Chapter 1: Humanitarian Aspects of Tropical Deforestation

Up until now tropical deforestation has been seen as a matter of ecological and economic concern. In this chap­ter, we set these issues on one side and look at seven aspects in which tropical deforestation is clearly a matter of humanitarian concern: ways in which deforestation can be seriously damaging to the health, welfare and future prospects of people living on tropical forest lands.

The nature of the forest resource and the kinds of prob­lem which occur vary a great deal from  one area  to another: in later chapters we identify the types of situation which are most critical for people s welfare.

The impacts of deforestation on human life and well­ being are many, and often extremely indirect: some may as yet be unknown to any of us. We have chosen these seven aspects to illustrate how the sum of human activities in forest areas can be directly harmful to the common interest.

Health: The Front Line

Deforestation in tropical forest areas raises serious health problems which can only be resolved by sound forest man­agement, settlement planning, adequate infrastructure and health care.

To a certain extent, traditional forest dwellers have adapted to their environment and become immune to potential forest diseases. But forest conversion attracts new settlers who are not immune to typical forest pathogens such as yellow fever, filariasis, African and American trypanosomiasis, leish­maniasis and scrub typhus.

Conversely, immigrants bring into the tropical forest ecosystem other diseases against which forest dwellers have no immunity.

Deforestation also brings about a change in vector habitat and in the relationship between the vector and its environment, which in turn modifies risk patterns. Clear­ ing may destroy some breeding sites and therefore have a positive effect, but it can also induce less desirable changes in vector behaviour. For instance, mosquitoes or sand-flies which used to feed on primates, rodents and other forest animals find fewer potential animal hosts and have a greater tendency to feed on human beings. There are also cases where forest clearing eliminates the vector’s natural enemies or replaces non-vector by vector species.

Finally, the concentration of settlers without adequate sanitation creates additional health problems, mainly the proliferation of intestinal parasites.

Chapter 4 on Health and Deforestation provides an overview of a number of different diseases associated with tropical forests and with the clearance of those forests. In this chapter we take malaria as an example . This is possibly the most serious disease and major cause of mor­bidity and child mortality in the tropics and is present in virtually all areas currently being deforested. Globally there are some 5 million new cases per year: 1 million African children are dying of it annually. A total of 1.2 billion people live in risk areas. Yet what is not widely known is that malaria is largely a man-made disease. Agri­ cultural colonists are one of the major carriers of malaria and in their drive to clear and settle new areas of forest they create new endemic foci and rapidly extend the limits of the disease to people and places it had not reached before.


Eradication of Disease and Population Growth

Tropical peoples have on the whole developed a consider­able resistance to malaria. Those who survive an infection are nevertheless subject to periodic attacks which are now widely recognized as a major depressing influence along wit h protein deficiency, heat and other factors  on labour productivity. As a result, the latent economic potential of malaria eradication is enormous. At the  time of the first malaria eradication programmes in the tropics, the fear was expressed that successful eradication, despite its beneficial effect on productivity and its potential for saving human lives, would open the path to explosive population growth, which was seen as a potential econo­mic cost. The point is that in the short term, disease eradication tends to increase population growth, and thus make it all the more important that  the carrying capacity of the natural environment be nurtured and respected.

Few people would deny that improved health care in general has indeed contributed to the rapid population growth of the post-war period. But it is also now clear that a direct relation between improved health care and population growth does not exist. Malaria was largely eradicated by spraying in Sri Lanka in 1947 (although there has been a more recent resurgence). Since then, Sri Lanka has seen a quite remarkable fall in fertility: it now has the lowest total fertility rate of any low-income coun­try except China. Sri Lanka – at $300 per capita annual income still a very poor country – stands out as an exam­ple of the fact that social development can be more important than mere economic growth in influencing population growth.


Malaria and Forest Management

In all countries, malaria can only be eradicated by adopt­ ing diversified control measures of primary health care which must be an integral part of development pro­ grammes. Vector control aims at reducing contact between vectors and human populations, primarily by reducing vector populations, which in turn can be achieved by reducing or disturbing vector  habitats.  A  number of the many different species of the anopheles mosquito which transmit malaria thrive in a disturbed forest environment, e.g. anopheles balbacensis. This species is growing rapidly in importance, and spreading northwards from South East Asia into wide areas of Asia where malaria had been very successfully controlled.

