Lessons from the field: how farmer motivation and property characteristics impact commodity-linked deforestation


In the past decades, many companies have made commitments to meet goals such as reaching zero-deforestation, improving on-farm practices, or sourcing only materials that meet certain sustainability standards. These commitments support sustainability by sourcing ingredients and materials that reduce or eliminate detrimental environmental practices from their supply chain and by incentivizing producers along the supply chain to adopt sustainable production practices.

Company commitments, however, are developed and implemented in complex economic, social, and political contexts—making it difficult to assess their effectiveness and impact. The Supply Chain Sustainability Research Fund recently supported four studies that examine how sustainability initiatives are designed and how external factors such as the policy environment, market and trade dynamics, geography, and producer context affect sustainability outcomes. Three of the four studies focused on commodity-linked deforestation, including sustainable cocoa production in West Africa, deforestation-free beef in Brazil, and displaced deforestation globally. Below are highlights of findings and insights particularly relevant to commodity-linked deforestation.

Effective cocoa sustainability initiatives must consider smallholder farmers’ motivations and roles.  

Research on cocoa production in West Africa identified key factors that shift farmer behaviour.

– Attending training, land ownership, and farmer support (e.g., access to credit and agriculture inputs) together with the implementation of Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) were the main determinants for improving cocoa productivity.

– While these individual-level determinants helped improve productivity, in the absence of larger-scale solutions, cocoa farm expansion will continue to drive deforestation.

– Truly overcoming the challenges faced by farmers requires sustained and comprehensive efforts such as finance and access to credit, land tenure, and additional knowledge and skills.

Property-level factors can help us understand why some supplying properties have continued clearing under the Zero-Deforestation Cattle Agreements in Brazil, while others have stopped.

Research on beef production in Brazil used existing data to provide a property-level assessment of the actors contributing to ongoing deforestation.

– Deforestation is less likely to occur on properties where the Cattle Agreements slaughterhouses control a larger share of market in the area.

– Monitoring must include full land holdings, not just single properties. It is common for ranchers to own multiple properties and choose which properties they report to slaughterhouses for monitoring. Unmonitored properties have a higher risk of deforestation.

– Indirect suppliers who do not sell directly to slaughterhouses account for most deforestation. What is more, a high volume of cattle and deforestation come from a small number of properties.

– Deforestation is more likely in remote areas, and large forested properties are more likely to be cleared than smaller ones.

To truly understand commodity-tied deforestation, you must look across borders and biomes.

Research on displaced deforestation added nuance to our understanding of broader effectiveness of supply chain strategies by measuring the amount of total deforestation that can be attributed to commodity production within and across regions.

– At the regional level, there has been success in reducing deforestation associated with commodity production. However, the broader effectiveness of these market-based strategies is unclear.

– When quantifying the total deforestation that can be attributed to commodity production within and across biomes, the impacts of total deforestation are much higher than direct deforestation estimates.

These studies provide nuance necessary to understand how property-level factors and producer motivations influence the effectiveness of efforts to address commodity-driven deforestation. Furthermore, it is important to “zoom out” and consider the possibility that the location-specific gains may be offset by losses elsewhere, a dynamic which needs to be better understood and addressed.

Asking the right questions, considering the full complexity, and presenting the information in an accessible way strengthens chain sustainability initiatives so they can achieve measurable environmental outcomes, such as the reduction of deforestation.

Robyn Paulekas
Senior Mediator and Program Manager, Meridian Institute

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