The theme of this report is the effect of tropical deforestation on man: on individual men and women, some of them amongst the poorest of the earth, living on tropical forest lands. Their numbers are growing, and their forest re source is shrinking. These changes are happening at an increasingly rapid pace. Governments and business alike continue to plan and invest, but their calculations do not seem to allow for the fundamental economic and ecological constraints on the natural resource system. Ecologists attempt to protect the most valuable ecological sites, but their efforts seem futile before the force of economic needs and the expansion of human societies. Caught be tween the real constraints of the natural world and the rapid expansion of human needs for land and forest products, individual men and women are suffering the many and cruel effects of the degradation of tropical forest lands, a humanitarian problem that our policies have failed to control.
The Dwindling Forest
About 30 million km2 of the land-surface of the tropics may be classed as forest land: about two-thirds of the total land-surface of the countries concerned. This natural resource is one of the great capital assets available to man. For many of the people living in and around the forest, it is virtually the only capital they have. The fate of these forest lands, and of the people who live upon them, is a subject of great and increasing humanitarian concern.
Of these 30 million km2, about 12 million are still covered in closed forest, much of which benefits from a tropical moist climate. This is the tropical moist forest, an area boasting an extraordinary wealth of plant , animal and insect species, many of them still unknown and unstudied by man . Few people live in the natural closed forest, but many parts of it have been cleared and settled , and much of what remains is being severely disrupted by human activities.
Fourteen million km2 are open forest and shrubland: cerrado, wooded savanna, areas of grassland where many communities live, hunt, or graze their herds. Four million km2 are forest fallows, areas recently farmed which have been abandoned or left to regenerate naturally. In and around all these areas are the farms of today, some of them permanent farms on fertile soils, others destined to be abandoned in their turn as their occupants move on in search of better land.
It has been estimated that 0.6% of forest lands are being deforested every year: a phenomenon which is worrying in itself, since by the year 2000 a further 10% of forest capital will have been eaten away. But this outright deforestation is merely one aspect of a far greater problem, the degradation of tropical forest lands. As forest areas are logged, burnt, grazed, farmed and fallowed they may still be classed as forest; but in many cases their resilience is steadily being decreased, their soils eroded and impoverished, the diversity of their natural life curtailed. In large areas, the climate itself may be changing.
A Growing Population
It has been estimated that 140 million people now live in and around the closed forest. Just 1-2% of these are tribal, hunter-gatherer groups: descendants of larger communities who have lived in harmony with the forest for many centuries, but whose numbers have declined dramatically with the expansion of modern agricultural and industrial societies. Many of the rest are indigenous forest farmers. Often with a long tradition of successful shifting cultivation behind them, and capable of farming the forest sustainability, they are now increasingly forced to change their practices and to shorten their fallow rotations because of population pressures and economic demands. Finally, there are the new colonists – landless peasants, ranchers, logging and construction workers and large transnational corporations who have had little time to adapt to the tropical forest environment.
The population of tropical forest countries is projected to rise by 60–65% by the year 2000, but the number of these forest inhabitants may double or treble by that time, as ever increasing numbers of landless peasants move in from other areas. Yet the present area of tropical forest is scarcely enough to provide cultivable land for the existing population if shifting cultivation methods are used. These people must find ways to husband their individual plots of land sustainably – not to farm it for two or three years and then move on – or there will simply not be enough land to go round.
Forests have been the green frontier of mankind since time immemorial – a seemingly limitless resource for human expansion. With their supply of timber, fuelwood, game, and a rich variety of other products they were, and are, a crucial source of raw materials for human society. But increasingly we are realizing that they offer more than that. They offer more land when we need it; they balance and manage our water supplies and the flow of our rivers; they are a major force in determining our climate.
Many ancient civilizations would not have developed without the availability of forests and their products, and many of them decayed or even disappeared after depletion of these forests.
