent: 103 million hectares of tree cover, including 51 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia (73% of the region’s primary forest cover) and Malaysia (26%). Brunei and Singapore have less than 1% of the region’s forests.

Most famous species: Elephants; orangutans; two species of rhino; tigers; various hornbill and monkey species.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is the highest of any major forest region, but trending downward. Between 2002 and 2019, Borneo lost 5.8 million hectares of primary forest (15% of 2001 cover), Sumatra 3.8 million hectares (25%), and Peninsular Malaysia 726,000 hectares (14%). Indonesia accounted for 75% of primary forest loss in the region, compared with 25% for Malaysia.

5. Indo-Burma

The Indo-Burma region includes a mix of tropical forest types, from mangroves to lowland rainforests to seasonal forests. Historical large-scale forest loss due to human population pressure means that surviving forests in this region are more fragmented than other regions mentioned so far. Most of the region’s tree cover consists of plantations, crops, and secondary forests.

The largest extent of primary forests in this region are in Myanmar, which has about one-third of the total area.

Indo-Burma lost about 8% of its primary forests and 12% of its tree cover since 2001. Cambodia accounted for more than a third of the region’s primary forest loss during this period.

world rainforests indo-burma

Extent: 139 million hectares of tree cover, including 40 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Myanmar (34% of the region’s primary forest cover), Laos (19%), Vietnam (15%), Thailand (14%), Cambodia (8%), far eastern India (6%), and parts of southern China (4%).

Most famous species: Elephants; two species of rhino; tigers; gibbons; leopards.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss was roughly flat over the past 20 years, while tree cover loss is accelerating. Cambodia accounted for 34% of primary forest loss, followed by Laos (21%), Vietnam (18%), and Myanmar (16%). Cambodia lost over 28% of its 2001 primary forest cover over the period as natural forests were increasingly converted to plantations and industrial projects.

6. Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican rainforests extend from southern Mexico to southern Panama. Costa Rica’s rainforests are arguably the best known in the region thanks to its world-famous ecotourism industry, but the country ranks fifth in terms of primary forest cover.

world rainforests mesoamerica

Extent: 51 million hectares of tree cover, including 16 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Mexico (39% of Mesoamerica’s primary forest cover), Guatemala (13%), Honduras (11%), Panama (11%), Nicaragua (10%), and Costa Rica (9%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; puma; tapir; peccary.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss accelerated toward the end of the 2010s driven by increasing incidence of fire, coupled with conversion of forests for cattle pasture, plantations, and smallholder agriculture. Mexico (534,000 hectares of primary forest loss), Guatemala (480,000), and Nicaragua (460,000) lost the greatest area of primary forest between 2002 and 2019. Costa Rica lost less than 2% of its primary forest during the period. In contrast, Nicaragua lost nearly 30%.

6. Wallacea

Wallacea represents a biogeographic oddity. When sea levels fell during the last ice age, islands to the west of this area joined continental Asia, while islands to the east got connected to land mass formed from Australia and New Guinea. As a result, Wallacea today has an unusual mix of species, drawing plant and animal groups from both regions, but also having high levels of endemism.

world rainforests wallacea

Extent: 24.4 million hectares of tree cover, including 14.6 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia. More than 60% of Wallacea’s primary forest cover is on the island of Sulawesi. The Maluku islands account for 34%.

Most famous species: Babirusa; tarsiers and various monkeys; hornbills; cuscuses.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss jumped in 2015 and 2016 following a particularly bad fire season. Deforestation for industrial plantations, including oil palm and coconut, increased in the 2010s.

7. Guinean Forests of West Africa

The Guinean Forests of West Africa consists of the lowland tropical forests that extend from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the Nigeria-Cameroon border. These forests have been greatly diminished by agriculture, including subsistence farming by small-holders and commercial cacao, timber, and oil palm plantations.

west africa

Extent: 42 million hectares of tree cover, including 10.2 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Liberia (41% of the region’s primary forest cover), Cameroon (17%), Nigeria (17%), Côte d’Ivoire (10%), and Ghana (10%).

