To conserve or convert?

02 August 2017 | Research
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Deforestation activities in Malaysian Borneo to grow oil palm (Photo: Will Symes)

NUS researchers have completed a global study identifying optimal areas for conservation and agriculture in the tropics.

The team, led by Assistant Professor Roman Carrasco from NUS Biological Sciences, examined deforestation activities of more than 50 countries in the tropics between 2000 and 2012 to measure the trade-offs between the benefits provided by tropical forests and its conversion for agricultural use.

The Atlantic Forest in South America, areas around the Gulf of Guinea, and Thailand were identified as areas where the benefits from agricultural conversion outweighed the environmental costs of deforestation. In contrast, Latin America, Madagascar and the islands of Southeast Asia, proved to be economically viable conservation targets because deforestation in these regions derived low agricultural benefits and high environmental costs.

…it allows us to be more efficient at meeting global agricultural demand without unnecessarily damaging tropical forests and biodiversity. A better understanding of the distribution of benefits and costs will also help in better selection of areas to focus conservation efforts.

However, on the whole, environmental damage due to tropical deforestation generates large economic losses — $145 billion to $183 billion annually, compared to agricultural gains of only $43 billion to $71 billion annually.

The findings of the study were published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology in July.

Explaining why it is important to identify regions where deforestation is most and least beneficial, Asst Prof Carrasco said, “…it allows us to be more efficient at meeting global agricultural demand without unnecessarily damaging tropical forests and biodiversity. A better understanding of the distribution of benefits and costs will also help in better selection of areas to focus conservation efforts.”

Asst Prof Carrasco and his team will be looking into integrating their global map of trade-offs with market models to understand how changes in land use could lead to changes in prices and affect consumers, as well as other indirect impacts on deforestation.

See press release.