The Good Intent of Deforestation

I believe nothing is black and white, except this statement. I believe there is wisdom in the grey and in my pursuit of wisdom a casual reader may conclude that I make some controversial arguments, however what I try and do is act as the devil’s advocate with the aim of depolarising perspective.

Take the rainforests for example. They’re pretty integral to the well being of the planet. I have moved to Ecuador to investigate what it takes to have a humble existence of self sufficiency, so am currently learning the specifics to farming in the rainforests.

Once rainforest, these Andean hills are now only patchy.

A farmer I worked with told me that his cost of growing is GREATER than the market price. Meaning, most fruits and vegetables he sells actually cost him more to grow. Other farmers may be more productive with different crops at different times, but the profits still barely cover living costs. Even typical cash crops such as coffee and cacao are tight. For most, the best way of creating financial security for their families is cattle. This is the major reason for deforestation in the tropics and makes the issue multiply its magnitude. Cattle not only are one of the biggest contributors of nasty-things emissions they also require large swathes of grazing land. Compared to pigs and chickens, the process of raising and feeding cows requires 11 times more water and 28 times more land per kilo (Prof Gidon Eshel of Bard College). By cutting forests down you not only gain valuable timbers but open up previous “unproductive” land for grazing. For the greater good of the planet, this is a great travesty.

How dare though, anybody from a privileged society, cast this stone from the pedestal of well-fed families and disposable incomes, when “developed” countries felled great forests centuries ago. 

Out in rural Ecuador (and I imagine, rural any third-world country), there are few jobs. One person in a family may have intermittent work so everyone subsistence farms. Being a farmer is essentially synonymous with being unemployed. In a rural community therefore, if you try and sell your produce in a local market, you are trying to sell to people who also do not have money. Little dollar comes into the local economy and everyone is competing for what there is so the prices drop, hence the problem of the farmer I spoke with.

A small holdings farmer felling for timber to be used on his own property.

It is exactly the drawbacks of cattle that make them lucrative to these remote communities. Staple crops such as wheat are 160 times more efficient comparing calories to land (Eshel), meaning the urban demands for this produce can more easily be met by the immediate surrounding area. The vast space required for cattle exists in these remote areas, where the land is cheaper and the communities incentivised to bring in money from afar. Indeed the Shuar (an indigenous Ecuadorian people), for example, are even encouraged by the government to chop down forest and given cattle to rear, to integrate the people into the national market.

There is obviously an ethical difference though between small scale rural farmers felling wood, to large scale corporate logging. Approximatly a quater of deforestation is caused on the local level in Latin America, which even this cut of the cake is enormous when you consider the size of the cake. This quater is greater than all the deforestation effects of commercial agriculture, mining, infrastrucure and urban expansion combined in Asian rainforests. Even for this other three-quaters in Latin America the ethics are not clear cut, but this should be the subject of a different article as politics is not the flavour of this one.

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(C) Department of Energy & Climate Change

So what are you saying Ray, everyone should cut down as much forest as they like!? Well dear reader, the planet is pretty rubber-ducked all ready with what is remaining of our carbon-cycling wilds. Whilst governments and organisations tackle the big commercial logging and farming, people often claim that education is needed for the local farming. To teach about sustainable farming practices such as permaculture, or the environment, biodiversity, so-on-and-so-forth. My problem with this is – although it may do some good – it’s addressing the effect rather than the cause. Cutting rainforest is the effect of an impoverished community. The issue appears to be less of one of education and more of one of economy. Unfortunately educating is an easier (albeit still formidable challenge!) compared to the god-like task of making a third world country prosperous.

I would like to say that a solution may be to improve these communities ability to export and tap in to that foreign wealth. Well it is true that none of the farmers that I have spoken with in these remote area have access to such a means as a national or international cooperative, but there is still little commercial viability when produce can be procured closer to the ports to meet demand. I do believe though that most measures that will improve rural prosperity will also very likely save rainforest. I might be psychologically projecting in this statement but we tend to view deforestation as a global problem and local economies as national problems (so not our issue). Perhaps if we viewed these issues as interconnected rather than just connected, we can have greater impact in reducing deforestation.

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