Most famous species: Gorillas and chimps; pygmy hippo; various monkey species.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss has been rising since the mid 2000s. Tree cover loss sharply accelerated in the 2010s. While Côte d’Ivoire accounted for only an eighth of the region’s primary forest cover in 2001, it had nearly 40% of total primary forest loss between 2002 and 2019. The country lost about a third of its total primary forests in less than 20 years.

8. Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Forest once extended from northeastern Brazil into the hinterlands of Argentina and Paraguay. Today it has been greatly reduced by agriculture and urbanization. Most of the tree cover in this region is crops, plantations, or secondary forests.

atlantic forest

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 9.3 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Brazil (86% of the region’s primary forest cover), Argentina (9.5%), and Paraguay (4%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; Golden Lion Tamarin; Howler monkeys.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss in the Atlantic Forest—known as the Mata Atlântica in Brazil—has slowed since the 20th century, with annual deforestation remaining relatively flat.

9. Chocó-Darien

The Chocó rainforest extends from southern Panama and along the Pacific Coast of South America through Colombia and Ecuador. It is the world’s wettest rainforest and has the lowest deforestation rate of any of the regions covered in this post. The Chocó is home to both Amerindian tribes and Afroindigenous or “maroon” communities.

 choco-darien

Extent: 15.6 million hectares of tree cover, including 8.4 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Colombia (79% of the region’s primary forest cover), Panama (13%), and Ecuador (8%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; various monkeys.

Deforestation trend: Primary forest loss in the Chocó amounted to 1.4% of its 2001 extent between 2002 and 2019. Ecuador and Panama accounted for a disproportionately large share of this loss.

10. Other Regions

This list is limited to the ten largest rainforests. Missing the cut are the forests of the Eastern Himalayas; East Melanesian Islands; the Philippines; Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar; Eastern Afromontane; the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka; the Caribbean; and Polynesia-Micronesia.

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Rhett A. Butler, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Formal definitions for “biodiversity” vary widely, but its purpose in measuring the variety of life is relatively uncontroversial. Emphasising the aspects of species richness and abundance, biodiversity is overwhelmingly concentrated in the tropical ecosystems of rainforests, savannas, freshwater bodies and shallow-water coral reefs, where over three-quarters of all known non-marine species can be found. Why is this? Amongst numerous proposed explanations, factors of high net primary productivity (NPP), spatial heterogeneity and niche conservatism hypothesis will be examined.

tropical ecosystems biodiversity
Proportion of species found within tropical latitudes for ten taxonomic groups (Source: Barlow et al. 2018). 

High NPP in tropical regions allow them to sustain larger communities with wider varieties of species, as easily observed from the sheer abundance of observable plant biomass in the tropics. The figure below illustrates how mean annual NPP near the equator (at 0° latitude) is approximately double that of temperate zones (between 35°-50°), while demonstrating the negative correlation between NPP and absolute latitude. With increased energy availability at lower latitudes, tropical habitats can support more species with minimum viable populations, contributing directly to α-diversity (alpha-diversity, the mean species diversity within a habitat at a local scale). Furthermore, greater ecosystem carrying capacity could also translate to enlarged populations of various organisms. Holding mutation rate constant per individual, bigger populations would increase frequency of mutations and hence genetic variation within a species. Beyond reducing their susceptibility to extinction, intraspecific genetic variation is also an important precursor for speciation to occur.

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tropical ecosystems biodiversity
Comparison of the latitudinal distribution of the median (solid line), and 10th and 90th percentiles (dotted lines) of area-weighted mean annual net primary productivity (Source: Kicklighter et al. 1999)

Without undermining the importance of energy abundance, it is spatial heterogeneity within the tropics which set the stage for speciation to take off, by partitioning resources more effectively while favouring further niche specialisation. For speciation to arise from intraspecific genetic variation, limited or complete segregation of deviating individuals (those individuals with differing characteristics from the average member of the same species) is required, until sufficient divergence of characteristics has occurred to ensure reproductive isolation. In tropical rainforests, stratification of vegetation into the forest floor, understorey, canopy and emergent layers helps facilitate these processes. 

