No.5 Subsistence Farmers: Who is the polluter?
By Richard Grant | Newsletter No. 5 September 2008

The average Briton produces ten tons of carbon per year. The average Guatemalan subsistence farmer produces some 1,000 tons of CO² per year, making him, together with other subsistence farmers the world over, the most polluting people on this planet. How do they do it?

Arrested subsistence farmers

Subsistence farmers arrested whilst clearing farm land in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala. Photo by Richard Grant 2007.

Subsistence farmers use land they settle in tropical forests. The average farmer will clear some three hectares of forest, selling-off the better tree trunks and burning the lesser species and the undergrowth. The resulting farmland is well-nourished by the ash from the fires, but will only last about three years when rainfall and wind have removed nutrients from the soil and the land becomes unproductive. He then has to repeat the process and slash-and-burn another three hectares, or more, to continue his fight for survival.

It will take the farmer and his family some six to nine back-breaking months to clear the forest and plant corn; they will be forced to continuously weed the plot to avoid the jungle growing back, and for their troubles they will hope to make about €1,750 per hectare if they manage to sell the corn at a reasonable price.

In their efforts to obtain land, they have produced about 1,000 tons of CO² per hectare from burning the forest, and have destroyed the earth's capacity to soak up another 1,000 tons per hectare of carbon from the atmosphere. Subsistence farmers are responsible for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gases produced in the world and for the reduction in the capacity the world has to "sink" CO² back into the land.

Wealthy nations are buying carbon credits for €19 per ton and there is talk that this may reach €29 by the end of the year. This means a hectare of tropical forest, capable of absorbing 1,000 tons of CO² should be worth €29,000.  Would it not be too difficult to pay subsistence farmers say €2,000 per hectare and have them cultivate forest crops that do not destroy the natural canopy?

Employing farmers to protect the forest is also a good way to transfer funds from wealthy countries to places that need subsistence farming for people to survive. Forest protection and recuperating areas lost to deforestation should be of utmost priority and only by making funds available to these impoverished areas will we be able to do something about global warming and world poverty.

Cleared Forest

Forest being cleared for agricultural development, Department of Petén, Guatemala. Photo by Richard Grant 2007.

1 Based on three hectares per year each three years