Cows and Trees in the Latin American Tropics

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“The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It is also the leading cause of deforestation in the Latin American tropics. For instance, in the Brazilian Amazon, raising cattle has caused “80 percent of rainforest loss,” a size currently comparable to a plot of land larger than France.

In a recent cover story in National Geographic entitled, A Five Step Plan to Feed the World, National Geographic lays out several recommendations for how agricultural systems can minimize environmental degradation, particularly deforestation, while still producing enough food for the world’s growing population.  Simply put: stop cutting down forests and maximize land use that’s already being used for agricultural purposes.

One initiative from the FAO, focused in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia, contributes to this work through a creative restructuring of livestock rearing called sylvopasture. Sylvopasture maximizes land use, combining grazing land with the planting of trees and plants.  Instead of an open field, plant life can be plentiful to support local ecosystems or to provide more material for harvest.

Journalist Lisa Palmer in Yale Environment 360, paints a picture of how this looks on the ground in Colombia:  “Plantains grow above shade-loving coffee. Valuable hardwoods like oak grow in alleys next to corn and wheat.” Pasture is underneath “high-value timber like mahogany and samanea … The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts.”  

Sylvapasture has been shown to produce the same amount of dairy, meat and timber in half the land area in what was formerly needed. Because of its high impact, Colombia’s National Development Plan hopes to use sylvopastural strategies to reduce pastureland from 94 million acres to 70 million acres, while increasing cattle numbers from 23 million head to 40 million.

Palmer reflects how this marks a paradigm shift. Five-centuries of cattle ranchers in Colombia has viewed cattle and forests as incompatible. Now through the investment of domestic and international bodies this is changing.

While it seems unlikely that sylvopasture will halt deforestation, it deserves credit for breaking a very old and unsustainable agricultural model and for opening doors to contribute to the fight against deforestation. How well it spreads and how well it is practiced across the Latin American Tropics is still yet to be seen.