An inconvenient ground-truth

17 November, 2015 by (comments)

New deforestation hotspots point the finger at my favourite fruit

I love Terra-i, but today I hate it. A lot.

The system uses satellite images to track deforestation in the Amazon in near-realtime. It’s extremely accurate: if a bunch of trees come down somewhere – no matter how remote – Terra-i picks it up.

Cool, right? Not today.

CIAT’s Louis Reymondin, the system’s chief architect, dropped the bombshell over coffee: it looks as though hundreds of hectares of rainforest in Peru are being trashed by… papaya.

Screengrab of deforestation hotspots in Madre De Dios, Peru, from Terra-i.

Screengrab of deforestation hotspots in Madre De Dios, Peru, from Terra-i.

It was one of those heart-sinking moments, when you have to fundamentally re-evaluate something you hold dear. Like when Jamiroquai started making bland pop music instead of space-funk. Or when Volkswagen was outed for bluffing emissions tests.

This morning I just wasn’t ready to add papaya to my list of fallen idols.

As far as I was concerned, the fruit was a keeper. I munch through at least one of those plump, sumptuous, rugby balls of joy every week. Even if I’m not buying, I could spend hours at the papaya stand in the market, just squeezing the fruits, feeling how much the flesh yields – an indicator of their readiness for total, dribbling devourment.

Louis, please not papaya. Seriously.

The thing with Terra-i is that it doesn’t lie. Two years of cross-checking what the satellite images show with what’s happening on the ground means it’s the best near-realtime deforestation monitoring system around.

Unfortunately for me, it was one of these “ground-truthing” exercises that spilled the beans on papaya.

It started a few months back, when the Terra-i team discovered hotspots of new forest clearance in the Peruvian Amazon. The satellite images showed red and purple freckles in a sea of green. To trained eyes, this didn’t look like oil palm, ranching or mining – common causes of deforestation in the region.

Intrigued, the team joined Peru’s Ministry of Environment (MINAM) – which uses Terra-i as its official deforestation monitoring tool – to go and take a look.

You can probably guess what they saw when they arrived in Yurimaguas, in the country’s northeastern Amazon: papaya trees. Lots of them. Large areas of forest had been cleared to make way for plantations. While initially surprised, the team thought it might be a one-off, a localised incident.

But several hundred kilometres southeast in Madre De Dios state, they saw the same thing: new deforestation on the map, and on the ground, papaya. In Pucallpa in the centre of Peru, still more.

It was starting to look like a troubling trend: papaya was becoming a deforestation driver. Thanks Louis; thanks Terra-i. You just rained on my papaya parade.

Pic by Terra-i CIAT. Papaya plantations in the Peruvian Amazon.

Pic by Terra-i CIAT. Papaya plantations in the Peruvian Amazon.

This inconvenient ground-truth forced me to reconsider my allegiance to my favourite fruit. I picked apart all of the assumptions that had led me to love it so much. But beyond its fabulous flavour and compulsive squeeziness, I realised I didn’t know much for certain.

For example, I’d never given much thought as to where and how papaya is grown. On numerous occasions I’d seen individual trees in home gardens across the tropics, often within reaching distance of the kitchen. Foolishly, it had never struck me as a plantation crop.

And as it turns out, papaya’s environmental credentials – if it’s grown as a monoculture – are quite damning. Louis explained what typically happens: first you clear the land of those pesky trees, then you plant. In two-to-three years you’ll get fruit; but after only a few harvests the trees are exhausted and so is the soil. Before you can plant again, the land has to rest for at least a year. While you wait – you guessed it – you might as well clear a tract of forest nearby and plant more papaya.

That said, all plantation crops have the potential to cause environmental havoc so it’s unfair to pillory papaya in particular. There’s also a lot more we need to understand about papaya-driven deforestation. The team heard that human migration is probably partly to blame: with life in Peru’s high plains so unforgiving for many people, Altiplaneros are moving to the fertile forests downhill. Papaya is a popular choice because harvested fruits are relatively easy to transport and require zero processing. Prices are good too: at the moment, a medium-sized papaya in Lima can retail for as much as USD$2 and there’s also a vibrant export market.

At the very least, the ability to quickly spot new papaya plantations with the help of Terra-i means MINAM has a better idea of what’s going on. And in terms of the total area affected, Louis assures me that tree-felling for papaya is still just a blip on the radar in Peru. Oil palm and livestock remain major culprits, accounting for thousands rather than hundreds of hectares of cleared land, he says.

But what intrigues him about papaya is that, right now, we don’t know where we are on the trajectory. There’s no doubt that papaya-related land clearance in the Amazon has exploded since 2014, while tree-cutting for crops like oil palm has remained more-or-less stable.

Is papaya really becoming a new bad kid on the block, or is this just a flash in the pan? At the moment that’s up for grabs, but whatever happens next, Louis and the Terra-i team will probably be the first to know.

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CIAT’s work on Terra-i is funded by the World Resources Institute and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforesty.

 

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