Saving Tropical Forests

THE annual rate of tropical deforestation increased by 90 percent during the 1980s. Yet the decade saw two sizable initiatives to counter the problem: the International Timber Trade Organization and the United Nation's Tropical Forestry Action Plan. So why does the problem keep getting worse? Because we've been aiming at the wrong target. Deforestation is not primarily due to commercial logging, despite all the press it receives. That accounts for only about 12,000 square miles of outright destruction each year, or 21 percent of the total of 57,000 square miles (equivalent to New York state). Nor is it mainly due to cattle ranching, which accounts for only about another 7,000 square miles a year. Other minor causes, such as dams, roads, mining, and plantations, destroy only another 5,000 square miles per year.

The other three-fifths of deforestation is the work of the slash-and-burners, the subsistence farmers who trek into the forests in vast throngs - and with numbers growing so fast they will surely be accounting for three-quarters of all deforestation before the decade is out.

This displaced peasant has found himself squeezed out of traditional farmlands in Brazil, Ivory Coast, Thailand, the Philippines, and a score of other countries. Believing he has no option but to head for the only unoccupied lands available, he has picked up his machete and matchbox to seek his livelihood.

Unlike the shifting cultivator of tradition, who made sustainable use of forest ecosystems, this shifted cultivator advances upon the forest fringe in such multitudes that the worked-over forest gets no chance to regenerate itself. Already these forest destroyers may well total several hundreds of millions, and in some areas their numbers double every few years. They are driven by a host of pressures they scarcely comprehend, still less can they control them.

The overwhelming factor driving the slash-and-burner into the forest is land hunger. While reflecting sheer population growth, it also stems from maldistribution of established farmlands. In Brazil, 5 percent of farmers occupy at least 70 percent of arable lands, some with holdings so large they cultivate only half, while the small-scale farmer has to make do with just a few acres. So a key to stemming the flood of shifted cultivators lies with agrarian reform.

Also helpful would be much more support for subsistence agriculture (by contrast with ``green revolution'' agriculture) in order to help the peasant make more intensive use of his diminutive plot. Further, he needs better credit facilities, extension services, and a host of other rural-development measures that would relieve his motivation to head for the forest.

The phenomenon of the shifted cultivator represents a failure of development strategies across a broad spectrum of sectors; and his problem can be confronted only by a major restructuring of macro-level policies on the part of governments and development agencies.

It may sound strange for would-be saviors of tropical forests to urge the cause of land redistribution in territories many horizons away from the forest. But the forests are falling for non-forestry reasons; that explains why there is all too little attention directed to these causes of deforestation by either the International Timber Trade Organization or the Tropical Forestry Action Plan. They are essentially forestry-oriented initiatives, whereas we need responses that address broader-scope issues of development, or rather mal-development. If we don't help the impoverished peasant to stay home, we shall witness the speedy demise of the last tropical forests.

Fortunately, a more positive prospect could soon emerge for tropical forests, deriving from a climate connection. One of the best ways to counter the buildup of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere is through reforestation. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis; indeed, a tree is half carbon. By far the best place to grow trees is the humid tropics with their year-round warmth and moisture.

To sequester all the net annual increase of carbon dioxide would take around 160 million square miles of fast-growing trees. While we probably won't achieve more than a fraction of this expanse, the idea is being pursued by the United Nations Environment Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Plainly, grand-scale reforestation would transform the outlook for tropical forests. But it would serve its purpose only if it were accompanied by sufficient measures to slow and eventually halt deforestation. The international funds flowing into tropical-forest countries for reforestation of this order would provide a grand-scale incentive finally to come to grips with the problem.

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