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    Combatting Deforestation II: Agriculture and Forests

    By Keith R | August 1, 2007

    Topics: Biodiversity, Conservation, Economics & the Environment, Environmental Protection, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Forestry | 1 Comment »

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    When I launched my series on deforestation in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) many months ago, I said I’d try to address different facets of the question in separate posts. My first tackled the question of just how serious is deforestation across LAC. Today, a look at the interface between agriculture, poverty and deforestation.

    Agriculture, Poverty and Tropical Forests

    You’ve heard or read it many times before — or at least I have. Deforestation in LAC is caused by land-greedy agricultural producers (both small and large) utilizing non-sustainable practices to clear off land for some cash crop. When I was in graduate school long ago, everybody pointed to cattle raising and threatened boycotts of McDonalds. In the last ten years, many people pointed to soya, particularly in Brazil, and threatened boycotts of McDonalds. Lately it is biofuel — _____ (insert your current “fear of choice” in the blank space, whether sugarcane, oil palms, or again soya) — that has people worriedly predicting massive, unstoppable deforestation in LAC.

    The other common bogeyman, poor people living in or near forests, are also often widely blamed. For example, if you were to believe many Dominicans, most deforestation in the DR is caused by poor Haitians chopping wood and clearing brush for home fuel — as if Dominicans themselves did not practice slash-and-burn agriculture.

    As I said in the introduction to this series, I’ve always wondered how much these two factors — agriculture and poverty — really play in deforestation (versus people’s perceptions of the role that they play), particularly in the LAC context. For example, is promotion of agricultural production inevitably at odds with protecting forests?

    At Loggerheads?

    Last September the World Bank came out with a study* that tries to tackle some of these issues. I think that it offers some important insights, and I have added it to the Temas Recommended Reading List. English, Spanish and Portuguese executive summaries are available for download.

    The report specifically tries to improve diagnosis of, and facilitate dicussions and development of policy solutions to, two issues related to environmental management and regional development policies:

    Myths, Theories, Data Gaps and The Three Types of Forests in LAC

    Frankly, the report provides too much food for thought to cover it all adequately in a single blog post. One key perspective is just how little we know yet about the root causes, linkages and interactions behind deforestation, and what needs to be done to rectify those knowledge gaps (more on how to address this below). As the report argues, monitoring, information and analysis is crucial because “without this information, policy makers are flying blind, and interest groups lack a solid basis for dialogue.” For example:

    A second key perspective involves all the unreliable generalizations people tend to make about linkages between poverty and deforestation (see box – click to enlarge). “It is said that people destroy forests because they are poor, and that deforestation causes poverty — but generalizations are a poor foundation for policy,” Kenneth Chomitz, the report’s lead author, has declared. “We find that deforestation is caused by both rich and poor people — and it can either destroy or create assets for people.”

    The third key perspective offered is that effective diagnosis of some of the problems and possible policy responses thereto all may depend on the type of tropical forest involved. What might work in one — such as an environmental services payment not to deforest — may fail in another, usually (but not exclusively) for economic reasons. For the purposes of this report, such forests are divided into three types (shown in image to the right – click to enlarge):

    The 3 Basic Types of LAC Tropical Forest (click to enlarge)Mosaiclands

    Mosaiclands are where forests and agricultural production coexist. They tend to be more densely populated than the other two types, and forests in these zones are fragmented — which often means the local unique species are under stress, if not threat of extinction. In Latin America about 20% of these lands were degraded during the 1990s.

    To combat deforestation in these zones, the report recommends carbon finance and biodiversity finance. “Environmental service” programs might also be justified, but the report counsels caution in selecting projects for these zones. It points out, for example, that too many such projects were funded based on the myth that forests generate water, when in fact the best payoffs tend to come from watershed management projects in small steep basins and erodible river margins.

    The type of environmental service programs that the report suggest instead include:

    Frontier and Disputed Areas

    In these zones sustainable forestry projects often cannot compete economically with commercial crop cultivation, such as soy in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Conversion of forest to pasture in such zones yields few economic and employment benefits but large CO2 emissions, yet is hard to stop.

    Here the report suggests policy interventions (see below), plus payments to preserve existing forest as a carbon store rather than paying to convert pasture back into agroforestry. For example, carbon financing might pay US$1,500-10,000 per hectare to prevent frontier forest from being converted to pasture, whereas pasture at the Ecuadorian frontier currently is worth only $150 to $500 a hectare; at the Bolivian frontier, $24 to $500.

    As for frontier land already cleared, the report suggests supports for more intensive but environmentally sustainable agriculture on the existing cleared lands.

    Areas Beyond the Frontier

    The report points out that most of Latin America’s forest still remains beyond the frontier, with few inhabitants and most of them poor and not inclined to destroy forests. In these zones now is the time to create new protected areas and install the policy and institutional infrastructure to keep them protected effectively. The report also suggests stress on titling and physical demarcation of indigenous lands in frontier regions as a strategy to maintain forests.

    Policy Recommendations to National Governments

    The report examines in detail a number of policy tools and options national governments may utilize, but they basically boil down to:

    Recommendations to the International Community

    On the international side, two areas for cooperation stand out: (1) financing forest environmental services; (2) addressing monitoring and information needs.

    On the former, the report urges internationally financed incentives for avoiding deforestation and stimulating forest regrowth, namely:

    As for addressing current information gaps, the report suggests that these are not hard or expensive to plug given new remote sensing options and the World Bank-WWF survey tool for protected areas. The report urges:

    — Keith R

    * Chomitz, Kenneth H., et. al. At Loggerheads? Agricultural Expansion, Poverty Reduction and Environment in Tropical Forests. Published by the World Bank. 2006. [ISBN: 0-8213-6853-2]

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    One Response to “Combatting Deforestation II: Agriculture and Forests”

    1. Miche Says:

      Hopefully the new Bagazo endeavor will help with that problem since they use sugar waste – no added demand for a crop, unlike most other biofuels, as you mentioned.

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