A study conducted in the Bornean rainforest of Kinabalu Park revealed that concentration of flower-visiting butterflies increased towards the canopy where flower availability was highest, while fruit-feeding butterflies mainly reside in the understorey where rotting fruits are more common. Differing physical characteristics were also observed across the vertical gradient, with forewing length of butterflies decreasing at greater heights, since smaller body sizes are advantageous near the canopy to avoid being preyed on by insectivorous birds. 

Additionally, organisms themselves can become niches or resources for exploitation by others. Large old trees are especially well-known for providing microhabitats ranging from leaf litter to tree crowns, allowing organisms in tropical biomes to specialise and establish their own ecological niches separately from other individuals within the same species. Replicated over multiple generations, differences in intraspecific genetic composition then gives rise to formation of new species along these environmental gradients, bolstering β-diversity (beta-diversity, the change in species composition along an environmental gradient or across ecosystems. It is commonly measured along changing elevation on a mountain slope, or differing wetness of soil as we get closer to a river bank) in tropical ecosystems through means which are less prominent at higher latitudes, as temperate and polar region don’t have as many micro-habitats for deviating individuals to isolate and form new species along environmental gradients.

Given the numerous existing species with tropical origins, their limited expansion to higher absolute latitudes has been instrumental in preserving the relative species richness near the equator. Climatically stable tropical biomes have existed for lengthier geological timescales, whereas those further from the equator tend to be plagued with fluctuating temperatures and rainfall intensity. Consequently, more evolutionary lineages from the former managed to persist till the modern-day. The niche conservatism hypothesis aims to explain why tropical biodiversity seems largely restricted to their native geographies, by theorising that ancestral ecological preferences by different species would be preserved across time and space. This was empirically proven in a recent meta-study which concluded that species originating in warmer climates had steeper slopes of latitudinal diversity gradients, demonstrating significant affinity for tropical habitats. The poor survivability of tropical organisms in harsher environments- as in, those that experience extreme hot/ cold temperatures or those with low precipitation- is aggravated by their vast opportunities for specialisation within their native habitats, which allowed species to develop narrow ecological niches. Conversely, colder or more volatile environments may favour survival of generalist species with broader ecological niches for their adaptability to changing seasonal patterns. Consequently, these species may have experienced greater success during migrations towards the equator, further contributing to already-high tropical biodiversity. 

There are several key reasons for high biodiversity in tropical ecosystems. High NPP directly contributes to α-diversity by supporting more species with minimum viable populations, whereas enlarged populations of each organism increase overall mutation frequency and hence intraspecific genetic variation. Spatial heterogeneity within these habitats promote resource partitioning and niche specialisation. Continued reproductive isolation and divergence of deviating individuals from parent populations thus set the stage for intraspecific genetic variation to develop into new species along environmental gradients, enhancing β-diversity of these ecosystems. Finally, the niche conservatism hypothesis explains why tropical organisms remain largely restricted to their geographical origins, hence preserving the relative biodiversity richness of tropical ecosystems. A holistic understanding of contributing factors for hyperdiversity is essential to evaluate the challenges faced by these ecosystems amidst anthropogenic climate change.

Investing in forests to fight climate change seems like a sure bet. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, pump out oxygen, and live for decades. What could go wrong? The answer, according to a newly published paper in Science, is: a lot.

Fires, rising temperatures, disease, pests and humans all pose threats to forests, and as climate change escalates, so too do these threats. While forest-based solutions need to play an important role in addressing climate change, the risks to forests from climate change must also be considered.

“Current risks are not carefully considered and accounted for, much less these increased risks that forests are going to face in a warming climate,” William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah and first author of the new paper, told Mongabay.

As societies strive to meet climate goals such as those set by the Paris Agreement — which aims to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) by 2100 — interest in planting, protecting, and managing forests (strategies referred to as forest-based natural climate solutions) has grown in recent years. A number of arenas and policies such as the Trillion Tree Campaign, supported by the United Nations, as well as individual companies have also launched tree-planting initiatives.

