Ayesha Azeem ’23
Trees are known for their cooling services through shade and evapotranspiration, the process by which water is transferred from land to the atmosphere through evaporation. Unfortunately, tropical deforestation has accelerated exponentially in the past century, leading to the elimination of these cooling services in low latitude countries. Without such cooling services, local temperatures can increase over a single season, which affects not only vulnerable community members like the elderly and young children, but may also affect the productivity of workers. Outdoor workers are often engaged in rigorous physical activity for long hours, and the increased heat can be detrimental to their health, especially in rural areas. Rural communities already have high heat and humidity and are vulnerable to environmental changes like heat due to deforestation, which is driven by human use. While many studies have examined how exposure to hot environments can affect human health, little research has been done on how heat can affect the labor productivity of rural communities that suffer chronic, deforestation-induced local temperature increases. A field experiment focusing on the rural communities in East Kalimantan, Indonesia was used to study the effects of deforestation-induced heat on outdoor workers.
In the study, 361 workers were randomly assigned to a 90-minute work session in either deforested or forested settings to compare productivity differences between two distinct thermal environments. Researchers collected data on worker output, rest-taking behavior, core body temperature, and movements to track physical effort. Participants were also split via standard and high piece-rate payment schemes, hypothesizing that heat exposure from working in deforested areas will lead to significant declines in productivity and that those receiving larger financial incentives will have greater overall output by taking fewer breaks even if their rate of production declines.
The researchers surprisingly found no evidence that doubling piece-rate incentives affected worker productivity in either forested or deforested settings. Rather, the workers may already be operating at the peak of their physical activity, so a higher monetary incentive would have little effect on productivity. Furthermore, the study found that even under favorable conditions, working for just 90 minutes in deforested areas significantly decreased productivity, wherein participants took more frequent breaks most likely due to their higher core bore temperatures. Future studies can focus on how increased heat exposure can impact productivity for other agricultural activities like plowing, and how it may lead to different adaptation strategies.
 Y. J. Masuda, et al., Warming from tropical deforestation reduces worker productivity in rural communities. Nature Communications 12 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-21779-z. Image retrieved from: https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/976/cpsprodpb/0F30/production/_114088830_am4.png