No. 8 Tropical Agriculture, Eco-tourism and Ignorant Westerners
By Charles Barber | Newsletter No. 8 December 2008 - January 2009

In my youth I remember being somewhat surprised that some idealistic people would pay quite large sums of money to go and help poor Nicaraguan farmers bring in their coffee harvest.  These days the ‘saving' of tropical rainforests is an even more popular and fashionable ‘cause celebre' yet I was disappointed to find, after an admittedly limited perusal of the internet, very few possibilities for the idealistic youths of today to get practical, hands on experience of helping to save the rainforest.  I couldn't help thinking that perhaps both the NGOs and the tour operators were missing out on an opportunity to bring in both more money and labour to the tropical rainforest economy, while still being able to add to the profits of the tour operator and at the same time enhancing their ‘green' credentials.  Imagine the advert on the web or in a brochure -

‘Spend the first two days of your holiday erasing your carbon footprint by helpinglocal farmers to plant indigenous rainforest trees - Learn both about the local culture and agriculture before spending time exploring the wonders of the rainforest on foot and by canoe with experienced local guides.

Many people get a chance to see the rainforest but few have the opportunity both to see it and help save it!'

Are you tempted?  If so there are one or two opportunities for practical forest conservation and details are at the end of this article.

It seems to me that tropical agriculture compared to its temperate relative is still very much a young science and there is an urgent need for practical research that can help farmers and foresters achieve a sustainable livelihood without damaging too much of the biodiversity of the rainforest and the structure of the soil. Inga alley cropping certainly offers this possibility but funding for such vital resources as visitor centres and nurseries is often in short supply.  If the visitor centre could also attract foreign tourists as well as farmers this might help to pay for subsidised visits by farmers and agronomists as well as perhaps the materials and wages needed to run a nursery.  Indeed it might even be possible to persuade a large company to help finance the construction of a visitor centre and nursery in exchange for free accommodation for its staff at certain times of the year. If the tourists were also offered the opportunity to help plant trees or other useful agricultural work, they would also learn more about life in the tropics and tropical agriculture. This would at last give a few people a fuller, more realistic picture than that gained through merely watching another wildlife documentary (spectacular, awe inspiring and worthwhile as these often are).

Although there is a lot of good will and enthusiasm for saving the rainforests, I believe this often stems from a rather romanticized view of a spectacular pristine paradise being saved from evil logging and mining companies without taking into account the majority of the people that live in and on the fringes of the rainforest.  Unless the farmers (and perhaps small scale foresters) can discover a way of using the rainforest resource without destroying it there is little hope of saving much of the rainforests.  Of course governments in rainforest countries need to be offered more support to set up and enforce legislation that protects certain areas (particularly those containing native Indians and those which are extremely bio-diverse) and not to fall for the financial incentives offered too often by big businesses that seek merely to plunder the rainforests in an unsustainable manner.  At the same time, however, it is vital that systems are developed and that the land is managed so that small farmers can achieve a secure, sustainable livelihood. Systems such as alley cropping might be combined with community forestry and forest conservation to create a dynamic green economy that protects the best of the rainforest but allows its human inhabitants to obtain a decent livelihood. If eco-tourism can help in the funding of this process, then surely it should be encouraged.  Perhaps if a few more people from the richer nations were willing to get their hands dirty and learn more about the realities of life in rainforest areas then more realistic international partnerships would be created to help save some of the rainforests.

Forest Conservation Projects

Sustainable Harvest International - trips to Belize in which you get a

chance to learn about the lives of local families and their culture, plant

trees and learn about other sustainable development initiatives - chocolate

lovers should check out one of their trips! -


The Jatun Sacha Foundation - Ecuador, various projects in famous biological

reserve, including research into biodiversity and reafforestation -


Cloud Forest Conservation project in Ecuador -




                     Photo used by permission of


A different Cloud Forest Conservation project in Ecuador -


Conservation projects in the rainforest areas of Costa Rica and Peru and a chance to learn Spanish -


Tree planting holiday in The Cameroons - 


Tree planting in Cameroon

                      Tree Planting in Cameroon.  Photo used by permission of


Holidays in Scotland to help re-plant the Caledonian Forest (not quite the tropics but cheaper and less air miles) -

                     Pine tree

Pinetree in Scotland. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2008.