Up to 30% of global emissions today are pulled out of the atmosphere by land-based plants. But for forests to be good carbon-removal investments, they need to be relatively permanent, meaning that the plants and soil in a forest will absorb carbon and keep it locked away for decades or centuries. What climate change does is exacerbate many of the threats to forest permanence.

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forests climate change
Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

“Avoiding a 2° [Celsius] or 2.5° increase in temperature will be difficult without a very robust natural carbon solution,” Daniel Nepstad, president and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute, who was not involved in the paper, told Mongabay. “The paper helps us put in perspective the realistic expectations of a forest as a climate mitigation approach.”

An estimated 44% of forests are threatened with what is known as a stand replacing disturbance such as a high-intensity fire, hurricane, or disease outbreak that would kill most or all of the mature trees in the stand. The combined effects of multiple disturbances such as both drought and disease or drought and fire also hasten forest destruction.

“Climate change is going to supercharge the risks that forests face,” Anderegg said. “We’re going to see more fires, more droughts and more pests and pathogens in a warming climate.”

The recent fires in Australia and in the Amazon served as a global wake-up call about the increasing threat of fire on a warming planet and the impermanence of forests. Fire causes an estimated 12% of stand replacing disturbances to forests worldwide, and is a particular threat in Mediterranean climates, boreal forests, Australia, and the Western U.S. In the U.S., fire risk has already doubled over the past 30 years.

Droughts also threaten forests globally. A drought in California between 2011 and 2015 killed an estimated 140 million trees and caused the state’s ecosystem to be a net source of carbon rather than a sink. The disturbance accounted for 10% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from that time period.

Biotic agents such as insects and plant diseases also present a huge challenge to forests and forest management. The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), for example, is responsible for the deaths of billions of trees in temperate and boreal coniferous forests. At this point, science does not have a good way of predicting where, when, and to what extent these threats will present.

Anderegg and a group of global experts gathered in 2019 to talk about natural climate solutions. Here, they asked: How can we assess the risks to forest permanence? What can science contribute to be sure forest-based solutions are good investments for the climate? And how can we get that information to land managers and policymakers?

The newly published paper in Science was one of the outcomes of that meeting. In it, the authors provide a road map for assessing risks to forest permanence. Forest plot data, remote sensing, and mechanistic vegetation modeling are highlighted as some of the best scientific tools available.

Combining long-term satellite records with forest plot data, for instance, can provide solid estimates for future forest stress and disturbance.  Computer models in climate risks as well as models of tree growth and fire disturbance are also becoming more advanced.

However, because much of the forest plot data is collected in temperate forests, tropical forests have large gaps in data and monitoring. Also, many of these cutting-edge tools and techniques are not widely used outside of the scientific community, meaning policy decisions sometimes rely on science that is decades old.

The authors urge policymakers to be sure forest-based, natural climate solutions are done with the best available science. Likewise, scientists are urged to improve tools for sharing information across different groups outside of science.

Publicly available, easily usable and open-source tools to connect decision and policymakers to science and data are a priority, and something Anderegg and colleagues are currently working to create. The hope is that these tools will inform local decision-making based on current scientific understanding.

Beyond assessing risks to forests, the authors stress the importance of investing in forests in both an ecologically and socially responsible way.

“Planting native tree species and perhaps a diversity of tree species, involving local communities, and respecting indigenous communities and their rights in these forestry efforts are some of the ways to do this,” Anderegg said.

Another key point is to be mindful of how and where forests are planted. Across the high latitudes in Canada or Russia, for instance, the reflective nature of the snow cools the planet. So planting trees in these areas and covering the snow would actually tend to heat up the planet.

Finally, programs that offset carbon emissions by creating and protecting forests, while critical, should not distract from the simultaneously urgent matter of reducing fossil fuel emissions.

“There has been a tendency over the years, and it resurges every now and then, to put too much faith in forests or tree planting as a climate change solution,” Nepstad said. “First and foremost, we have to decarbonize the economy and move beyond fossil fuels, and that message has come through in this paper.”

