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Sparing of Amazonian old-growth forests with floodplain access


As pressure builds on old-growth terra firme rain forests of Amazonia for conversion to cropland and pasture, the search intensifies for more sustainable pathways for agricultural development that spare upland forests. The floodplains or várzea of the basin hold promise for both. We report on an empirical test of the hypothesis that access to floodplain resources may spare upland old-growth forests. We assessed forest cover disturbance using high-resolution satellite imagery and characterized resource use on the basis of data from large-scale community and household surveys (n = 275 communities and 1,245 households) along 725 km of two major rivers in the Peruvian Amazon. Results of our analyses of the extent of forest disturbance around communities (community ‘footprint’), household land holding and land accumulation patterns, income portfolios and responses to a flood shock provide compelling evidence to support the forest sparing idea. Access to floodplain soils for agriculture reduces pressure on upland old-growth forests by sparing them from being cleared around riverine Indigenous and traditional folk communities.

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Fig. 1: Community footprint on upland around study communities in the Napo–Amazon River study area, northeastern Peru.
Fig. 2: Method for determining the footprint around a community.
Fig. 3: OLS regression estimates of impacts of share of floodplain soils in 5 km land buffer.
Fig. 4: Patterns of household land accumulation.
Fig. 5: Non-parametric relationship of household responses to the 2011 flood shock with floodplain soils.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request as we are currently using the data for preparation of related articles.

Code availability

All code that supports the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We acknowledge the efforts of our two field teams that conducted the survey work in Loreto (C. Rengifo Upiachihua, I. Anelís Arevalo Piña, J. del Castillo Macedo, J. Gonzales Bardales, K. Naydu Mendoza Montalvan, N. Paredes Salas and I. Zumbilla Ajón) and Ucayali (L. Ángel Collado Panduro, C. Sinuri Lomas, S. Nunta, D. Fernando Dávila Gomez, E. Carlos Perea Tuesta and S. Jorge Vázquez Flores). This study would not have been possible without their efforts and dedication to the project, and without the support of community authorities, elders and households. In addition, we thank our research assistants for their work: A. Lee, R. Sato, D. Coffman, S. Carr, S. Tsuda, T. Grupp and Z. Zakrzewska. M. Kalacska generously assisted with remote sensing and estimation of areas in open water. This study was supported by grants from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (23243045; 26245032; 18H05312; 20K20332; 18KK0042, Y.T.), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (435-2015-0520, O.T.C.; 430-2016-00974, C.A.) and the Arts and Science Tri-Council Bridge Funding Program (no number, C.A.) at the University of Toronto.

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O.T.C., Y.T. and C.A. designed research and oversaw data collection. O.T.C. and Y.T. conducted statistical analyses. O.T.C. wrote the initial draft. O.T.C., Y.T. and C.A. reviewed and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Oliver T. Coomes.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Marcellus Caldas, Roberto Porro and Robin Sears for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Coomes, O.T., Takasaki, Y. & Abizaid, C. Sparing of Amazonian old-growth forests with floodplain access. Nat Sustain 5, 965–972 (2022).

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