Albion Monitor /News

Native Peoples Blamed For Deforestation

by Abid Aslam

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Environmentalists fear a new report on forest loss could be used by governments to deny poor and indigenous peoples' land rights and tenure and rob the forests of their best stewards.

The report, released August 4 by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), warns that logging conglomerates and newcomers to subsistence farming devour close to 72 acres of tropical forest every minute.

Deforestation can only be halted by ending the "wanton destruction brought about by shortsighted greed and the destitution of the poorest," said CGIAR chairman Ismail Serageldin.

The problem, environmentalists say, is that the report singles out the destitute as the major threat.

"Who's responsible for the deforestation, the small farmers or the loggers?"

Nearly half of Earth's remaining five billion acres of tropical forests could be lost to agriculture, mostly slash-and-burn cultivation by poor farmers, according to the report. Much of the other half could end up in lumber mills.

The report acknowledges that small farmers often follow where the greedy have already grazed. Many of these poor farmers are new to farming, it states. Often, they occupy land left behind by logging companies and enter the forest on roads built by the companies.

That many of these farmers have only recently begun slash-and-burn cultivation is important to the report's writers, who state that the farmers' inexperience adds to their environmental danger.

But for the landless -- and especially for indigenous peoples -- the distinction has life-and-death significance.

"Often, policymakers, particularly those in government, don't distinguish between indigenous people who have practiced traditional agriculture for centuries and recent migrants to forest areas," said Frances Seymor, director of development assistance policy at the World Wildlife Fund.

Seymor was troubled by newspaper headlines that followed the report's lead and declared the dangers of poor farmers and slash-and-burn farming. Government officials in a number of countries, she said, "will use such headlines to delegitimize the land rights and tenure claims of indigenous peoples."

But research proves that indigenous people are "the best stewards of the forest," she said. Newcomers to subsistence farming may have no option but to slash, burn, and cultivate the forest one unsustainable patch at a time in order to feed their families. But they damage or destroy 25 million acres of land each year, the report claims.

These figures should be regarded with caution, said Seymor.

"Even if their data are all correct, there might be problems with attribution of cause," she said. "If the shifting cultivators follow the logging companies into the forest and work on land the loggers have already cleared, who's responsible for the deforestation, the small farmers or the loggers?"

In such a circumstance, she asked, which is likely to have the greater impact: changing the practices of one company or 500 small farmers?

8.1 million acres of tropical forest are lost every year

The report urges farmers to learn more intensive cultivation techniques and to plant trees that have multiple uses and multiple nutrients to give to the soil. It urges governments to raise food prices to benefit local producers and to regulate land use more effectively, so only land suitable for agriculture is brought under cultivation -- and only when really necessary.

The extent to which intensified production will slow forest encroachment varies depending on how evenly land ownership and rights are distributed, Seymor noted. If all the land in a given region is owned by a few rich farmers and they intensify their production, this will not ease the pressure on pr farmers to scratch a living from forest soil.

"Why would poor farmers invest in intensifying production on land they don't own," Seymor asked, "Why not just move on to the next available piece of cleared land?"

"Shifting cultivators are rational actors," she added. "They will continue to do what they do so long as it is economically rational."

Some 38.1 million acres of tropical forest are lost every year, according to the report. This rate has not slowed, despite rising global awareness and international efforts to conserve forests.

This is because international efforts have been half-hearted and half-baked. "We don't have a decent international convention, let alone real commitment" to tropical forest conservation, said David Hunter, senior attorney at the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law.

Slash-and-burn farming exhausts the soil after a few harvests, forcing farmers to move on, according to the report. As traditionally practiced, it works well, said Serageldin, who is also vice president for environmentally sustainable development at the World Bank. Farmers rotate cultivation between a few patches of land, allowing some to lie fallow for several years so the soil will regenerate.

The pressure to cut away at the forest increases where farmland is scarce, he added.

CGIAR is a consortium of 52 countries, international organizations, and private foundations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. Development Program, the U.N. Environment Program, and the World Bank.

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Albion Monitor August 13, 1996 (

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