Agricultural expansion and the ecological marginalization of forest-dependent people

Christian Levers*, Alfredo Romero-Muñoz, Matthias Baumann, Teresa De Marzo, Pedro David Fernández, Nestor Ignacio Gasparri, Gregorio Ignacio Gavier-Pizarro, Yann Le Polain de Waroux, María Piquer-Rodríguez, Asunción Semper-Pascual, Tobias Kuemmerle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Agricultural expansion into subtropical and tropical forests causes major environmental damage, but its wider social impacts often remain hidden. Forest-dependent smallholders are particularly strongly impacted, as they crucially rely on forest resources, are typically poor, and often lack institutional support. Our goal was to assess forest-smallholder dynamics in relation to expanding commodity agriculture. Using high-resolution satellite images across the entire South American Gran Chaco, a global deforestation hotspot, we digitize individual forest-smallholder homesteads (n = 23,954) and track their dynamics between 1985 and 2015. Using a Bayesian model, we estimate 28,125 homesteads in 1985 and show that forest smallholders occupy much larger forest areas (>45% of all Chaco forests) than commonly appreciated and increasingly come into conflict with expanding commodity agriculture (18% of homesteads disappeared; n = 5,053). Importantly, we demonstrate an increasing ecological marginalization of forest smallholders, including a substantial forest resource base loss in all Chaco countries and an increasing confinement to drier regions (Argentina and Bolivia) and less accessible regions (Bolivia). Our transferable and scalable methodology puts forest smallholders on the map and can help to uncover the land-use conflicts at play in many deforestation frontiers across the globe. Such knowledge is essential to inform policies aimed at sustainable land use and supply chains.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2100436118
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number44
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. This work was supported by the German Ministry of Education and Research (Project PASANOA, 031B0034A), the German Research Foundation (Project KU 2458/5-1), the Belgian Science Policy Office Research Programme for Earth Observation (Project REFORCHA, SR/00/338), the Argentinean Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation (Project PICT 2014-1481), and the National Agricultural Technology Institute of Argentina (Project PI 1128052). C.L. gratefully acknowledges support by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement 796451 (FFSize). We thank T. Krüger for help with Bayesian statistics, C.F.R. Wordley for proofreading the manuscript, and F. Pötzschner, H. Bluhm, R. Wilbrandt, K. Kirchner, and L. Lange for help in processing the forest-smallholder data. We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful and constructive comments that helped to improve this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Commodity frontiers
  • Deforestation
  • Livelihoods
  • Small-scale agriculture
  • Subtropical and tropical dry forests and savannahs


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