Impoverished farmers get half the blame for forest loss Logging also implicated by agricultural researchers

August 04, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

UNITED NATIONS -- An international agricultural research organization, reopening an impassioned debate over who is responsible for the decline of the world's tropical forests, says in a report to be published today that poor farmers in the developing world could destroy half the remaining forest cover, with logging threatening the rest.

Rapidly rising numbers of poor farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, are major contributors to the loss of 38 million acres of tropical forests every year, or 72 acres a minute, according to the report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, supported by four affiliates of the United Nations.

The world's tropical forests have been reduced to about 5 billion acres, from 5.5 billion in 1980, according to U.N. figures.

In the developing world, many environmentalists and political leaders reject the idea, saying that slash-and-burn agriculture, in which forests are felled and the stumps and underbrush burned to clear new land, has been practiced judiciously for centuries.

"It is very common for people making such conclusions to blame poor people," said Kenya's leading environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, of the new study.

"In Kenya at the moment, we are fighting to protect the remaining very few indigenous forests from some of the richest people in the country."

Economists do not disagree that traditional farmers have used land carefully, but they say that with poverty and population pressure forcing people to venture deeper into woodlands or follow openings made by logging roads in search of a subsistence livelihood, old images are no longer valid.

"A hundred years ago, slash-and-burn was a very well-adjusted system," said Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian scientist who is chairman of the consultative group.

"But with the huge demographic explosion that has happened, there is no solution to this without solving the poverty problem."

Serageldin, who is also a World Bank official, said that the loss of tropical forests to farming could be stopped only through a combination of new agricultural practices and government policies.

Farmers can learn more intensive cultivation techniques and grow new crops, in particular trees with multiple uses, which also refortify the land with nutrients.

But governments must also better regulate land use and allow some artificially low food prices to rise to the benefit of rural growers, Serageldin said.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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