Big Ag Is Devastating the Amazon, but a New Plan Could Preserve Rainforests and Wildlife

Scientists propose creating networks of forests within farming areas to keep species from winking out.
(Photo: Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Aug 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

What’s the hidden cost of your coffee, tobacco, and beef?

Every year, the U.S. imports more than $3 billion worth of agricultural goods from Brazil. Those products, more often than not, are grown in the Amazon, where deforestation has removed or devastated the habitat of thousands of native species.

Numerous studies over the past few years have linked deforestation to declines in biodiversity, but a new study takes our understanding a bit further. Published in the journal Ecology Letters, the study examined forest areas that have been converted for logging zones, livestock grazing, or agriculture and found universal declines in the numbers of plant, ant, bird, beetle, and bee species that once called the forests home.

That might seem obvious, but previous studies have focused more on individual species or the difference between forests and ex-forests. The new paper is broader. It examined 300 types of landscapes and nearly 2,000 species to provide a more complete picture of the effects of deforestation.

Those effects varied quite dramatically, said the study’s lead author, Ricardo Solar of Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Viçosa. Degraded forests had much lower levels of biodiversity, which Solar said indicates that many species are “forests specialists” restricted to undisturbed forests. These forest specialists were the species most likely to have suffered as logging, wildfires, or agriculture started to chip away at their habitat.

Other species, however, stuck around. “We were surprised by the fact that degraded forests, over large scales, can sustain diversity levels comparable to intact forests,” Solar said. The effect varied by how much the forests had been impacted by development, but “some of the disturbed forests were able to maintain up to 80 percent of the species found in pristine forests.”

This, he said, was enough to give the research team hope. The paper suggests that creating a network of forest reserves nestled inside agricultural areas would be the most beneficial way to preserve biodiversity. These would include a mix of undisturbed and partially degraded forests.

That’s not the way reserves are created. Instead, they tend to be focused on specific areas located outside agricultural or private land.

RELATED: A McDonald’s Policy Is Saving More Rainforests Than the Brazilian Government

“There remains a widespread assumption that concentrating conservation efforts on the protection of isolated reserves is the best way we can safeguard biodiversity,” study coauthor Toby Gardner, of the Stockholm Environment Institute, said in a statement. “Our work shows that in areas of private land that have already been disturbed—which dominate much of the tropics—we need to maintain and protect a wide network of forest areas. Without such a landscape-scale approach we can expect many species to go regionally extinct.”

The landscape approach would have many benefits, including the ability for species to migrate from one patch of forest to another, he said.

Solar said selectively controlling logging and preventing wildfires in all forests, including those on private land, would be an important part of that process, as would laws recently enacted in Brazil that allow for the creation of privately held reserves.

The research offers new clues, but the team isn’t done yet. Solar said it plans to follow up to try to determine what factors in forest preservation would also enable species conservation. That might make your next burger a bit more palatable.