Unfortunately more and more people are living in or around partially disrupted forests where this malaria vector thrives. One of the most effective ways of managing this vector is to clear-fell the forest along suspected streams , strand pools and tractor ruts in the hinterland of villages. But this conflicts seriously with sound forest management and can, especially on riverbanks, accelerate erosion. It has been suggested that one should locate villages at least one kilometer away from the forest because of the limited flight range of the mosquito.


Health Care for Forest Settlers

Colonization of forest areas tends to occur in remote areas isolated from public health systems and without benefit of environmental vector management. In particular, official resettlement programmes are generally conducted in  a spirit of urgency and ‘on the cheap’; they do not always include safe water supplies nor the necessary measures to avoid unhealthy conditions such as stagnating water, gar­bage and bad housing and sanitary facilities. In general, low standards of living provide circumstances in which many diseases and their vectors can thrive.

While the vectors develop resistance to insecticides, the parasites develop resistance to drugs mainly chloro­quine – generally used for therapy and prophylaxis. This increases the technical and administrative difficulties faced in eradication campaigns mainly because of in­ adequate infrastructure.

In many resettlement and colonization projects, expenditure on health is not high enough to ensure that adequate care will be taken of the health of colonists living in deforested or degraded areas of the tropical forest zone. The commitment to an objective of adequate healthcare is political. National governments must accept responsibility for the health of their remotest citizens.


Deforestation and the Welfare of Mothers and Children

Mothers and small children are often the first to suffer in conditions of forest poverty. Not only are small children in no  position  to  defend  their own   interests,   but   their mo theirschildbearing and child raising role makes them more dependent – dependent on men, dependent on the immediate social and family group, and dependent on the readiness of the wider society to recognize their special needs.

A woman who bears six children is either pregnant or responsible for children under the age of four for an average of well over 10 years of her life. At a rough calculation, around a third of all women of childbearing age in the tropics are having to cope with this constraint at anyone time. In many situations of economic hardship, natural disasters and periods of seasonal stress, the social group will be equipped and willing to shelter mothers and young children from the worst. But the social disruption which is a feature of much tropical deforestation often exposes them to degrees of hardship and humiliation quite unthinkable in more stable peasant communities.

Short-term  out-of-village labour is frequent in areas of deforestation: in logging, mining and infrastructure projects, in seasonal activities on plantations, and in the generalized, urgent search for sources of cash income. A household relying on this type of work must choose between breaking up the family unit for substantial periods of time or subjecting mother and children to socially unstable, dangerous and unhealthy living condi­tions in temporary settlements.

Long-distance migration of entire household units in­evitably deprives women and children of the support provided by a stable  village  bound  together  by  ties  of kin ship .

Lack of a modern social infrastructure in terms of education provision, contraceptive availability, and health care is typical of many areas of planned and unplanned colonization. Some countries such as Ecuador have developed remarkable systems for ensuring the  provision of health care even to the remotest areas. But extension of health care to isolated communities lowers the size of population that a health care unit can serve, and therefore leads to a substantial increase in unit costs of health care. Only the strongest of humanitarian ethics can ensure that urban centres of administrative power respect the basic needs of the human communities that are the most remote and thus the hardest to serve.

Deforestation is often also accompanied by a sharp rise in the burden of economic activities placed on mothers and small children. The fuelwood crisis is widely associ­ated in the public mind with images of mothers and child­ren walking long distances to cut and carry heavy loads of fuel. Deforestation also tends to increase time required to collect non-wood forest products traditionally collected by women. As a general rule, collection times are longer in open than in closed forest, even where the forest has been severely degraded: in the Nigerian moist forest belt, fuel­ wood collection may typically take one hour per week, whereas in the savanna belt it may take one hour per day. Fuelwood shortage varies enormously from one locality to another, both in and outside the tropical forest zone, and generalizations are difficult. For Nepal, for example, estimates of household fuelwood collection times vary from 4 hours per week to 22 hours per week from one village to another.

Deforestation, and fuelwood shortage in particular, can greatly increase the economic strain on poor households. It is a depressing feature of human society that so much of this strain is borne by those least equipped to bear it. There is little that benevolent intervention can do in the short term to improve the lot of mothers and small child­ren in communities – whether in big cities or on remote frontiers – where their needs are not  adequately respected by a male-dominated society. Many of the tribal groups whose last forest strongholds are now being invaded have much more humane attitudes to maternity than those of the dominant culture.

