The role of soybean production as an underlying driver of deforestation in the South American Chaco


South America’s tropical dry forests and savannas are under increasing pressure from agricultural expansion. Cattle ranching and soybean production both drive these forest losses, but their relative importance remains unclear. Also unclear is how soybean expansion elsewhere affects deforestation via pushing cattle ranching to deforestation frontiers. To assess these questions, we focused on the Chaco, a 110 million ha ecoregion extending into Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, with about 8 million ha of deforestation in 2000–2012. We used panel regressions at the district level to quantify the role of soybean expansion in driving these forest losses using a wide range of environmental and socio-economic control variables. Our models suggest that soybean production was a direct driver of deforestation in the Argentine Chaco only (0.08 ha new soybean area per ha forest lost), whereas cattle ranching was significantly associated with deforestation in all three countries (0.02 additional cattle per hectare forest loss). However, our models also suggested Argentine soybean cultivation may indirectly be linked to deforestation in the Bolivian and Paraguayan Chaco. We furthermore found substantial time-delayed effects in the relationship of soybean expansion in Argentina and Paraguay (i.e., soybean expansion in one year resulted in deforestation several years later) and deforestation in the Chaco, further suggesting that possible displacement effects within and between Chaco countries may at least partly drive forest loss. Altogether, our study showed that deforestation in the Chaco appears to be mainly driven by the globally surging demand for soybean, although regionally other proximate drivers are sometimes important. Steering agricultural production in the Chaco and other tropical dry forests onto sustainable pathways will thus require policies that consider these scale effects and that account for the regional variation in deforestation drivers within and across countries.

Global Environmental Change, 45 24-34
Tobias Kuemmerle
Tobias Kuemmerle
Professor & Head of the Conservation Biogeography Lab