Reforestation: a chance for farmers

Europe’s forests are recent secondary regrowth from a period when, little more than 100 years ago, they had been all but eradicated from the landscape. Now, we seek to restore forests to recover the many benefits they provide. Can we hope for the same transition in the tropics, where deforestation remains rampant?

Planting a tree  
(Photo: andresAzp / flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The European transition from a long history of deforestation to a recent history of reforestation was facilitated by a shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to one supported by manufacturing and services. This transition may raise optimism for the future of forests in the tropics, where large areas of primary forest still fall prey to deforestation to make way for cattle, soy or oil palm.

Is such optimism justified? I believe it is, as there are already indications of a gradual transition to reforestation. Since the 1990s forests have expanded in Bhutan, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Gambia, India, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and in certain parts of Brazil. This change is resulting, at least in part, from the abandonment of marginal lands by small-scale farmers who cannot compete with large intensive agricultural enterprises. Rural depopulation has many undesirable social implications, including the collapse of rural communities and the crowding of urban centres. Nonetheless, the recovery of forests has the potential to provide many ecosystem service benefits, from soaking up carbon and maintaining rainfall, to protecting water flows and reducing soil degradation and protecting us from natural hazards. Even so, this process raises three difficult questions.

1. How much forest will be lost in the tropics before the transition to reforestation is initiated? A lot, if the European experience is anything to go by. Forest cover in the Scotland dropped to 5%, and to 14% in France and Switzerland, before recovering to 18% in Scotland, and around 30% in France and Switzerland. Losses of this magnitude in the tropics will spell disaster for biodiversity and the richness of forest goods.

2. What kind of forest will we end up with? Regenerating forests tend to be poorer in species, in ecosystem service functions, and in their ability to resist disturbances. They also tend to be less heterogeneous—in other words, duller.

3. What happens to the former farmers? Former farmers might find employment in cities, or on large agricultural estates or mining enterprises. Or they might struggle to find employment at all.

From farmers to foresters

We could solve these problems by some forward thinking and a little bit of money. Let me propose that we pay farmers to retain trees on their lands, to reforest land no longer economically viable for crops, and to pay them for the ecosystem services their forests provide. By paying farmers to conserve and reforest we could avoid deep forest cover losses, we could enhance the quality of recovering forest, and we could keep people on the land.

This is not, of course, a new proposal. Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are well established and widespread. In Tanzania, for example, a government PES scheme facilitated the restoration of 350,000 ha of Miombo woodland through support of people from over 800 villages. In northwest Vietnam PES have motivated several villages to conserve and restore natural forests by planting native trees, resulting in the recovery of water flow to rice fields and the return of over 30 rare mammals to the region. Deforestation has been slowed or halted, rich forests and diverse ecosystem services have been restored, biodiversity is back. What’s more, villagers have a new found confidence to manage their own lands, and resist external pressures to deforest. Their livelihoods are secure, so long as payments for the services they deliver keep flowing. They are, moreover, still occupiers of their land. Should food demands rise, these farmer-foresters can readily return to cash crops should they so choose.

So, where agricultural production is no longer economically viable, we should offer farmers the option of becoming foresters. There is one fly in the ointment—we need to be prepared to pay. If we are not, then are we really in a position to decry the loss of forests, the degradation of ecosystem services, and the extinction of species?

Further information

Read also the blog by Tim Reutemann on how to motivate Brazilian farmers to protect their forests: Spielerisch Forschen: Experiment mit brasilianischen Rinderfarmern (German only)

About the author

Jaboury Ghazoul

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