Nav: Home

Stanford study explores risk of deforestation as agriculture expands in Africa

April 05, 2017

Next time you bite into a chocolate bar, think of Africa. The continent produces nearly 70 percent of the world's cocoa, a growing output that requires carving more than 325,000 acres of new farmland from forests every year - a drop in the bucket of overall agricultural expansion there.

That expansion is the subject of a new Stanford study that provides the first comprehensive assessment of how international demand for commodity crops, such as cocoa, is affecting sub-Saharan Africa's tropical forests, second in size only to the Amazon. The findings, published in Environmental Research Letters, suggest reason for hope if policymakers tailor decisions regarding deforestation around the region's unique dynamics and uncertainties.

"We are starting to better understand issues related to large-scale agricultural expansion in the tropics," said lead author Elsa Ordway, a graduate student in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. "In Africa, we have the opportunity to take lessons learned from other regions and recommend preventive policies."

In particular, the study recommends policies that would alleviate poverty in local regions and incentivize forest conservation rather than the widespread deforestation that has accompanied agricultural expansion in other regions.

Into Africa

As international markets have swelled and integrated, production of in-demand crops such as soy and oil palm has moved away from areas where land is scarce and where natural resource regulations are robust. Production has instead moved to tropical regions such as Southeast Asia and South America. Brazil and Indonesia alone accounted for more than 60 percent of global tropical deforestation from 2000 to 2005, largely due to agricultural expansion.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with its abundant cheap land and labor, would seem an obvious next step for multinational companies looking to expand farther. Since 2015, agricultural production in the region has grown at the fastest rate globally, and cropland is predicted to expand more than 10 percent by 2025.

Although deforestation rates in Africa remain well below those in South America and Southeast Asia, the region has lost an area of intact forest about the size of Iceland since 2000.

These African forests, contained primarily in the Congo Basin, represent almost 30 percent of the world's total and are an important source of local income. In addition to regulating climate, safeguarding water quality and controlling disease, the forests feed and provide subsistence means to at least 100 million people living nearby. Forest products such as logs generate an average of 6 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's gross domestic product - triple the world average.

Avoiding deforestation

Expansion of commodity crop production in sub-Saharan Africa has so far been driven primarily by small- and medium-scale local farmers who boost the regional economy and can expand with less disruption to forests. But big change is knocking at the door. In recent years, multinational companies have bought up a land area larger than Costa Rica in the heavily forested Congo Basin, mostly for crops such as oil palm and soy.

As the multinationals move in, they are more likely to acquire land by clearing intact forest due to property conflicts resulting from the region's land tenure complexities. However, the study's authors suggest Africa could be spared the massive deforestation that large-scale monoculture has wrought on regions such as Southeast Asia by implementing policies that prioritize forest conservation and local control of the land.

"Civil society, policymakers and private companies can benefit from many years of trial-and-error with anti-deforestation policies in South America and Southeast Asia to design more effective interventions in sub-Saharan Africa," said co-author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

Among the possible solutions: promoting investment that ensures small and medium-scale farmers continue to drive agricultural expansion in order to alleviate poverty and avoid land tenure conflicts, encouraging shade cultivation of crops such as cocoa to incentivize forest cover conservation, and finding ways to engage African consumers - currently the primary market for most locally produced commodity crops - on deforestation issues.

"Future forest losses could be better mitigated via policies that address the shifting influence of domestic and international markets," said co-author Greg Asner, a professor in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

In the meantime, the study's findings could inform the zero-deforestation commitments made by dozens of international companies and help countries adhere to their commitments under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
-end-
Lambin is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Asner is a staff scientist in the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Stanford Global Development & Poverty Initiative, Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies, Stanford Center for African Studies Graduate Fellowship Program and a McGee-Levorsen Research Grant.

Stanford University

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#566 Is Your Gut Leaking?
This week we're busting the human gut wide open with Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Join host Anika Hazra for our discussion separating fact from fiction on the controversial topic of leaky gut syndrome. We cover everything from what causes a leaky gut to interpreting the results of a gut microbiome test! Related links: Center for Celiac Research and Treatment website and their YouTube channel
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.