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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to Nature and 55 other Nature journal
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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.
All code that supports the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
Barlow, J. et al. Quantifying the biodiversity value of tropical primary, secondary, and plantation forests. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 18555 (2007).
Gibson, L. et al. Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity. Nature 478, 378–381 (2011).
Seymour, F. & Harris, N. L. Reducing tropical deforestation. Science 365, 756 (2019).
Garrett, R. D. et al. Forests and sustainable development in the Brazilian Amazon: history, trends, and future prospects. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 46, 625–652 (2021).
Cohn, A. S. et al. Cattle ranching intensification in Brazil can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by sparing land from deforestation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 7236–7241 (2014).
Strassburg, B. B. N. et al. When enough should be enough: improving the use of current agricultural lands could meet production demands and spare natural habitats in Brazil. Glob. Environ. Change 28, 84–97 (2014).
Walker, R. Sparing land for nature in the Brazilian Amazon: implications from location rent theory. Geogr. Anal. 46, 18–36 (2014).
Ceddia, M. G., Bardsley, N. O., Gomez-y-Paloma, S. & Sedlacek, S. Governance, agricultural intensification, and land sparing in tropical South America. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 7242–7247 (2014).
Gutiérrez-Vélez, V. H. et al. High-yield oil palm expansion spares land at the expense of forests in the Peruvian Amazon. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 1748 (2011).
Thaler, G. M. The land sparing complex: environmental governance, agricultural intensification, and state building in the Brazilian Amazon. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 107, 1424–1443 (2017).
Pompeu, J., Soler, L. & Ometto, J. Modelling land sharing and land sparing relationship with rural population in the Cerrado. Land 7, 88 (2018).
dos Santos, J.-S. et al. Characterising the spatial distribution of opportunities and constraints for land sparing in Brazil. Sci. Rep. 10, 1946 (2020).
Padoch, C., Ayres, J., Pinedo-Vasquez, M. & Henderson, A. (eds) Várzea: Diversity, Development, and Conservation of Amazonia’s Whitewater Floodplains (New York Botanical Garden Press, 1999).
Smith, N. J. H. in Várzea: Diversity, Development, and Conservation of Amazonia’s Whitewater Floodplains (eds Padoch, C. et al.) 325–328 (New York Botanical Garden Press, 1999).
Junk, W.-J., Ohly, J. J., Piedade, M. T. & Soares, M. G. in Central Amazon Floodplain: Actual Use and Options for a Sustainable Management (eds Junk, W.-J. et al.) 535–579 (Bachuys, 2000).
Pinedo-Vasquez, M., Ruffino, M., Padoch, C. & Brondízio, E. (eds) The Amazon Várzea: The Decade Past and the Decade Ahead (Springer, 2011).
Petrick, C. The complementary function of floodlands for agricultural utilization. Appl. Sci. Dev. 12, 26–46 (1978).
Junk, W. J. Amazonian floodplains: their ecology, present and potential use. Rev. Hydrobiol. Trop. 15, 285–301 (1982).
Barrow, C. J. in Change in the Amazon Basin Vol. 1 Man’s Impact on Forests and River (ed. Hemming, J.) 108–128 (Manchester Univ. Press, 1985).
McGrath, D. G. et al. Policy Brief: Can Fish Drive Development of the Amazon Bioeconomy? (Earth Innovation Institute, 2020).
Tockner, K. & Stanford, J. A. Riverine flood plains: present state and future trends. Environ. Conserv. 29, 308–330 (2002).
Goulding, M., Barthem, R. & Ferreira, E. The Smithsonian Atlas of the Amazon (Smithsonian, 2003).
McClain, M. E. & Naiman, R. J. Andean influences on the biogeochemistry and ecology of the Amazon River. BioScience 58, 325–338 (2008).
Kvist, L. P., Gram, S., Cácares, C. A. & Ore, B. I. Socio-economy of flood plain households in the Peruvian Amazon. For. Ecol. Manag. 150, 175–186 (2001).
Takasaki, Y., Barham, B. L. & Coomes, O. T. Amazonian peasants, rain forest use, and income generation: the role of wealth and geographical factors. Soc. Nat. Resour. 14, 291–308 (2001).
Newton, P., Endo, W. & Peres, C. A. Determinants of livelihood strategy variation in two extractive reserves in Amazonian flooded and unflooded forests. Environ. Conserv. 39, 97–110 (2012).
Chibnik, M. Risky Rivers: The Economics and Politics of Floodplain Farming in the Amazon (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1994).
Hiraoka, M. Floodplain farming in the Peruvian Amazon. Geogr. Rev. Jpn. 58, 1–23 (1985).
List, G. & Coomes, O. T. Natural hazards and risk in rice cultivation along the upper Amazon river. Nat. Hazards 87, 165–184 (2017).
Pearce, D. & Myers, N. in The Future of Amazonia: Destruction or Sustainable Development (eds Goodman, D. & Hall, A.) 383–403 (St. Martin’s, 1990).
Labarta, R. A., White, D., Leguía, E., Guzmán, W. & Soto, J. La agricultura en la Amazonia ribereña del Río Ucayali. ¿Una zona productiva pero poco rentable? Acta Amazon. 37, 177–186 (2007).
Coomes, O. T., Lapointe, M., Templeton, M. & List, G. Amazon river flow regime and flood recessional agriculture: flood stage reversals and risk of annual crop loss. J. Hydrol. 539, 214–222 (2016).
