Conserving tropical forests using cutting edge research

3 minute read


This blog post was originally published by the World Food System Center

The loss of tropical forests is a key driver of global biodiversity loss and a major contributor to climate change. Current forest loss is driven by the expansion of agricultural land for food products like beef, soybeans, and palm oil, all products which are then exported to consumers across the world. A handful of companies control the global trade of these products, and increasing pressure has resulted in them signing policies known as “zero deforestation commitments.” These corporate policies aim to stop deforestation by excluding producers who clear new land through deforestation and incentivizing sustainable practices.

If successful, zero deforestation commitments could reduce deforestation substantially, since the affected food commodities are the largest driver of deforestation in most tropical regions, including the Amazon. But determining whether these policies are actually changing farmers’ decisions to deforest is not so simple. Supply chains are long and complex, and even if a company knows the entire chain, they are private entities with no obligation and little incentive to be transparent. Cattle production in the Amazon is a classic example, with cattle often moving between farms before sale and companies only knowing the farm from which the livestock was bought.

In order to therefore assess if these private zero deforestation commitments are driving change, numerous sources need to be triangulated to pinpoint who sources from where, what is the impact associated with this sourcing, and how farmers are responding to new signals from companies on what behavior is acceptable.

To provide this assessment, the Environmental Policy Lab at ETH Zurich synthesizes and analyzes company policy documents, supply chain transaction records, satellite images of crops and forests, and local household surveys. Sam Levy and Federico Cammelli recently returned from the Brazilian Amazon, where they successfully implemented this assessment approach to understand zero deforestation commitments in the Brazilian cattle sector. They interviewed 307 farmers, who control an area of over one million hectares of land (more than five times the size of canton Zurich). For each farm they visited, satellite data was also examined to understand deforestation patterns on that property.

“What makes the approach so exciting is that we were able to use commodity transport data to actually link farmers to the companies that buy their products and then go and talk to these same farmers,” says Sam Levy. “This means we not only know where zero deforestation commitments are implemented, but how farmers responded to them and why.”  

The Environmental Policy Lab believes that understanding why farmers respond the way they do, instead of just how they respond, is both the most important and the hardest part of understanding private environmental policies, including zero deforestation commitments. By understanding why farmers respond either positively or negatively to rules made by companies, researchers can provide better predictions for how such policies will be received when implemented in new commodities or locations.

Rafael Peniche Ferreira, research assistant who helped implement the project and now a doctoral student at the Federal University of Pará, comments “the experience convinced me that the diverse ways in which this research is conducted is key to finding solutions to the issues facing the Amazon region, which are so important due to the scale of the region, the biodiversity of the ecosystems, and the diversity of social groups that make up the biome.”   

To further test and refine their work from the Brazilian Amazon, the group will implement their multifaceted approach in the Brazilian Cerrado, Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra, and the West African Guinean Forests in the coming year. By systematically determining the behavior of companies and farmers, across countries and commodities, the researchers hope to provide public assessments that can lead to more sustainable forest policy.