Global economic trade-offs between wild nature and tropical agriculture

Related GLP Member: Roman Carrasco


Global demands for agricultural and forestry products provide economic incentives for deforestation across the tropics. Much of this deforestation occurs with a lack of information on the spatial distribution of benefits and costs of deforestation. To inform global sustainable land-use policies, we combine geographic information systems (GIS) with a meta-analysis of ecosystem services (ES) studies to perform a spatially explicit analysis of the trade-offs between agricultural benefits, carbon emissions, and losses of multiple ecosystem services because of tropical deforestation from 2000 to 2012. Even though the value of ecosystem services presents large inherent uncertainties, we find a pattern supporting the argument that the externalities of destroying tropical forests are greater than the current direct economic benefits derived from agriculture in all cases bar one: when yield and rent potentials of high-value crops could be realized in the future. Our analysis identifies the Atlantic Forest, areas around the Gulf of Guinea, and Thailand as areas where agricultural conversion appears economically efficient, indicating a major impediment to the long-term financial sustainability of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) schemes in those countries. By contrast, Latin America, insular Southeast Asia, and Madagascar present areas with low agricultural rents (ARs) and high values in carbon stocks and ES, suggesting that they are economically viable conservation targets. Our study helps identify optimal areas for conservation and agriculture together with their associated uncertainties, which could enhance the efficiency and sustainability of pantropical land-use policies and help direct future research efforts.