“Keep in mind that there are lots of other reasons that we want to protect, conserve and perhaps restore forests,” Anderegg said, “such as biodiversity benefits, clean air, clean water, ecosystem services and tourism…Forests are about more than carbon.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

 

One in every 10 pieces of beef served up on Brazilian plates is paid for by tax dollars. The beef industry, including cattle ranches, is one of the most heavily subsidized by state and federal governments in Brazil, to the tune of 12.3 billion reais ($2.2 billion) per year in the form of tax incentives, easy credit, and even debt forgiveness.

Even though it’s a multibillion-dollar industry — on March 25 this year, JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company, reported 6 billion reais ($1.1 billion) in profit for 2019, the best results in its history to date — the tax revenue it contributes to the Brazilian treasury, averaging 15.1 billion reais ($3 billion) per year, is small compared to the incentives.

That means that for every $1 collected in taxes from the beef sector, only 20 cents effectively goes to society; the rest goes back to the producers in the form of various benefits.

This calculation is based on the period between 2008 and 2017. In 2015 and 2016, tax revenue from the sector was actually less than the amount it received back in benefits from state and federal governments.

These are some of the conclusions in a recent study, “From pasture to plate: The subsidization and environmental footprint of beef,” by Instituto Escolhas, a São Paulo-based organization that looks at sustainability issues through an economic lens.

“The government invested 123 billion reais [$22.2 billion] in one decade. This is something completely new, that has never happened before in this industry or any other in the nation,” Petterson Molina Vale, an economist and coordinator of the economic side of the study, said in an interview on the Instituto Escolhas website. Vale declined to answer questions Mongabay sent about the study.

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Environmental Cost of Cattle Ranches in Brazil

If beef production in Brazil is propped up by a comfortable cushion of public funding, it has failed to carry any commitment to the environment, especially in the Amazon and Cerrado regions, where cattle ranches are a primary driver of deforestation.

Instituto Escolhas estimates the carbon footprint of beef production — from cattle ranches to meatpacking — in the nine states that make up the Amazon region in Brazil is six times higher on average than other states in the nation.

In the Matopiba region, where the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia converge, emissions from the cattle supply chain are eight times greater than in the rest of the nation. A mix of Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna, the area is rapidly becoming the new Brazilian agricultural frontier.

“These are the highest emissions per kilogram of meat produced,” said Roberto Strumpf, a biologist and environmental coordinator of the Instituto Escolhas study. “However, in absolute terms, the Amazon emits much more because it is more extensive and the fallen trees contain a much larger quantity of carbon.”

Three large meatpackers — JBS, Marfrig and Minerva — account for 42% of all cattle slaughtered in the Brazilian Amazon. And last year the Public Prosecutor’s Office said that, even with the responsibility agreements made by industry and retailers, it is impossible to assure beef production without deforestation when ranching takes place in forested areas.

Public Funds Financing Deforestation?

Instituto Escolhas has shown in a previous study that a zero-deforestation policy in Brazil could have no impact on cattle farming and ranches. Such a policy would not impede its growth even if the land being used is already deforested and if best agricultural practices are followed.

“If there is already land that can be used to increase production, then wouldn’t the subsidies be being used to stimulate deforestation?” the authors of the new study write in their executive summary.

The findings can’t prove that public funds are financing deforestation; the authors suggest that “the subsidies could be adopted to stimulate more sustainable productive practices or healthier products.”

“To be able to conclude that part of taxpayer money is financing deforestation would require deeper study,” said Jaqueline Ferreira, project and product manager at Instituto Escolhas. “But at the moment, we know that the beef production chain depends largely on public funding and we also know what its environmental impact is, so it is possible to debate which type of production we want to finance.”

The study looks at the entire beef production chain in calculating its environmental footprint, including water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced inside the Amazon, Matopiba and the rest of Brazil. It did the same for calculating the subsidies granted, from both state and federal governments.

The parameters they looked at included production inputs, information about cattle husbandry and fattening, soil management and removal of natural vegetation, use of agricultural machinery, and also meat processing (slaughter and meatpacking) and distribution, whether for the domestic market or for export.

“The beef productive chain is fundamental,” Ferreira said. “It generates a great deal of income and is also important from the cultural standpoint and from that of productive occupation. But today it is the main vector of deforestation, specifically in the Amazon. We are proposing an economic approach to debate one of the main environmental issues and try to somehow move forward, past bottlenecks, toward sustainable development.”

