Forests or fields?. A response to the theory that tropical forest conservation poses a threat to the poor

  • Fearnside P
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A rebuttal is provided of David Wood's proposal to open up tropical forests to agricultural uses. Concern is raised that his proposal exaggerates the ability of forests to regenerate after agricultural uses, sacrifices tropical forests in the name of alleviating poverty and in support of large land owners, and prevents valuable potential resource use by local populations. There is misunderstanding by Wood of conservationists' postures and the cause of current deforestation. In Brazil, deforestation has occurred primarily for low productivity cattle pasture (62% of all private land in the Amazon region in ranches over 1000 hectares-ha). Only 11% of private Amazonian land was in farms of less than 100 ha; only 30% of this size farm area was involved in 1991 in deforestation, while 70% of deforestation took place on ranches over 100 ha. Mass migrations of Brazil's population from the northeast to the Transamazon Highway and from Parana to Rondonia were impelled by increasing concentration of land tenure in migrant areas, and not by population growth. The rate of deforestation has slowed due to the economic recession. A World Bank study indicates that redistributing unproductive large landholdings in northeastern Brazil would increase agricultural output by 80%. The agricultural productivity of tropic areas is not as assured; Wood's support is based on preliminary findings, which are being revised with more cautionary thinking. Wood also understates the maintenance of soil fertility with fertilizers. The issue of scale also affects the use of agroforestry and perennial crop plantations such as rubber and cacao, which can only absorb the production of small areas, due to marketing constraints and physical resource limitations. Conservationists have not effectively redirected World Bank efforts to protect environments and help the impoverished, as suggested by Wood. Forest recovery has been very slow in large cattle pastures, and would take thousands of years if the land is left undisturbed. Recovery even under traditional shifting cultivation schemes is slower than Wood recognizes. Wood's argument that deforestation is temporary is not sufficient to invalidate the claim for conservation now. Reallocation is really the same as land extensification; current practices in Brazil will not support large human populations. The solution is to develop environmental services and find other means to support rural populations in urban areas.

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