On the other hand, the way in which women have led the campaign of the Chipko movement to prevent the felling of trees in the Himalayas is only one example of the increasing willingness of women to defend their environment, if necessary against the opposition of their own sons and husbands.

Humane action to protect women’s rights and to respect their particular needs is very hard to pursue: the  fragmented imposition of a ‘modern’ social code or a ‘modern’ social infrastructure may often be counter­ productive. Certainly, no amount of forest  conservation can remedy the hardship which social norms impose. But sound, caring management of the natural environment, by giving migrants economic security and the time and stability to develop stable communities, can make a powerful contribution to the welfare of women and children .

Malnutrition: A Growing Problem

SubSaharan Africa’s per capita food production declined by 10% between 1970 and 1979. Thanks to rising imports and food aid, the average calorie intake was held stable at about 94% of recognized minimum requirements (EEC, 1982). The shortfall was felt hardest in the Sahel (85% of requirement). But Central Africa, an area much of which is covered in moist forest, achieved an average calorie intake of only 92% of requirements.  These people are not suffering from famines: their climate is humid and reliable for much of the year. Their problem is one of persistent inadequacy of food supplies and chronic malnutrition.

In much of the tropical forest zone, and in particular in Latin America, food deficiency is related to a flagrantly unequal distribution of wealth and income. This is frequently compounded by an agricultural emphasis on export products. Cattle-ranching , in particular, is not only inefficient and inappropriate as a source of calories but is also associated with severe inequality of income at the national and international level. In many tropical countries, nevertheless, average per capita food availability has been stable or increasing, and the natural environment has not been seen as a  major obstacle to basic nutritional goals. Yet the link between deforestation and declining food production is very strong. Nepalwhich has lost one-third of its legally reserved forests since 1947 and now has only 12% of its land surface under tree cover, has seen its per capita food production fall by 17% since 1970. Haiti, only 2% of whose forests remain, has suffered a 15% fall in per capita food production in the same period.

In the last five to ten year s, a new and extremely worrying trend has emerged. A number of  tropical countries apparently well-endowed with resources and with a predominantly agricultural economy have been registering sharp falls in per capita food production. Zaire has registered a fall of 13% during the 1970s. In Central Africa, the decline in food production cannot be ignored as a major humanitarian concern.

Forest clearance in these countries does not and will not ensure increased agricultural production. Rather, it is an environmentally damaging symptom of an inefficient agricultural system.

The humanitarian problem that this poses is widely misunderstood. Humanitarian assistance to peoples suffering from hunger in arid parts of the world is justified by the obvious physical evidence of desertification. Yet the lateritic soils characteristic of much of the moist tropics are an important but less obvious handicap. Foods produced on lateritic soils tend to be relatively rich in carbohydrates but poor in protein. Protein deficiency may constitute a serious nutritional problem even when minimum calorie requirements are met. In addition, attempts to intensify and extend agricultural production by clearing moist forest areas have led to compaction and further leaching of soils until even carbohydrate production declines. It has been shown that tropical forest dwellers suffer from protein-energy malnutrition and severe anaemia as a result of protein, vitamin A, iodine and iron deficiencies.

Because climate and agricultural production in the moist tropics are relatively stable, the acute famines characteristic of the arid and semi-arid zones do not occur. In contrast, unspectacular malnutrition in the moist forest zone, enhanced by debilitating diseases, saps the will to self-help and yet fails to arouse the concern of the international community.


Tribal Peoples: The Myth of the Vast Emptiness

The myth of the vast Amazonian emptinessdescribed by Chase-Smith (1982) is a common feature of forest development plans in all parts of the tropics. For example, the Peruvian Pichis-Palcazu project was designed to resettle poor families from Lima in Peruvian Amazonia, but they may soon realize that the forest was not as empty as it seemed. Low population density in tropical  forest areas is often not so much a sign of emptiness but more a sign that indigenous peoples are living in balance with their environment. This low population density, however, provides an excuse for the predatory expansion of an urban and periurban system incapable of ministering to its own needs or of absorbing its own growth.

