Keep forests...shall feed

  • 30/12/1995

Keep forests...shall feed IT HAS to be done, but let others do it: that is the attitude of the wealthy, developed countries regarding conservation of global natural resources. The overall global balance has to be maintained, so they are pushing the Southern countries to adopt Otheir own model of policed conservation in "nature parks". This is because the North needs to keep its own lands and bio !Sk)gical resources free for procuring bountiful production of food, timber and export-crop, which they can then export to the less developed countries.

In the headlong rush to expand protected areas, the Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas 1992 recommended that the global network of protected areas be expanded from the current five per cent coverage to 10 per cent of each biome by AD 2000. Land alienation (land taken away from agriculture) for reserves is increasing under the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) programme. For example Bhutan, which is acutely short of agricultural land (only 8- 10 per cent of its land mass), already has about 20 per cent of its area under protection. Yet, there are plans to expand the protected areas by another 5 - 10 per cent.

In developing countries, conservation insensitive to local needs.has led to a majority of the local people viewing wildlife conservation as alien, hypocritical, and favouring foreigners. The situation is such that in some cases networks of protected areas can be maintained only by what amounts to military force.

Large areas of land which could be used for agriculture and forestry are now being alienated into unproductive 'white elephant' reserves, with the rather unnecessary exclusion of local people. The siting and management of reserves are based on models of conservation inappropriate to developing countries, and ignorance about past and present tropical land-use will prevent reserves achieving their major objective of conserving useful biodiversity (see box Our wilds, their homes).

Down the ages, the word 'natural' has lent itself to all sorts of interpretations, and votaries on either side have fought tooth and nail over what it means. The most consistent image derived from the word has, however, been a romantic vision. But, as Darrell Posey of Mansfield College, Oxford notes, "Probably much of what has been considered 'natural' in the Amazon is, in fact, modified by prehistorical Amer Ind populations". The terms "virgin", "pristine", "untouched nature" and the likes have been extensively used to justify the protection of "wilderness". However, the reality is very different: humans have been a dominant force in the evolution of today's forests. For example, in Central Africa all present- day forest areas are really a patchwork of various successional stages of growth created by people. In short, these forests are human cultural artefacts.

The most serious impediment to tropical forest conservation is the insistence that developing countries adopt the North American 'national parks' model. And despite repeated pointers at its drawbacks, this model still largely determines global conservation funding. The emphasis is on the protection of nature sans humans; the latter are inconsequential to the model, may be even detrimental to the great 'cause'. This ,anti-people' conservation model for national parks derived from the,us is, in fact, an echo, back from the colonial era. Africa and Asia had been the stage for its original practice.

Loot logic
At their most general, arguments for tropical forest conservation try to demonstrate a wide range of benefits - safeguarding genepools and endangered habitats in the interests of science, medicine, minority cultural values and the good of future generations. And as the developed countries will provide the main source of funds, Southern conservationists have attempted to access these by haranguing about the value of tropical forests. Normam Myers' is the strident battle cry for conservationists: "We can expect entire cornucopias of new and improved foods, and whole pharmacopoeias of new medicines... provided the scientific investigator can get to wild gene pools before the 'developer' gets to their habitats" (journal of Tropical Ecology, Vol 7, p 98).

This logic has initiated a vicious circle of conservationist exaggerations and donor expectations. For example, it has taken 15 years to counter the conservationist myth that the Amazonian forests were 'the lungs of the world'. And in the emphasis on tropical forests as "pharmacopoeias", truth has often lost out. Take the case of the rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus, also known as the Madagascar periwinkle), which produces a valuable anti-leukaemia drug.

Senior conservationists, even institutions such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Bank (wB) have sung praises of the periwinkle. While there's no denying the plant's medicinal value, the fact remains that the plant has nothing to do with rainforests. Periwinkle is one of the most widespread, drought resistant tropical weeds and grows primarily in Madagascar's drier, sandy places.

In fact, the medicinal value of rosy periwinkle provides the best rationale for human access to tropical ecosystems and the continuous use of rural resources. It is remarkable how conservationists have used the same example to justify the opposite approach: the exclusion of humans.

Interestingly, one of the real reasons for pushing this sanshuman conservationism is the unrelenting logic of North's agricultural market. Many significant donors, including the us, Canada and others, have considerable annual agricultural surplus. All expansions of tropical forest reserves in developing countries represent the alienation of larger areas of potential agricultural land, a consequential fall in agricultural production, and thus, expansion of a market for North's surplus.

The American model holds that a wilderness area of 400,000 hectares (ha) in rainforests is too small, and that 2 million ha ought to be the minimum reserved area to 'optimise biodiversity'. That 'minimum' area, if only partly con- verted to intensive rice production, could, in fact, readily produce more than the current us rice exports annually. Conservationism is, therefore, a low-cost mechanism for reducing the future agricultural competitiveness of developing countries.

