Monday, July 09, 2007

Deforestation on NPR in the Morning

This morning, NPR ran a story about how "Unlikely Allies Battle Deforestation in the Amazon." The basics of the story are that Cargill (yes, the mega-agricultural company) is teaming up with The Nature Conservancy to get local small farmers to reduce the amount of land they have under soy production and reforest that land. How? Cargill has agreed to put a two year moratorium on buying soy grown in any newly deforested areas. The idea is that the moratorium will greatly reduce pressures on farmers to cut down more and more forest.

I'm all for stopping deforestation and reforesting areas where possible.

But here's what I'm wondering: the article doesn't say what they're doing to help farmers eat while they comply. Soy is (mostly) a cash crop; you raise it, sell it, and then use the money to buy food and whatever. In the case the NPR article relates of Viteu Holzbach, in order to comply with the law, he has to leave 80% of his land un-cultivated (as opposed to the 50% he has under cultivation now). He's supposed to cut his income by 60% (more or less), or else?

I have to be honest, if I cut 60% of my income, I'd be in deep trouble. So I looked in the article, and I couldn't see what Cargill and the Nature Conservancy were doing to mitigate the difficulty of losing 60% of his income.

When I was in the Peace Corps, I worked in a forestry program; basically, I planted trees in the rainforest. Mostly, I helped farmers comply with reforestation laws designed to promote agro-forestry and such. We spent a LOT of time trying to figure out how to help farmers grow food/cash crops AND trees on their land, and it's tough! It's vital on the most local level, because deforested rainforest soil deteriorates quickly, and so becomes less good even for crops. But it's tough. Most crops don't grow well in the shade of rainforest trees, nor, to be honest, do most crops developed in Eurasia do really well with the amount of rain we got where I was.

The people I worked with were farming where they were because they were poor and trying to make a go on the margins. What are they going to do to make up the lost income? (I don't know what I'd do, but it might involve highly illegal, and thus very profitable cash crops.)

Another thing to wonder: Cargill's making a commitment to not buy soy from recently deforested land. Where I was, the best land had been farmed for a long time, and usually by the wealthiest folks in the area. They were either wealthy because historically they'd own the best land for a long time (true of those who inherited land from Spanish colonists, where I was) or because they were wealthy and using wealth to buy up the most profitable land they could.

So I'm wondering if Cargill's strategy has them buying soy from the wealthiest folks, and if so, is that an intended consequence or an unintended consequence? If they buy from the wealthiest, are those folks then in a position to buy up land from the poorer folks very cheaply, then once it's not "newly deforested" use it for mass soy production?

Cargill isn't in this to lose money. They wouldn't have survived very long as a charity in business. So I'm wondering where they're aiming to make their profit, because we know they need to make a profit to stay in business. And, I'm pretty sure they don't much care what happens to anyone in their way, especially poorer people.

One more thing. Yes, it's important to conserve rain forests. Indeed.

But much of the US has been seriously deforested or had the prairielands ruined. What would happen if the government of the US supported a program requiring farmers to return some fairly large percentage of their agricultural land to forest/grassland? As I understand it, temperate forests don't hold quite the amount of carbon and organic material, or transfer quite as much oxygen, as tropical forests, but they could make a much larger contribution if we hadn't deforested so much, and if our agricultural practices weren't so focused on industrialized mono-culture farming.

We (people in the US, including US government programs and conservationists) pressure developing countries to conserve their wild areas, but we don't put ourselves under nearly the same pressures. If you look at most of our big national parks, they're not in great agricultural land but in serious mountain country. Yes, the mountains are beautiful. But the state and national forests in the Northwoods seem to be in magical rows, and I'm betting they weren't that way 200 years ago. It's incredibly hard to balance peoples' needs to use resources with the long term needs to conserve resources. We don't do a very good job in this country (or in many other highly industrialized countries).


  1. I'm with you to some degree--it doesn't seem fair to make the poorest suffer the burden of a newly found environmental consciousness. I recently stopped buying products from China (again) because of the way they harvest forests to make particle board to sell to the Europe and the U.S. Should all of China have to suffer (I know, they can feel the sting of my not spending $35) because I hate what they do to African forests? I suppose I say yes.
    You're absolutely right to remind how destructive the U.S. has been to their own grasslands and forests. I just finished reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time and fear I saw the future.

  2. You raise some very good points: we are living in a glass house and throwing stones; that program will likely hurt the poorest and most needy people the most; and there are no easy answers.

    There is a school of thought among economists that holds that people don't care about environmental qualty until all of their needs are met - and that once their needs are met, the demand for environmental quality goes up with income. (or, why should I care about the forest when my kids don't have enough to eat.)

    On a personal leave, I'm not waiting for other people to make changes that will save the environment. I make small changes in my own life (such as, I buy only electricity from renewable sources from the local power company.) If enough people make small changes, the big picture changes, too.

  3. Anonymous2:05 PM

    A good, thoughtful, and thought-provoking exposure of greenwashing.