At a conservative estimate, 140 million people in the world live in or on the edges of closed tropical forest (Myers 1980). A separate estimate puts the number of tribal people living in relative isolation throughout the world at 200 million (Good land, 1982) of which many are forest-dwellers. Although the available statistics are very approximate, it is clear that tribal farmers and hunter ­ gatherers constitute a significant minority of those directly affected by forest development and deforestation.

The degree of cultural resilience of the different groups, and the extent to which their mode of life has been disrupted, is highly variable. For as long as there is an indigenous culture, attacks on that culture are a matter of humanitarian concern. But the problem does not disappear if and when the group is irrevocably disrupted or acculturated. The humanitarian problem becomes a more individual one as members of the group show themselves more or less capable of adaptation. Chronic alcoholism amongst North American Indians is one powerful illustration of the long-term effects of partial acculturation. In some developing countries this acculturation is easier when the dominant culture has in fact partly grown out of the indigenous culture, as in Malaysia or Ecuador. However, in countries such as Brazil and Zaire, long after the old way of life has disappeared almost without trace, members of tribal minorities may still suffer from a vicious inequality of opportunity.

Some forest-dwellers, such as the Kuna Indians of the Caribbean coast of Panama, have shown a remarkable capacity to adapt to modern society, while conserving in the meantime their tribal traditions and culture. But most forest tribal groups, after suffering a generalized assault on their land rights and, in many cases, on their basic hu­man rights as well, will not be capable of such adaptation.

The probability that clearance of  any  tropical forest area will affect an indigenous tribal group is remarkably high. The land of every tribal group in the world has been placed under the overall ownership of nation states, often arbitrarily, and frequently before these powers have had any effective control over remote areas. Tribal land rights subsequently written into national legislation are rarely defined after due consultation with the groups concerned. The economic activities of indigenous groups do not necessarily lead them to occupy physically all the land which is traditionally theirs. 30,000 Kuna, for exam­ple, lay claim to a 200-kilometre band of the Caribbean watershed of Panama. Although this area is smaller than that occupied by the Kuna in the past, it is an ecologically discrete area: any incursion into it is liable to affect their ecological, as well as their cultural, security even if no Kuna member is physically displaced. In fact, the Kuna have their main settlements around estuaries or on islands along the coast. In order to protect their territory, the Kuna have made a conscious decision to establish a permanent settlement on the inland edge of their  terri­tory. Their territorial rights are recognized by the central government, which has declared a nature reserve at the critical point of entrance to Kuna lands at Udirbi. In order to protect these rights, teams of Kuna now patrol the edge of the forest several times a week at Udirbi to prevent the influx of poor colonists. Recognition and respect of tribal land-rights in such cases is an urgent and difficult humanitarian problem.

It is indeed a common phenomenon that forest groups live on the edges of their traditional homeland rather than under the forest canopy. The Miskito population of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua live mainly in pine savanna on the edge of their forest territory. The Nambiquara of Southern Rondonia in Brazil traditionally have their settlements in savanna with only their gardens  within the forest of the valley below. Encroachment frequently damages first the interface between two ecological zones , which is in many cases the most valuable ecological niche for indigenous groups .

Territorial encroachment is not necessarily accompanied by physical conflict. South of the Nyong river in Southern Cameroon, communities of the dominant Bantu ethnic group are now settled on sites still showing signs of occupation by the Pygmy minority, which has steadily retreated in the face of the shifting agricultural expansion. But when an indigenous group is unwilling to retreat or has nowhere to retreat to, it is also frequently prey to human rights abuse. The Inter­ American Commission on Human Rights reports many cases of violence to Indians living in South and Central American forests, and one authority maintains that all cases reported of human rights abuse involving tropical forest dwellers are connected with frontiers of colonization.


Migration and Displacement: ‘We Can’t Eat Houses’

Migration within a given territory, both of pastoralists and of shifting agricultural cultivators, is a common feature in traditional societies. However, migration away from tradi­tional areas and over long distances is also currently a widespread phenomenon in tropical forest areas. As we discuss below, this may take the form of planned and implemented resettlement programmes, of spontaneous migration before and after official resettlement, or of spontaneous migration to the sites of other development projects. It may often be entirely unconnected with official development planning. Although involuntary migration may present the most severe problems, house­ holds which take the risk of migrating voluntarily are not necessarily better equipped to cope with their new environment. In displacement of any kind, adaptation to a new natural environment and negotiation with new neighbours go hand in hand.