Some donor agencies are also scaling back agricultural development programmes in Southern countries, perhaps goaded by farm protectionist lobbies in the North. The hope, apparently, is that developing countries should conserve forests and import food from overflowing Northern granaries.

International conservation NGos are substantial financial beneficiaries from tropical forest conservation. Nalaka Gunwardene of Sri Lanka, who advocates sustainable forest management, said, "Championing the cause of elephants is perhaps more lucrative than defending hapless farmers. Due to heavy reliance on external funding support, NGOs have been known to tailor their programmes to be attractive to donors" (Perspectives, 1993, Vol 11, p 13-14).

Some attempts are being made to compensate rural communities, who are being sought to denied access to resources, through Integrated Conservation Development Projects (icDps). However, conservation and development are not segregated in such projects, with conservation in protected areas, and attempts at development normally sited in buffer zones around protected areas. There is also no evidence that ICDps are meeting with general success. S Braatz, in a wB technical paper noted in 1992 that there have been few initiatives to reconcile the needs of local people with conservation. Furthermore, often handled by inexperienced organisers, design and implementation flaws in the programmes had led to a repetition of the problems faced earlier in integrated rural development projects.Crumbling periphery
Protected areas are placing a heavy burden on rural survival. Tropical forest conservation suffers from the "core/periphery" syndrome, described by A S Mather in the context of rural Scotland. Mather argued that there was a need to move away from the classical, "scientific reserve" protected area, to one in which sustainable use based on the goodwill and environmental knowledge of local people could be integrated into the conservation effort (journal of Rural Studies, 1993, Vol 9, p 371-384). In Scotland, the politically powerful and conscious landowners were able to bring about a radical change in the administration of the official conservation agencies. But tropical forest people lack such awareness and are politically marginalised. They are doubly peripheral, being at the peripheries of botfi national decisionmaking as well as of international conservation activity. Braatz suggested that "as ... communities around protected areas tend to be poor, politically powerless, and lacking in government services, a large part of the costs of conserving biological diversity is being borne by those least able to pay".

In some cases, the boundaries of protected areas were drawn around existing populations, instantly converting what were once traditional lifestyles - hunting, for instance - into 'illegal activities'. The complementarity of crop production and food gathering, specifically in tropical forests, is marked. There may be a seasonal dependence on forest foods - particularly during the hungry season before harvest, when forest foods complement crops.

The traditional agro-ecosystem was a fluid complex of planted fields, fallows, savannas, dooryards, forests, rivers and river banks - the entire range of resource zones that are open for human exploitation. Large protected areas will prevent rural communities from continuing with their traditional strategies of diversification.

There is also a growing body of evidence on the survival value of wild foods, especially for women and children in the forests. In the Congo, for example, there is no real alternative to bushmeat for the supply of animal protein to the population. Hunting had all along been regarded as a 'subsidy from nature', without which many other forest-based activities would not take place.

Community response to the denial of access is perhaps the most serious threat to the integrity of such reserves. Opposition often finds expression in the people adamantly continuing with the traditional use of resources. This often extends to conflicts. A case study in Swaziland discovered a growing resistance to conservation. The rural people saw protected areas as enemies because they lost their land and resources to it.

Modelled to fail
In addition to the social problems and threats, there are serious technical problems generated by exclusion management. The technical assumption behind the conservationist arguments is that human access will in some way damage forests. But the present conservation strategies for tropical forests are failing: through the destruction of human knowledge of species utilisation, which is the key to productive future use; through the prevention of experimentation with land use options, which is the key to viable land use; through the removal of the anthropogenic disturbance of ecosystems, which may be essential for biodiversity generation and conservation; and through stopping the historical process responsible for the present character of tropical forests.

Conservationists, while emphasising the global economic value of tropical species of crops, medicines and a host of economic plants and animals, forget that several important crops (including rice, bananas, sugar cane, oil palm, coffee and cocoa) were domesticated by these very rural communities in tropical forests. Valuable genetic resources of many crops are still main&41@ned by them.

Local knowledge of medicinal plants can be of both local and global importance, allowing a close targeting of research to develop new drugs. Richard Schultes lists drugs such as curare, alkaloids, cortisone, reserpine, strophanthine and others, as products of ethnobotanical knowledge. Gunatilleke and Gunatilleke report how the prohibition of forest clearance, particularly shifting cultivation, in Sri Lanka, has also led to the gradual disappearance of a number of'land races'of hill paddy and other food crops which villagers have been cultivat- ing for generations (in Man and the Biosphere, 1993, UNESCO Vol 13, p 63-71), Shifting cultivation is the richest, both in member of crop species and member of Ivarieies.

The continued maintenance of land races of crops by farmers is now recognised as an important conservation strategy. But without human access to protected areas, the indigenous knowledge that makes species so valuable at the local and global levels will rapidly and irretrievablyl disappear. The recent discovery of an important new species of large mammal - the Vu Quang ox in Vietnam - depended on local people living and hunting in the forest.