A Decade of Emission Reductions in the Amazon at Risk

As the researchers expected, the Instituto Escolhas study showed that deforestation contributed the most to the carbon footprint of any stage of the beef chain.

They compared scenarios in three large regions of Brazil (the Amazon, Matopiba, and other states together) and the national average, considering emissions from the herds themselves and the pastures, as well as the areas of logged vegetation based on data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The result is that throughout Brazil, the carbon footprint accumulated over a decade (2008-2017) jumps from 25 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilo of beef, to 78 kg CO2e/kg when deforestation is taken into account.

In the Amazon, the carbon footprint increases 8.5 times when logged forest comes into the calculation: from 17 kg CO2e/kg to 145 kg CO2e/kg.

The average over 10 years hides one relevant piece of data: emissions are falling even inside the Amazon. They dropped from 344 kg of CO2e per kilo of beef in 2008 to 66 kg CO2e/kg in 2017, representing an 81% reduction over the decade.

The problem is that the study ends at the year 2017. “All the INPE data from 2018 and 2109 show a substantial increase in deforestation,” Strumpf said. “We have to pay attention to this, because if we continue on this environmental backslide, all the gain could be lost, which will impact the sector’s reputation and could result in non-tariff barriers for Brazilian beef.”

The study also measured the impact of beef production on water resources, which turned out to be better than expected: an average of 64 liters of water per kilo of beef produced over the decade between 2008 and 2017. “It’s much less than in other countries,” Strumpf said. This is called the “blue footprint,” referring to the use of underground water or reservoirs that could compete with other productive activities or even with human consumption.

Since the sector is mostly supplied by cattle raised on pastureland, most of the water involved in production is rainwater. This is the “green footprint,” which in Brazil’s case is high but doesn’t compromise water resources and has a low environmental impact, according to Strumpf.

But with climatic changes underway, the alarm is sounding for beef production in Brazil’s central-west region, home to a large part of the country’s herds. Rain patterns in this region rely heavily on the Amazon, which is moving toward a process of becoming savanna if the current rate of deforestation is not stopped. In other words, in times of drought, the economic scenario will be affected.

Carbon-Negative Ranching- With the Right Management

Given that most carbon emissions from the beef production chain come from cattle ranches — because many are on deforested land in Brazil — the study points to a possible path to maintain activity while also reducing harm to the environment. According to the study, integrated plant crop-cattle farming systems, where producers grow crops in alternate periods on pastureland, could allow for greenhouse gases to be sequestered from the atmosphere, as opposed to the current system that results in net carbon emissions and contributes to global warming.

Inside the Amazon, this integrated crop-cattle method of farming resulted in negative emissions in every year monitored by the study — even considering the impacts of deforestation. However, only 4% of pastureland in the region uses this integrated system, while 35% of pasture area is considered “well managed,” a step below that ideal.

“The capacity for the Earth to remove carbon from the atmosphere has been debated in academia for some time, but there was always little data,” Strumpf said. He said the study offers numbers comparable to measures already taken but now broken down by region, which had not existed before.

What remains unanswered is how long this well-cared-for pasture system can hold carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. “Soil with carbon behaves like a sponge with water,” Strumpf said. “If it’s dry, the sponge has an enormous capacity to absorb water, but it will reach a point when it’s saturated. Soil is much the same, except that we still don’t know how long it can keep absorbing.”

The extent of degraded pastureland puts the Matopiba region on top in the carbon footprint study: 48% of pastures in this region have this characteristic. But with such large variations between individual ranches’ environmental impact, the Instituto Escolhas researchers suggest a shift away from the less efficient practices toward more sustainable ones.

“As the Brazilian cattle farming industry includes efficient producers and others that are quite unproductive, could we question whether public treasury may be being spent to maintain producers that would have no way of competing under normal market conditions due to their inefficiency and low profitability?” they wrote in the report’s executive summary. “What bottlenecks can public policy overcome so these practices gain scale?”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Naira Hofmeister, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Featured image by: Andrew

 

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