For many years the Indonesian Government has been resettling Javanese families on the sparsely inhabited Out ­ er Islands. Since 1969 the Transmigration Programme has resettled about half a million families on land formerly occupied by moist, and largely virgin, tropical forest. Around 130,000 of these households are already known to be living in conditions of dire poverty as a result of the exhaustion of soil fertility caused by soil compaction, erosion and lowering of available soil nutrient content. This has happened within a period of three to five years after land clearance. Some areas settled in this way have subsequently been vacated altogether.

In 1980, the Peruvian Government announced the Pichis-Palcazu Special Project, involving resettlement of 150,000 people from Lima in an area of the Upper Ama­zon basin already occupied by Amuesha and Campatribal groups and a similar number of settlers. The project has been the subject of much discussion and has not been fully implemented. The preparatory works carried out have facilitated access for individual settlers whose numbers are already straining the area’s fragile ecology and primitive infrastructure without there being a full development project in support.

In addition, the feasibility stage of any project within tropical forests (whether it be a highway, mining, or hydro-electric project) is itself likely to encourage inward migration. The project for a major dam in Silent Valley’ in Kerala State, India’s best-preserved area of moist forest, was finally aborted because of public conservation­ist pressure: but not before a hopeful colony had formed on the site of the proposed works. Similar settle­ments occurred with highway development projects in Amazonia.

It matters little in practice whether resettlement is planned or not. The more ambitious ‘planned’ schemes such as the Polonoroeste project in Rondonia in Brazil cannot fulfil expectations since the logistical problems of fair and rational land allocation and the creation of social infrastructure are too formidable. Resettlement plans such as those in Ecuador and Peru which rely heavily on cheap credit incentives frequently cause more problems than they solve: the credit is used to purchase cattle which rapidly exhaust soil fertility and lead to severe erosion. Resettlement schemes on a more modest scale, such as those used to reduce population pressure on the Western Highlands of Cameroon, cannot command the attention of central government and sink into poverty, unsung even by journalists, in forgotten corners of the savanna.

When people migrate spontaneously they may fare no better. As their farms fail they are obliged to move on, ceaselessly shifting the limits of cultivation. But this should not be called ‘shifting cultivation’. True shifting cultivation is a viable form of land-use based on a tradi­tional knowledge of the ecological constraints of the area. Migration is frequently mere displacement, and presents a baffling problem for the migrant. For example:

An Indian who wants to make a bow or kill a wild boar does not wander randomly through the forest, but goes directly to the trees which furnish wood for bows or the salt licks frequented by wild boars. A profound knowledge of the area is essential for survival. Thus, if a group is moved away from its traditional area, its chances for survival are jeopardized. Even if the new area is ecologically similar to the groups homeland, its members may starve  before they can find necessary resources (Price, in Cultural Survival p. 62).

If the adaptation is so difficult for a traditional forest­ dweller displaced to an ecologically similar area, it must come as no surprise that the migrant from afar has such difficulty in developing sustainable forms of land use.

Some of the more successful resettlement schemes have involved intensive planning of cash-crop production such as rubber and copra. The Malaysian authorities have been able to offer a feasible economic base to resettled popula­tions in remote parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah. These remote settlements are, however, acutely dependent on the overstretched marketing system for signals as to the economic potential of their activity on the world market. Traditional settlements on the Peninsula are able to adjust the balance of cash-crop, kampong and market-garden activities from year to year. A remote settlement can only react to a slump in the rubber market by slaughter-tapping hevea trees to maintain income or by falling back on a subsistence mode for which it is ill­ prepared.

The complex problems of the peasant colonist are less spectacular than those of the tribal groups which he threatens. It is easy to sympathize with the Kuna Indian in Panama patrolling the edges of his forest reserve. But the Panamanian colonist, caught in a pincer movement of the land-hungry cattle ranchers to the south and the reserve guards to the north, frequently finds himself in the most inhuman position of all.

That is why communities offered the possibility of relocation are frequently well-advised to sit it out, like the Guaymi, living on one of the world’s largest proven copper reserves in the degraded and overpopulated moist forest zone of Western Panama (Gjording, 1981): ‘They hear they are to be given new houses, but they don t know where and, they add, “We can’t eat houses”.’