Strictly protected areas in tropical countries may be verv4 large. Figures from 1980 suggest that reserves average about 1,000 sq kin each. Such reserves are on a landscape scale, and4 would normally include a mosaic of different ecosystems and high-potential agricultural land. Indigenous agricultural and4 ecological management systems have been shown to be more sophisticated than expected. In addition, there is no clear-cut demarcation between natural and managed forest. Such managed areas have noll been recognised by conservationists while they were demarcating land for creating protected areas. Forest areas used ear-4 lier for agriculture turned into old fields, important to the indigenous ecosystem management process, but which areo now frequently conftised with 'natural forest'. Such areas cannot be managed as if they were untouched. From a conservationist perspective, indigenous management provides the controlled disturbance needed for ecosystem diversity and the maximum diversity of species. For example, the index of diversity of species following shifting rration in the Amazon was greater than for the original forests.

There is now substantial evidence that human disturbance at least partly responsible for tropical ecosystem biodiversity. Human disturbance also benefits animal populations. The We extent of tropical secondary forests provides substantial ridence favouring human disturbance. G T Prance, the inspector of Royal Botanic Gardens in a 1992 report for the European Community Directorate General for Stience, Research and D 'i'velopment, said, "A great deal of the Amazon rainforest has been felled at one time or another by the Indians, as is evidenced by charcoal and pottery shards in many soil samples." And Amazonion rainforests are among the richest in biodiversity.

There is also proof of reserve degradation from other well-studied temperate ecosystems. Almost 40 years ago, in a perceptive account of conservation in Sweden, L G Romell noted that strictly protected areas may suffer a "conservation' to death"; disturbance was necessary, as evidenced by the fact that "the rural Sweden of olden days owed most of its hos- pitable features to the work of the scythe and the muzzles of grazing beasts".

History's lessons
Even in the well-studied forests in North America, ecologists greatly simplify the history of inferred human impact on the forest. A detailed historical survey of a forest in New England suggested that the extensive and variable nature of human use of the landscape produced complexity. One striking result of this survey was a realisation that little evidence of the prior vegetation, including the original forest, or past land use was apparent in the modern landscape. The study concluded, "Any attempt to understand modern forests and ecosystem processes requires an understanding of this historical past".

A dynamic view of forest history is only possible with excellent historical records and detailed research. In their absence a more static, unchanging view of forest history has been assumed. This is dangerous for conservation, as it implies that static conservation, rather than dynamic management, will suffice to maintain forests in their present form.

Another paper on the same New England forest argued, "The changing quality and intensity of human activity resulted in the dynamic vegetation characteristic of this period (1730-1990)." It concluded that "the ramifications of this history in terms of contemporary ecological processes are too great to be dismissed by modern-day ecologists". Studies of past disturbance regimes in tropical forests are essential, both to determine where future reserves are to be sited and to guide their subsequent management. But a severe problem for subsequent cor+rvation is that the type of disturbance that initiated succession at a site is difficult or impossible to determined through examination of the regenerated mature forest.

A reviev4of this problem (Conservation Biology, 1992, V 6, pp 324-337) noted that the natural disturbance regime unlikely to persist within conservation areas, since fragment tion and human intervention have usually modified physic and biotic conditions. Active management decisions have be made on what disturbance regime is required.

Evidence based on pollen suggests that disturbance rainforests by people may have been in operation in the trol ics for much longer than previously believed. Estimates for d age of this disturbance ranged fro -m 3,000 BP (years ago) West and East Africa, 5,000 BP in Fiji, 6,000 BP in Sumatra, 6,000-9,000 BP in New Guinea.

In a proposal for integrated landscape ecology, it has b argued that conservation management can no longer be 3 cerned only with the landscape patches set aside for it, and conservation biology has to tackle the interconnected natlu of the landscape. At the Fourth World Congress on Nati Parks and Protected Areas, there was a request that protect areas should be included in regional development plans, a that aid agencies should "accept international responsibilit"I help support protected areas".

In this context, one notices an alarming belligerence some conservation advocates. Schultes argues for "iron-hand- ed international methods" and "action above the wishes all activities of national governments" to protect what he ob ously regards as the "global commons" of tropical forest.

In contrast to such conservationist calls, there are demands for new concepts of management for tropical pro tected areas to reduce social inequity and technical inadequa. cy of present management. Mather saw "the beginning of paradigm shift in conservation, away from the classical 'scientific reserve' model of the protected area towards one in which tainable use' and the involvement of local people have e prominent roles". Other references to paradigm shift k of emphasis on "balance of nature", rather than the I of nature"; and emphasis on the new "paradigm of disance". It was suggested that the watchwords of this new digni were to be 'process and context.'

Related Content