A variety of modelling studies have suggested tree rooting depth as a key variable to explain evapotranspiration rates, productivity and the geographical distribution of evergreen forests in tropical South America. However, none of those studies have acknowledged resource investment, timing and physical constraints of tree rooting depth within a competitive environment, undermining the ecological realism of their results. Here, we present an approach of implementing variable rooting strategies and dynamic root growth into the LPJmL4.0 (Lund-Potsdam-Jena managed Land) dynamic global vegetation model (DGVM) and apply it to tropical and sub-tropical South America under contemporary climate conditions. We show how competing rooting strategies which underlie the trade-off between above- and below-ground carbon investment lead to more realistic simulation of intra-annual productivity and evapotranspiration and consequently of forest cover and spatial biomass distribution. We find that climate and soil depth determine a spatially heterogeneous pattern of mean rooting depth and below-ground biomass across the study region. Our findings support the hypothesis that the ability of evergreen trees to adjust their rooting systems to seasonally dry climates is crucial to explaining the current dominance, productivity and evapotranspiration of evergreen forests in tropical South America.