Fragile Lands: One Man’s Poverty, Another Man’s Disaster

From November 1982 to June 1983 the entire coastal plain of north-west Latin America from Esmeraldas to Lima was subjected to floods. 671 deaths were directly attributed to the floods in Ecuador and Peru; an estimated 1.4 million people lost their homes or livelihoods. The floods caused material hardship to the majority of the coastal population and constituted a serious health hazard, parti­cularly through contamination of water supplies.

The disaster was triggered by a recurring phenomenon, the El Nino current, which can be so strong that it disturbs the climatic balance along the Pacific coast of Latin Amer­ica. In 1965 El Nino contributed, together with over ­fishing, to the decimation of the coastal anchovy fisheries. However, the torrential rains which it brought in 1983 fell on the Andean Pacific watershed which since 1965 has lost around 20% of its forests to outright deforestation, most of the remainder being severely degraded. Disastrous floods and landslides were the result.

Damage in the two countries from the 1983 floods was estimated at $1.2 billion; most of this was due to flood­ induced landslides and flooding of river basins. The pro­portion of this damage directly related to deforestation and watershed degradation is difficult to estimate, but was undoubtedly a major element. Foreign contributions to disaster relief totalled $12.7 million in Ecuador and $84.7 million in Peru, where long-term development assistance programmes were disrupted and curtailed to mobilize funds for short-term relief.

Little development assistance, however, has been directed towards forest conservation, reforestation and watershed protection in Ecuador and Peru. In 1980, the US Agency for International Development committed $0.5 million to a forestry component of a $12 million rural development project in Ecuador, and $0.5 million to reforestation in Peru. In 1982 the World Bank committed another $0.5 million to a watershed protection component of a rural development project in Peru. These sums are pitiful in comparison with the total assistance flows to Ecuador and Peru over the period.

The problem of fragile lands is quite different from the problems of leaching and compaction of lowland tropical soils. It is a global problem, transcending political fron­tiers and ecological zones. Floods affected 15.4 million people each year in the 1970s, an almost threefold in­ crease over the 1960s. One of the worst hit areas is the GangesBrahmaputra plain, where in a few weeks in 1978 floods inundated 66,000 villages, drowned 2,000 people and killed 40,000 cattle and caused damage estimated at $2 billion. The area annually affected by floods averages 40 million hectares and this vulnerable area is still increas­ing. Every year more people come to live on the flood plains because they find fertile land there. The Indian Government estimated in 1978 that one in 20 people in India was vulnerable to flooding.

The flooding is clearly related to deforestation in the Himalayas. Prevention measures in India are projected to cost $100 million annually. Yet most of this will go to major engineering works such as dams and dykes in the lowlands. Only 1% will be spent on really preventive action: forest and watershed  conservation and reforestation in the foothills and lower mountains of the Himalayas.

The fragile lands most vulnerable to deterioration are not, on the whole, made up of the lateritic soils which we connect with the forest zone malnutrition  already  discussed in this chapter. Mountain areas of the tropics tend either to have volcanic soils (e.g. in Western Cameroon, Rwanda and Burundi, parts of Indonesia and most of the Andes), or else to have much younger  and more fertile soils which are not lateritic. The fragility  of the land is much more strongly related to slope, the intensity of periodic rainfall and the agricultural and pastoral practices used. Poverty and insecurity of land rights exacerbate bad land use because costly soil conservation measures are  not applied. This may result in a vicious circle of land degradation and increasing poverty: a process which is an everyday reality in the Andes, in the Himalayas and in the highlands of Central America.

Nepal has lost well over a third of its forests since the Private Forests (Nationalization) Act brought all forest under government control in 1957. Real protection of the frail lands of the mountains must be part of an integral development of the area affected, and involve as a first step alleviation of the highlanders’ poverty. Amongst their needs are forest plantations as a sure source of fuel; assistance in land conservation and pasture management; and above all, secure and equitable rights to the land.

Fire: The Undeclared Disaster

The economic and ecological effects of fire in tropical forest areas may not at first sight appear to be a subject for humanitarian concern. In the long term, they can be debilitating and many countries are already  experi­encing this long term. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, for example, fires have played a significant role in reducing an area of the tropical moist zone to a state of ‘vegetation poverty’, despite continuing high rainfall and once-fertile soil. In 1983, a forest fire in the Dominican Central Highlands inflicted severe damage to timber and soil over an area of 3,000 hectares, despite rapid and effective fire-fighting assistance from a foreign disaster relief agency. The people of this island can ill afford such damage, however localized.

