Scientists at the University of Bern have found a connection between rising levels of socio-economic inequality and the rates of deforestation in Latin America.
In combination with a rising level or urbanization across Central and South America, human development is a growing threat to the lungs of the Americas. Agriculture in particular and a growing demand for meat around the globe has seen hectares of forrest replaced with farmland each year.
A rising demand for soy, palm oil, cocoa and coffee is translating into expanding plantations for these crops worldwide and contributing to deforestation at an unprecedented scale. However, other factors too need to be considered, according to a new analysis, with researchers from Switzerland finding that there is a correlation between inequality and deforestation. ”More equal distribution of income, wealth, and land ownership is not only fairer, but also an effective means of improving environmental protection,”said one of the project’s researchers, Graziano Ceddia.
"We know that different forms of inequality can significantly impact how environmental laws are formulated,”researcher Ceddia added. “The novelty of this study is its explicit investigation of the interaction between agricultural productivity, farmland expansion at the expense of forests, and various forms of inequality.”
Just under half (40%) of Latin America is covered by the tropical rainforest known as the Amazon spanning from Brazil and Venezuela to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. This territory represents 22% of the global forest area and it is located in the Amazon basin, which is the largest continuous mass of the world's tropical forests.
The stark truth is that there is not one custodian of the Amazon where inequality is not a major electoral issue. "If we want to ensure that increased agricultural productivity serves to protect tropical forests, then the message to policymakers is clear,” Ceddia said.
In an increasingly hostile political environment, advancing environmental or climate policies alone may be difficult. As Brazil’s new president demonstrates, he has already moved to relax protectionist policy for the Amazon, pushing sustainability up the agenda is easy at times of economic bloom, but significantly harder in the current economic climate. This leads Ceddia to believe that, if played correctly, addressing inequality may be a leaver which could make a more important difference, and more importantly, is one that could be implemented in the current circumstances.
Deforestation and climate change
With the link being drawn between deforestation and inequality, it is imperative to note that there is also an inextricable link with carbon emissions. As forests are natural carbon capture and storage machines, deforestation and forest degradation also impact climate change.
Around 15% of human-made emissions are directly linked to deforestation, second only to fossil fuel combustion,explained PwC partner Celine Herweijer in an article written for the World Economic Forum (WEF). “More than half of deforestation is the result of the production of commodities such as soy, palm oil, pulp and paper, and cattle products.”
“Brazil, for example, has committed to reducing its emissions by 37% by 2025: almost half of that will be contributed by tackling emissions from its land use and forestry sectors… The business case is clear. The opportunity for the financial sector to play a part in driving and integrating sustainable practices into forestry management is enormous.”
However, according to the researchers at Bern, to truly tackle the issue at its core and confront deforestation in the Amazon whilst meeting Latin countries’ pledges to the Paris Agreement, inequality cannot be ignored from environmental or climate policies.