Clearing the Amazon rainforest for soy or cattle does not bring long-term social or economic benefit to local communities and threatens the environment, according to a study published Friday.
Huge swaths of the Brazilian rainforest are cut down, burnt or cleared each year, at an average rate of 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) -- about the size of Kuwait -- because the land is worth more when deforested.
Deforestation is moving at a sobering rate of over four football fields per minute. Since 2000, 155,000 square kilometers (over 59,800 square miles) of the Amazon have been cleared.
But an international team of researchers that studied 286 Amazon municipalities with varying levels of deforestation found that the benefits of forest clearing, responsible for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, were short-lived and really more akin to a "boom-and-bust" scenario.
"The 'boom' in development that deforestation brings to these areas is clear, but our data show that in the long run these benefits are not sustained. Along with environmental concerns, this is another good reason to restrict further deforestation in the Amazon," said Rob Ewers of Imperial College London.
"However, in areas that are currently being deforested, the process needs to be better managed to ensure that for local people boom isn't necessarily followed by 'bust.'"
The conclusions dealt a blow to the argument for deforestation in the Amazon basin, Brazil's least economically developed region home to 40 percent of the remaining rainforests in the world and a key roleplayer in biodiversity and climate cycles.
The study published in Friday's issue of Science found that quality of life -- measured through levels of income, literacy and longevity -- rapidly increased in the early stages of deforestation as locals capitalized on newly available resources.
But the researchers from Brazil, Portugal, France and Britain found that the improvements were short-lived and that after natural resources have been exploited, the level of development returned to below the national average, reaching values indistinguishable from virgin lands.
"It is generally assumed that replacing the forest with crops and pastureland is the best approach for fulfilling the region's legitimate aspirations to development," lead author Ana Rodrigues of France's Center of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology said in a statement.
"This study tested that assumption. We found (that) although the deforestation frontier does bring initial improvements in income, life expectancy and literacy, such gains are not sustained."
The economic decline that returns to deforested lands after natural resources are exhausted is also often followed by the lands being abandoned. Since the early 1990s, a third of areas cleared for cattle have been left vacant.
Population growth further complicates the matter, with more people relying on an ever-scarcer supply of resources.
Reversing the pattern, according to Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, "will hinge on capturing the values of intact forests to people outside the Amazon so that local people's livelihoods are better when the forest is left standing than when it is cleared."
Although tremendously challenging, he said, the undertaking could be achieved through international agreements by which richer countries could pay Brazil to maintain its forests in order to combat climate change while also providing livelihood for locals.
Similar discussions are taking place in preparation for major UN-sponsored climate change talks in Copenhagen in December set to hammer out a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when expires in 2012.