Fires can affect very large areas. From mid1983  to early 1984, forest fires raged in different parts of Indonesia. The most severely affected area was Eastern Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, where approximately 35,000 km2 (an area larger than Belgium) was burnt in the region of Balikpapan. Most of this fire occurred in an area of tropical moist forest. It is widely  considered that the fire would have been impossible in virgin forest conditions, even in an unusually dry year. The critical factor was in all probability the impact of human activity: in particular, selective logging and agricultural expansion over a number of years had opened wide gaps in the forest canopy and left inflammable detritus on the forest floor.

While tropical forest fires take few human lives and make few headlines, their indirect effects are hard to underestimate. Fire is an agent in almost all processes of deforestation and forest  degradation, and deforestation on the contemporary scale would scarcely be possible without it. Controlled burning of vegetation offers a short term increase in the availability of organic matter  and nutrients for agriculture, and it is for this reason – as well as simply to clear land-surface – that fire is used throughout the world as an instrument of slashandburn agriculture. The increase in availability is won, however, at the expense of a deterioration in soil structure and a loss of some nutrients such as nitrogen which disperse into the atmosphere by combustion.

Much of the world’s savanna has been created and is maintained by recurrent fires, as is the relative extent of tropical coniferous forest, as opposed to broadleaved forest. Savannization is of particular importance since subsequent economic potential is  heavily dependent on the type of savanna vegetation which results.  Fire is mainly responsible for the maintenance and extension of unproductive imperata grass on abandoned agricultural land in tropical Asia. In tropical Africa, there are now more than two hectares of savanna for every hectare of closed forest, and sustainable use of this savanna is of critical importance where it borders on Sahelian zones. Proper fire control is essential for such sustainable use.

Recurrent dry-season fires – whether spontaneous or the result of slash-and-bum activity – can cause formidable damage to agricultural crops. This destruction is all the more important in the case of the woody plantation crops often found in the savanna zone and in areas of severely degraded forest. Coffee, cocoa and fruit tree plantations in the Ivory Coast, in an area once covered by moist forest, were badly damaged by fire in the 1983 dry season. The annual fire hazard has, along with a disturbed pattern of water collection, developed into a major depressing influence on the Ivorian economy.

It is intentional that no attempt has been made here to distinguish between natural and man-made fires. Effective fire-control is extremely difficult in either case – for logistical reasons in the case of natural fire hazard, for sociological  reasons  in  the  case   of   manmade   fires for clearance, hunting and other purposes. Whatever the causes, the combustion effect is the same, and wherever it occurs, an uncontrolled forest fire can develop into an undeclared disaster.


