Title: Conserving tropical forests and helping farmers thrive
Abstract: Conserving the world’s tropical forests and improving the well-being of the people that inhabit these forests is critical for preventing irreversible climate change and biodiversity loss and ending rural poverty. Yet, globally tropical forests are increasingly under threat from the expansion of cropland and pastures to meet growing demand for meat and biofuels, with few benefits to rural populations. My work seeks to understand the dynamics that cause farmers to clear forests for agriculture and how they can improve land management to increase their income, productivity, and sustainability. To tackle these issues, I combine a boots-on-the ground approach of intensive fieldwork with statistical analysis of secondary data and modeling of land change outcomes.
I will highlight my most recent work in South America: i) evaluating the effectiveness of public and corporate policies in conserving forests and ii) identifying opportunities and barriers to scaling up more sustainable agricultural practices. With respect to current policies, I find that although zero-deforestation restrictions are being adopted in regions that have the highest risk for agriculturally driven forest loss, they are not slowing down agricultural expansion and are suffering from various types of deforestation “leakage” to actors, regions, and markets that are not being targeted. In terms of sustainable management, I find that integrated crop and livestock systems are a promising and rapidly expanding form of agricultural management that can increase farm income and productivity with a lower environmental footprint, but their adoption is currently hampered by lagging supply chain infrastructure and cultural norms that favor more specialized, extensive, and damaging practices. To tackle these challenges, I identify, some fairly straight forward investments and policy incentives that can further reduce deforestation and increase the adoption of sustainable management practices.