Now, on a much wider scale , we are faced with the prospect that the ‘permanent renewable resource ‘ can be exhausted. The forest degradation may in many ways be irreversible: soil is lost to erosion; animal and plant species disappear forever.
As degradation and its effects come rapidly into focus, conflicts emerge. Conflicts of ideas, priorities and plans; tensions on the ground, as different communities meet and their interests conflict; and suffering of many sorts, associated with the speed with which change is taking place.
A Conflict of Ideas, A Conflict of People
- Four questions are now being asked about this rate of forest destruction. First, there are those who question the economic wisdom of the way in which forest lands are being transformed for economic ends. Are we eat ing the seed corn; are we destroying the natural resource that should be tomorrow’s economic base?
- Then there are those who question the irreversible interference with nature. Are we losing genetic resources at an unacceptable rate? Are we jeopardizing our planet’s climate and its life-support systems? Are we deliberately creating an increasing danger of disastrous floods?
- What will become of the indigenous people of the forest? What is their fate as their habitat is destroyed and their way of life changed by the colonizers of the forest?
- What should be the role of the transnational corporations in forest development?
The debate on the future of the world‘s tropical forests has tended to be conceptual, conducted through learned papers and in conference halls. On the ground, the debate is carried out in a different way: it is lived out, in the suffering of individuals and in tensions between communities.
A Fight for Land: Different groups are carrying out pre-emptive transformations of the forest lands, without waiting for a consensus. Loggers over-exploit concessions: it is too late to save the trees. Dams inundate huge river basins: communities must move. Landless peasants colonize the side of a new forest highway: too late for a settlement plan. Ranchers set fire to forest farms, transnational corporations move into the forest to raise cattle and open up the area to new landless peasants. Large or small, these acts are a battle for control of land. In the process of change, this competition for common property involves constant displacement and disruption, above all for the poor. As the limits of land availability approach, the pressure of conflict increases.
Conflict of Cultures: As communities migrate and expand, they come into contact with one another. Their traditions may have been valid before, defining the limits of a sustainable society. When groups with different traditions meet, these traditions conflict, and the ways of past generations have to be called in question. One group has ‘sacred groves‘; another group does not respect them. A logging team has no resistance to forest diseases; a tribal group has no resistance to the common cold. Techniques are brought in from other societies: bulldozers which com pact and erode the soil; cattle with no resistance to sleeping-sickness. Within his own culture, each individual’s actions may seem natural and justified, but in conditions of migration and contact the rules must be redefined.
Major Environmental Effects: Environmental damage is now resulting in disasters of unprecedented scale. Deforestation of the Andes catchment area by poor highland peasants and forest farmers turned the rains into a wave of floods and landslides of exceptional severity. The same year, in Indonesia, fires burnt a vast area of forest rendered vulnerable by selective logging and agricultural clearance.
Poverty and Malnutrition: Crops cultivated on the lateritic soils of much of the tropics are mostly deficient in protein: natural forest products such as bush-meat can make good that deficiency, for as long as the forest is there. When land is cleared, burning off the vegetation gives a short term boost to fertility, but after a few years even the calorie-producing potential is Jost as the soil is leached by rains. Fifty head of cattle on a 50-hectare holding in Latin America can provoke leaching and erosion just as fast. Debilitating disease and declining yields from the soil combine to sap labour productivity. Markets for produce are in many cases distant: intermediaries take the lion’s share of the market price. Smallholders sink into a vicious circle of poverty and declining yields. Women and children bear an increasing proportion of the workload, collecting food and fuel and selling their labour.
In Chapter 1 we look at some of the main ways in which deforestation is connected with hardship and suffering for people in tropical forest lands. Chapter 2 discusses the different kinds of forest and their potential value. Chapter 3 highlights some ways in which economic development can and must be supplemented by vigorous action to improve the welfare of forest people and to protect the forest resources which they need to build their livelihood. Chapter 4 examines in particular the health problems of indigenous or migrant populations living in the forest environment or in recently deforested areas.