Agriculture and Environment: Cotton

Environmental Impacts of Production: Habitat Conversion

Much of the land used to cultivate cotton has been in production for generations. This is true of areas in China, the United States, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Brazil. However, other areas have been converted rather recently.
The Pacific coastal plain from Mexico to Panama, for example, was converted from natural cover and slash-and-burn/fallow cultivation systems to permanent agriculture after 1950.

Massive conversion in Central America

By the late 1970s 400,000 hectares of Central American cotton fields were producing over a million bales of cotton annually, making it the third largest cotton-producing region after North America and the former Soviet Union.

Virtually all the hardwood forests there were destroyed as were coastal savannas, evergreen forests, and coastal mangrove swamps. Only 2% of the original forests in the Central American cotton production areas remain.

As a result of labour concerns in the 1970s and declining yields (even with increased chemical inputs) in the 1980s, much of this area was converted from cotton production to pasture and beef production.

Causing habitat conversion indirectly

Cotton can indirectly cause the conversion of habitat as well. For example, the construction of dams to create reservoirs for irrigation water supplies can destroy considerable areas of riverine habitat and the species it supports as well as migratory species within river systems.

In addition, the mechanisation of cotton production, and its subsequent abandonment, in Central America displaced considerable numbers of landless labourers who then moved into highland, forested areas where they cleared land to produce subsistence crops.


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