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Growing tensions between forest conservation and farm yields

15 May 2013

Mr Phelps (right) and Dr Carrasco led the research on agricultural intensification which can escalate future conservation costs

The Congo River running through the Democratic Republic of Congo's Salonga National Park, the largest protected tropical rainforest in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Forest

Photo: Radio Okapi

Encouraging conservation through financial incentives can be effective and affordable. However, raising agricultural yields means that future incentives may have to dramatically increase, or risk renewed deforestation, cautioned a report published by NUS, ETH Zurich and University of Cambridge in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently.

The paper entitled "Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs" examined the use of monetary incentives in dozens of tropical developing countries to protect biodiversity and cut carbon emissions from deforestation. Such incentive-based conservation has gained considerable attention, largely because it is relatively cost-efficient. Due to poor agricultural yields and poverty in many tropical developing countries, modest compensation is often sufficient to persuade many landholders to preserve their land for conservation. In fact, incentive-based forest conservation has become a leading climate change mitigation strategy, embraced by the United Nations as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) policies.

The team, led by PhD Candidate Jacob Phelps and Assistant Professor Roman Carrasco of the NUS Department of Biological Sciences, devised a framework for considering how the cost-effectiveness of conservation incentives may shift over time in the context of changing farming practices. The authors focused on the effects of agricultural intensification policies, which are being promoted across the developing tropics to improve farm yields, increase food security and incomes, and free up land for conservation.

However, such benefits may also encourage farmers to clear more forest for agriculture. Despite the benefits to human well-being, the long-term results could be environmentally disastrous.

The researchers used the Democratic Republic of Congo, which hosts one of the largest remaining forests in the world, as the case study for illustrating these dynamics. They modelled how the conservation payments needed to protect forests would have to rise in response to new agricultural intensification policies, which could double or even triple cassava and maize yields by introducing disease-resistant plant varieties, greater fertiliser use and improving farming practices.

Mr Phelps explained that they anticipate similar patterns across the tropics, including in places like Indonesia that are also combining agricultural intensification and incentive-based conservation. "While these schemes may yield short-term benefits for conservation, they come with an inconvenient paradox. The conservation strategies that are highly affordable today could radically increase in the near future."

He advocated appropriate budgeting for plans using conservation incentives to protect biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more of Mr Phelps' research on the costs of REDD+ in terms of opportunity costs among small-scale and subsistence farmers.