New research to put a price tag on deforestation

Deforestation in the Amazon - A vicious spiral

The deforestation of the Amazon is a trap with high costs for agriculture in Brazil. By presenting Brazilian agribusiness and policymakers with the bill, Britaldo Soares Filho aims to contribute to less deforestation and more reforestation.

PLANTING: A field in a deforested area in the Brazilian Amazon being prepared for planting. Deforestation results in less rain, more drought - and diminishing crop yields. Photo: Edmar Barros

By Rainforest Foundation Norway.

The Brazilian agribusiness' deforestation of the Amazon has a negative impact on the climate, biodiversity and crop yields. This has serious consequences for the agribusiness sector, Brazil, and the rest of the world, according to Britaldo Soares Filho, professor of environmental modelling at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.

Deforestation is one of the drivers of local and regional climate change, resulting in economic losses due to reduced crop yields, costs due to increased food prices as well as reduced food security.

Professor Soares Filho is now collaborating with Rainforest Foundation Norway on a research project that will monetize the economic losses associated with crop failure linked to deforestation-driven climate change. The research focuses on the Brazilian soy, cattle and maize industries

Arial view of burning rainforest. Photo.

DEFORESTATION: Tropical forest set on fire to clear the land for agriculture in Brazil. Photo: Edmar Barros

Deforestation of the Amazon affects climate and crops.

Soares Filho's research shows that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has changed the local and regional climate in key agricultural areas of Brazil, which are now drier and hotter. The rainforest acts as a water pump that spreads moisture from the atmosphere far beyond its own borders. Deforestation reduces the forest's ability to disperse vital rain.

Professor Soares Filho and his team, in collaboration with Rainforest Foundation Norway, looked at deforested areas between 1999 and 2019. They found a clear correlation between deforestation and precipitation. More deforestation leads to less precipitation.

The study showed that the rainy season in important agricultural areas is delayed by up to 76 days. There was also a 360 millimetre decrease in precipitation and a 2.5°C increase in maximum temperature.

According to the study, climate change has had a detrimental effect on the production of cereals, soy and maize. For example, grain production has fallen by an average of 12 per cent.

Britaldo Silveira Soares Filho

  • Professor of Environmental Modelling - Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
  • Winner of the Georg Foster Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2015 for "the development of innovative methods in geography and cartography that make it possible to accurately predict how tropical rainforests - for example in the Amazon basin - will develop."
  • Currently collaborating with Rainforest Foundation Norway on a research project monetising the economic impacts of deforestation on the production of soy, meat and maize in Brazil and calculating the benefits of replanting rainforests.

A vicious spiral

To maintain the same level of production, the agricultural sector chooses to deforest more land for agriculture. This leads to a further weakening of the rainforest's ability to regulate climate and precipitation. The result is more drought, less rain and further crop failures. In other words, a vicious spiral.

"Brazil is a major exporter of coffee, corn, soy and beef, and agriculture accounts for a large proportion of gross domestic product. The economic consequences of deforestation are significant and could also threaten food security elsewhere in the world," says professor Soares Filho.

Much of the deforestation takes place illegally. 17% of beef and soy exports from Brazil to the EU can be linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado, Brazil's tropical savannah forest.

New research to show the price of deforestation

The aim of the research project that Soares Filho and his team are now embarking on is to get policy makers and the Brazilian agribusiness sector to change course and stop deforestation by monetizing losses.

"In Brazil, we say that people feel pain in their wallets. So when you monetize the losses, when you put a price tag, it's like you're doing a valuation of the ecosystem service provided by the forest and say, oh, if you don't conserve the forest, the economic losses will be that amount. So it's a very powerful way of convincing people that they are doing the wrong thing, "he says.

In addition to the losses to the agribusiness sector, the effects of deforestation contribute to increased costs for Brazilian society in the form of increased subsidies to the agribusiness sector and increased insurance premiums. These costs are not included in this research project.

Reforestation provides more resilience to effects of climate change

One of the aims of the study is also to look at the effects of reforestation. Professor Soares Filho's research shows that heavily forested areas are less affected by climate change, and reforestation can thus help to make these areas more resilient to drought and rising temperatures.

SEEDS: Indigenous people process seeds harvested in the rainforest. The seeds will later be used to replant rainforest in Xingu, Brazil as part of a project supported by rainforest foundation Norway. Photo: Rogério Assis/ ISA

Replanting rainforest the size of North Korea

Brazil has a strict forestry law that requires landowners in the Amazon to preserve between 35 and 80 per cent of their property with native vegetation. So farmers of all kinds can buy land in the Amazon, but they can only cultivate 20 per cent of it. If they deforest more, they are obliged to replant. Many do not do this.

It is challenging for the authorities to ensure proper compliance with the law. There are over 7 million private properties in the Brazilian Amazon that need to be monitored.

The satellite-based monitoring tools developed by Soares Filho and his team can provide authorities and businesses with better information about deforestation on private property. Thus, the authorities can improve regulatory compliance, landowners can get better guidance on reforestation needs, and businesses can avoid buying commodities from landowners that deforest illegally.

Norway has contributed to this work by providing free public access to expensive satellite data.

"Brazil has a goal of replanting 120,000 square kilometres of forest (an area the size of North Korea, ed. note) If there had been full compliance with the law, 300,000 square kilometres of forest would have been replanted," says Soares Filho.

Soares Filho and his team are also working with the Brazilian federal police to track illegal gold mining and drug smuggling. The technology can also be used to track cattle deliveries to slaughterhouses to check that the cattle do not come from illegally deforested areas.

REFORESTING: A project supported by Rainforest Foundation Norway is reforesting destroyed rainforest in Xingu, Brazil. Indigenous people harvest seeds in the rainforest that are processed and spread over soy fields by the farmers themselves. Photo: Tui Anandi / ISA

Research-driven policy

Powerful forces in Brazil are keen to exploit the rainforest for economic growth. Professor Soares Filho wants to use science and research in collaboration with NGOs to counteract policies that destroy the rainforest and "false science" that helps to legitimise these policies.

"It is very important to develop what you call policy-relevant science, but not only developing science, but also injecting science in the policy process to convince policymakers and stakeholders that they should do things in a different way. It's also important to provide tools to implement the policies, says Soares Filho."

New development model needed to save the rainforest

Legally recognised indigenous territories provide the strongest protection against deforestation today. According to Professor Soares Filho, a new development model must be put in place in Brazil to stop forest destruction. In practice, this means the following:

  • An agricultural policy that protects forests and the political will to implement it.
  • No loans and incentives to actors who deforest
  • Strong enforcement of laws that protect forests
  • Better traceability and transparency of value chains for agricultural commodities
  • Reforestation of forests
  • Research and innovation on solutions that contribute to better and more efficient utilisation of existing agricultural land, better forest monitoring, and more knowledge about the effects of deforestation.

"Deforestation has local, regional and global impacts on climate, biodiversity, and food security, so it's up to all of us to take care of the Amazon rainforest. If we continue as we are, we are approaching a global collapse. We need to develop comprehensive international co-operation to stop deforestation."

Professor Britaldo Soares Filho

Anders Krogh

Significance of Rainforest Special Adviser, Policy
(+47) 411 40 674