No.3 Deforestation and poor farmers
By Richard Grant | Newsletter No. 3 July 2008

Newsletter Introduction  

We have been making contact with a number of other relevant people and NGOs and there is a lot of interest in the Inga alley cropping technique, but it will be some time before we are involved in a definite project, though things are looking very hopeful.  We will  give you more details when things are  worked out more fully, which looks like being in several months time to fit in with other peoples' meetings and project planning.

The article this month provides food for thought. It is very relevant to anyone interested in slash and burn farming or saving rainforests, and demonstrates that where there's a will (= cash!) there are ways to solve problems. Inga alley cropping is another such way.  Also the Inga tree can help with reforestation projects. Don't worry if the figure quoted for the proportion of carbon emissions from deforestation differ from others you may have seen.  There is no absolutely accurate measure. The important point is, it's a lot, to say nothing of all the other ill effects of deforestation.  


Deforestation and poor farmers

Smoke from forest clearing










Smoke from forest clearing. Photo by Richard Grant 2007. 

Deforestation is the cause of almost 16% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. That is almost three times as much as is caused by commercial aviation.

Most people think that deforestation is caused by logging and Soya plantations in Brazil, but the truth is that the majority is caused by poverty and landless people trying to eek out a living for their families. Central America is one of the worst-hit areas as maize, the staple diet crop, needs more land to grow than rice. Land taken from forest soon loses nutrients and at best can sustain maize production for about four years, after that time, the farmer has to repeat the process and find more forest to cut down.

The average Briton, driving a 4X4, taking holidays abroad and living in a centrally-heated house, produces some 10 tons of CO² a year. A Guatemalan farmer can produce over 1,000 tons of greenhouse gas as he attempts to feed his family and make about £600 per hectare a year from the land he has cleared.

Forest burning close to the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Figure 1. These fires are man-made and caused by farmers clearing land to plant maize crops. Photo by Grant 2007. 

Deforestation not only produces greenhouse gases, it reduces the ability of the Earth to soak up CO² as deforestation destroys forests that are vital to the Earth's capacity to digest greenhouse gases, It is estimated that over 100 million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed each year due to Land Use Change or LULUC. As a hectare of tropical forest absorbs over 600 tons of CO², this means that the Earth is deprived of the capacity to soak-up over 60 billion tons of greenhouses gases every year. Tropical forests, because of their phenomenal growth rates, soak up three to five times more carbon than European                plantations.

Relatively, poverty causes more greenhouse gas than any other human activity. The reason for this is simple, poor people cannot wait for shade-crops to grow in forests, as these normally take between three and seven years to develop, maize however, is ready to harvest some six months after planting. This means that it is much easier to cut down and burn tropical forest than to nurture and preserve it.

How can we help stop this process? The answer is not too complicated. If a farmer makes about £600 per hectare per year by producing maize and a tropical forest absorbs 600 tons or more of CO², this would mean that a ton of carbon could be valued at £1 per ton. As carbon is currently trading at above €20 a ton on the open markets, this means a farmer could be paid considerably more not to cut down trees and be financed to produce non-timber forest products (NTFP) instead. This would also be an excellent way to transfer some of the first-world country wealth to the more unfortunate members of the population.

Map showing man-made fires

Figure 2, map showing where man-made fires have occurred in the North-East of Guatemala. Belize, on the right hand side, shows little evidence of fires, whilst the left-hand side, being an area short of water, shows hardly any fires at all as growing in that area is difficult. Photo by Richard Grant 2007. 

There are millions of hectares of deforested land in Central America that could easily be planted with trees and returned to their original state. What is needed is a central plan and an NGO or company to run the scheme. Funding would come from the carbon markets which in turn sell these credits to industry and commerce. Long-term investment in these forests would also be of interest to insurance companies and other investment houses - tropical forests have phenomenal growth-rates and return from sustainably managed forests. The first financial hurdle is finding a company or organisation that is capable of financing the costs of setting up local amenities and infrastructure, estimated at some £500,000. This would go to building a nursery to produce young trees for re-planting in deforested areas; providing technical support for managed forest planning and support, etc.

 The process of slash-and-burn farming

Figure 3, shows the process of slash-and-burn farming, the underbrush has been burnt-off and the trees will now be cut down and used for firewood and fencing. A young mountain-hog is seen escaping the scene. Photo by Richard Grant 2007.

AAMJ, an Anglo-Guatemalan NGO, provided a similar service in 2003/2005 to stop border incursions by Guatemalan decorative palm fond harvesters into Belize. As Guatemala had lost considerable forest cover to subsistence farmers, xate - as the palm fronds are called - harvesters were going to Belize and helping themselves to the wild palms in the National Parks there. In order to halt this practice, AAMJ was commissioned by the British Government to set up nurseries and plantations in Guatemala, thus creating a home-grown forest economy for 320 families.

Decorative palm nursery

 Figure 4 shows AAMJ's nursery set amongst deforested land on the border      between Belize and Guatemala. The mountains in the background are Belize and  remain covered by forest. Belize, with its small population, is fairly free of  deforestation and suffers to a much lesser extent than Guatemala. Photo by Richard Grant 2007. 

The system used in this project has meant that almost 200 hectares of forest almost certainly destined to be cut-down and planted with maize, has been given over to the production of decorative palms (chamadorea). These are sold to European flower shops via Holland. As this forest has become productive and valuable to the locals, the forest is protected against invaders and fire watches and other safety measures are in place. It has taken five years for this project to be economically successful, rather more than the average farmer is able to wait for a return on his investment. Finance from the British Government was the catalyst for success.

The locals have also planted vanilla, cacao, oranges and other crops in and around the forest ably demonstrating that living off the forest is a possible and worthwhile activity and that there is no need to move every three or four years. This means schools and health centres can be built and the population benefits from being migratory.

Carbon trading means that the example described above can be taken much further as this provides the means to finance the reforestation of devastated lands. Everyone agrees that deforestation has to stop and that reforestation is a vital part of redressing global warming, providing funds to finance projects of this nature are vital and should be immediately prioritised. Government has focused most aid funding on Africa largely because of the former Prime Minister's personal involvement with the region, funding for the Central American regions has been totally ignored and only the troubles between Belize and Guatemala have resulted in minor funds being made available via the Foreign Office. Corporate involvement is needed if we are to proceed with any urgency.

Chamadorea Elegans

Figure 5. Chamadorea Elegans "Parlour" palms, called xate in Guatemala, shown growing in the nursery. These shade plants will be set-out in the forest to mature and the fronds will be cut and used for floral bouquets in the European and US markets. Photo by Richard Grant 2007.