Salo, J. et al. River dynamics and the diversity of Amazon lowland forest. Nature 322, 254–258 (1986).
Zarin, D. in Várzea: Diversity, Development, and Conservation of Amazonia’s Whitewater Floodplains (eds Padoch, C. et al.) 313–321 (New York Botanical Garden Press, 1999).
Parolin, P. in Central Amazon Floodplain: Actual Use and Options for a Sustainable Management (Junk, W.-J.) 37–391 (Backhuys, 2000).
Coomes, O. T., Kalacska, M., Takasaki, Y., Abizaid, C. & Grupp, T. Smallholder agriculture results in stable forest cover in riverine Amazonia. Environ. Res. Lett. 17, 014024 (2022).
Walker, R. T., Perz, S., Caldas, M. & Silva, L. G. T. Land uses and land cover change in forest frontier: the roles of household life cycle. Int. Reg. Sci. Rev. 25, 169–199 (2002).
Coomes, O. T., Cheng, Y., Takasaki, Y. & Abizaid, C. What drives clearing of primary forest over secondary forests in tropical shifting cultivation systems? Evidence from the Peruvian Amazon. Ecol. Econ. 189, 107170 (2021).
Lathrap, D. W. The Upper Amazon (Praeger, 1970).
Denevan, W. M. A bluff model of riverine settlement in prehistoric Amazonia. Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 86, 654–681 (1996).
Preto, Md. F. et al. The role of environmental legislation and land use patterns on riparian deforestation dynamics in an Amazonian agricultural frontier (MT, Brazil). Land Use Policy 118, 106132 (2022).
Gloor, M. et al. Intensification of the Amazon hydrological cycle over the last two decades. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 1729–1733 (2013).
Langerwisch, F., Rost, S., Gerten, D., Poulter, B. & Cramer, W. Potential effects of climate change on inundation patterns in the Amazon basin. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 17, 2247–2262 (2013).
Latrubesse, E. et al. Damming the rivers of the Amazon basin. Nature 546, 363–369 (2017).
Chibnik, M. in Risk and Uncertainty In Tribal And Peasant Economies (ed. Cashdan, E.) 279–302 (Westview, 1990).
Abizaid, C. Floodplain Dynamics and Traditional Livelihoods in the Upper Amazon: A Study Along the Central Ucayali River, Peru. PhD thesis, McGill Univ. (2007).
Langill, J. & Abizaid, C. What is a bad flood? Local perspectives of extreme floods in the Peruvian Amazon. Ambio 49, 1423–1436 (2020).
Salonen, M., Toivonen, T., Cohalan, J. M. & Coomes, O. T. Critical distances: comparing measures of spatial accessibility in the riverine landscapes of Peruvian Amazonia. Appl. Geogr. 32, 501–513 (2012).
List, G., Laszlo, S. & Coomes, O. T. Mitigating risk for floodplain agriculture in Amazonia: an opportunity for index-based flood insurance. Clim. Dev. 12, 649–663 (2020).
Pinedo-Vasquez, M., Barletti Pasqualle, J., Del Castillo Torres, D. & Coffey, K. A tradition of change: the dynamic relationship between biodiversity and society in sector Muyuy, Peru. Environ. Sci. Policy 5, 43–53 (2002).
Coomes, O. T., Takasaki, Y., Abizaid, C. & Barham, B. L. Floodplain fisheries as natural insurance for the rural poor in tropical forest environments: evidence from Amazonia. Fish. Manag. Ecol. 17, 2010 (2010).
Junk, W. J. et al. (eds) Amazonian Floodplain Forests: Ecophysiology, Biodiversity and Sustainable Management (Springer, 2010).
Castello, L. et al. The vulnerability of Amazon freshwater ecosystems. Conserv. Lett. 6, 217–229 (2013).
Renó, V. F., Novo, E. M. L. M., Suemitsu, C., Rennó, C. D. & Silva, T. S. F. Assessment of deforestation in the Lower Amazon floodplain using historical Landsat MSS/TM imagery. Remote Sens. Environ. 115, 3446–3456 (2011).
Castello, L. Science for conserving Amazon freshwater ecosystems. Aquat. Conserv. 31, 999–1004 (2021).
Laraque, A. Sediment budget of the Napo River, Amazon basin, Ecuador and Peru. Hydrol. Process. 23, 3509–3524 (2009).
Coomes, O. T. & Burt, G. J. Indigenous market-oriented agroforestry: dissecting local diversity in Western Amazonia. Agrofor. Syst. 37, 27–44 (1997).
Fluet-Chouinard, E., Lehner, B., Rebelo, L. M., Papa, F. & Hamilton, S. K. Development of a global inundation map at high spatial resolution from topographic downscaling of coarse-scale remote sensing data. Remote Sens. Environ. 158, 348–361 (2015).
Kalacska, M., Arroyo-Mora, J. P., Coomes, O. T., Takasaki, Y. & Abizaid, C. Multi-temporal surface water classification for four major rivers from the Peruvian Amazon. Data 7, 6 (2022).
Robinson, P. M. Root-N-consistent semiparametric regression. Econometrica 56, 931–954 (1988).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Sustainability thanks Marcellus Caldas, Roberto Porro and Robin Sears for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Coomes, O.T., Takasaki, Y. & Abizaid, C. Sparing of Amazonian old-growth forests with floodplain access. Nat Sustain 5, 965–972 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00952-2