Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Using Earth Observations to Monitor Agricultural Impact in the Peruvian Amazon

This post was written by Matt Finer, PhD, Senior Research Specialist & Director of MAAP, Amazon Conservation and Anupa Deshpande, MPH, Senior Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Specialist, USAID/BFS.

As society aims to increase food security for a growing population, in part through agricultural activity, there is a need to actively minimize risks to biodiversity and tropical forest conservation. Intact forests provide essential ecosystem goods and services that underpin human development, such as cleaner water and less diarrheal disease (Johnson et al., 2013; Herrera et al., 2017), nutritious wild foods that contribute to the diets of local communities (Johnson et al., 2013; Ickowitz et al. 2013; Rasolofoson et al., 2018), habitat for wild pollinators important for crop productivity (e.g., FAO 2018, Tscharntke et al. 2012), and carbon storage, among others. With land use change identified as the major driver of global biodiversity loss, particularly in the tropics (Diaz et al., 2019), understanding and mitigating the drivers of deforestation is critical.

Earth observations, via a growing number and diversity of powerful satellites, provides a unique perspective on the effects on the relationship between agriculture and biodiversity and conservation outcomes.  With eyes on the megadiverse rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon, Monitoring of the Andean Amazon (MAAP), an initiative of the organization Amazon Conservation, specializes in near real-time deforestation monitoring using satellite technology. Despite the empirical evidence on forests’ ability to provide important ecosystem services for food security and nutrition, deforestation in the Western Amazon continues at an alarming rate:  2018 data show 2.5 million acres of forest cover loss (5 acres per minute) of which 1.9 million acres were primary forest (3.5 acres per minute).   As detailed below, MAAP analyses of satellite data in Peru reveal that while large scale agriculture is a latent threat, perhaps it is more important to revisit our assumptions about small and medium scale agricultural activity in our programs designed to address nutrition, economic growth, and resilience in rich biodiverse habitats.

Though large scale plantations (such as oil palm) can quickly clear a couple thousand hectares of primary rainforest, smaller scale plantations account for the vast majority of annual forest loss. Since 2000, small and medium scale (< 50 hectares) clearings account for at least 97% of annual forest loss in the Andean Amazon.  This leading cause of deforestation in the region is most likely linked to agriculture and cattle: coupling satellite imagery and information from the ground, MAAP has documented smaller-scale deforestation from crops such as oil palm, papaya, rice, corn, and sugarcane (MAAP #48, MAAP #23, MAAP #42). Also, by analyzing a series of satellite images, MAAP has developed a method to distinguish whether recent deforestation was caused by crops or livestock raised in agricultural settings, specifically cattle pasture. Indeed, it appears that cattle ranching is the principal driver of deforestation in the central Peruvian Amazon (MAAP #37).  Given the role of small and medium size clearings in driving deforestation, it is important to understand the motivation behind this activity.

Image 1. Recent deforestation for small-scale papaya plantation in the southern Peruvian Amazon. Image courtesy of MINAM/DGOT, Terra-i.

While more conservation work needs to be done to address motivations for cutting primary forest for small and medium agriculture purposes, MAAP analyses of satellite imagery have been used by government, civil society, and international actors to support several cases of environmental justice and action in the large scale agriculture sector.  MAAP cites two graphic cases in which satellite imagery supported efforts to thwart deforestation by large-scale agriculture companies.  Between 2013 and 2015, satellite data tracked a controversial large-scale cacao plantation in the primary forests of the northern Peruvian Amazon. The imagery revealed the rapid deforestation of 2,350 hectares (5,850 acres) of primary rainforest by the company United Cacao (see MAAP #2, MAAP #35). The company repeatedly denied any deforestation in the press, highlighting the power of satellites to both spark the initial controversy and reveal the true ongoing situation. After a contentious  battle involving numerous additional actors, the deforestation activity, and the company, saw its demise by 2017.

Image 2. United Cacao plantation carved from the primary forests of the northern Peruvian Amazon. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

In another case, MAAP analyses were also used to support enforcement of the “Code and Conduct” established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit entity founded to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.  In 2015, a Peruvian indigenous community (Santa Clara de Uchunya) presented an official complaint to the RSPO against a member of the roundtable, Plantations of Pucallpa. They utilized MAAP analysis documenting the deforestation of 6,460 hectares (15,970 acres) in the central Peruvian Amazon for the oil palm plantations (MAAP #4, MAAP #41). As in the United Cacao case, the oil palm company denied the deforestation, again showcasing the importance of the satellite imagery to provide objective evidence of what was happening on the ground in the midst of conflicting claims by stakeholders. In 2017, the RSPO concluded that Plantations of Pucallpa did indeed commit deforestation in breach of its rules, and the company withdrew (and ultimately divested).

Image 3. Before and after image of primary forests being replaced by large-scale oil palm plantation in the central Peruvian Amazon. Images courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

MAAP’s innovative methodology, published recently in Science, includes rapid identification of the causes (drivers) of newly emerging deforestation, including those associated with agriculture. It incorporates a range of satellites—including Landsat (NASA/USGS), Sentinel (European Space Agency), and the companies Planet and DigitalGlobe—in order to provide timely and applicable deforestation reports to civil society, government officials, and the public. MAAP works closely with colleagues from its Peruvian sister organization, Conservación Amazónica, which is a SERVIR-Amazonia partner. 

These large-scale agriculture cases are striking but fortunately they are relatively uncommon in the Peruvian Amazon.  The near-real time data point to an urgent need to focus attention on the impetus for small to medium scale agriculture and cattle ranching activity that destroys invaluable natural resources and ultimately undermines advances in nutrition, livelihood, and food security for people who live in and near them. Where we see justice against deforestation for industrial purposes, what actions can we take to understand and prevent deforestation for small- and medium-scale agriculture and cattle ranching? 

This figure shows where the research in today's post contributes to the Feed the Future Results Framework