  1. Only 17 cases of malaria were diagnosed in 1963 in Sri Lanka, but there was subsequently a resurgence, and 300,000 cases were diagnosed in 1974 (Klamarck 1976).
  2. Population growth fell from 2.4% per annum in the  1960s to 1.7%  in the 1970s. Births per woman by age 35 fell from 4.6 in the late 1950s to 2.9 in the early 1970s (Lightbourne et al. 1982).
  3. Social development is, of course , hard to measure. At 85%, adult literacy is higher in Sri Lanka than in any low-income  country except Vietnam (World Bank 1984).
  4. ‘The answer to malaria in most of the Tropics pending any new research successes appears to be combination programs including spraying, draining swamps, clearing of bush, and mass chemotherapy and chemoprophylaxis’ (Klamarck 1976, p. 69). We are indebted to Dr Graham White for information on environmental management of malaria vectors.
  5. The paradoxical fact that some diseases , such as malaria and leishmaniasis, are actually best remedied by clearing the forest and that other diseases, such as scrub typhus, only begin to thrive after clearing does not encourage sound development of forest land. Moreover, the highly ingenious mechanisms of disease transmission can cause unpleasant surprises during the implementation of a colonization project. Cases of an unknown or unexpected disease may suddenly occur and pose a serious threat to a development project and those working on it.
  6. Data from the World Fertility Survey show that an average of six children ever born is common for African  women,  although  as many as 30% of these children will die before age 5 (the Lesotho case). In Asia and Latin America the average number of children ever born is somewhat lower (4.5 to 5 for countries studied). The estimates given in the text should be considered as orders of magnitude only.
  7. It is paradoxically often the case that provision to remote areas leads to innovations in health care which may be both more effective and less costly than standard modern methods.
  8. Ardayfio-Schandorf (1982), quoted in Cecelski (1984, unpublished). Cecelski provides a detailed assessment of the effects of fuelwood shortage on women’s work patterns.
  9. Leach, personal communication. One of the difficulties in survey data has bee n the wide variation in household size. The two Nepal estimates are from two different surveys amongst many, and the data are not necessarily compatible.
  10. IO. Cultural Survival (1984) provides a number of case-studies.
  11. Cf. for exa mp le Agarwal and Anand, 1983.
  12. Central Africa includes Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Rwanda and Zaire. It should be said that food production per capita and calorie intake statistics are not always reliable, though  the general  trends are unmistakable .
  13. One of the more sophisticated analyses of carrying capacity was carried out as a part of the FAQ project Land  Resources  for Populations of the Future’.  The  results  suggest  that  no  tropical forest country should exceed its theoretical carrying capacity before the end of the century. As Paul  Harrison  points  out  (Earthwatch 1983), FAQ made the critical working assumption that  all cultivable lands in each country would be devoted to basic food crops to maximize calorie intake. This raises important questions of environmental sustainability and social feasibility; more realistic – but still arbitrary – assumptions indicate that carrying capacity limits in some areas, even under best available technology, may be much closer to hand.
  14. Klamarck (1976) has  drawn  attention to protein  shortage.  It  is of  course true that appropriate agricultural techniques can alleviate protein shortage even on poor lateritic soils, in particular through the use of tropical legumes, many of which are not indigenous species or traditionally accepted crops. It is ecologically often  more appropriate to harness the protein resources of the natural environment which agriculture tends to destroy, such as bush-meat and other min orforest products.
  15. The Malay Reservations Enactment of 1913 provides an interesting case of consultation: ‘Most of the reservations (in Perak) consisted of unoccupied land in the upland regions of the state where there were not only few conflicting interests to be considered but also the absence of a Malay population to take advantage of them. Apparently this incongruity did not cross the minds of government officials…What  had  begun as an attempt to preserve Malay land by restricting disposal rights had become,  irrationally,  an exercise in restricting cultivation rights, which in turn  threatened the viability of the initial objective of the reserve policy’ (Lim Teck Ghee 1977, pp. 113-116). Another problem was that much reserved land turned out to have been already irrevocably alienated. The Act of 1913 is thus one of the rare cases of tribal lands protection preceded by extensive consultation with tribal representatives. It raised the very difficult problem that the indigenous people may be enticed into disposing of traditional homelands for gain, and Malay leaders in fact strongly defended the right of their people to do so. The same problem resurfaced in the acrimonious Brazilian  debate on the proposed emancipation of Indian communities in the 1970s (Cultural Survival 1979).
  16. MacDonald, personal communication.
  17. Cf. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1982, p. 328: ‘The Commission has studied with concern the repeated denunciations regarding aggression committed against Indians, who are usually victims of illegal means or trickery used in order to despoil them of their lands . Their physical destruction is even more serious, under the ceaseless thrust of entrepreneurs and explorers in the areas they inhabit. ·Acts of incredible abuse of force have been reported , in which entire settlements have been wiped out by aggressive invaders of the forests.
  18. By contrast, a 1976 survey of Indonesia’s transmigration experience indicated that in this case spontaneous settlers had  a  higher standard of living than those who were part of the official programme. A number of explanations may be suggested, but one factor may well be the difference in land-clearing techniques used by spontaneous settlers and by the programme‘s contractors (Ross and Donovan 1984).
  19. The concept of fragile lands’ is beginning to  receive  more attention, particularly by USAID (1984), which puts a somewhat wider definition on the term. It would seem wise to separate the problems associated with laterization and those primarily attributable to slope, since the concomitant socio-economic and ecological factors are very different in the two cases.
  20. Wallace (1982) points out that prior to the alienation of forest lands in 1957 many Nepalese communities operated viable forest protection systems on a decentralized basis. Undoubtedly population pressure and cumulative  deterioration  have also played a role.
  21. Arnaud and Sournia (1980) give a detailed discussion. Existing Indonesian transmigration plans imply a  rapid  growth  of settlements and population densities in Eastern Kalimantan in the coming years.