Agriculture and Tropical Forest:Where do we go from here? Rapid cutting of tropical rainforests is now getting the attention it deserves. The situation, we are told, is grim. Recent evidence suggests that deforestation is accelerating in most developing countries. Forest and woodland areas declined 24% in Africa and 38% in Central America between 1950 and 1983. In South Asia, woodland and forest areas dropped 27% between 1950 and 1980. Although official estimates based on Landsat reconnaissance indicated that 3.1% of the Legal Amazon in Brazil had been 'deforested' by 1985, the actual 'deforested' area may be two to five times the official estimate, according to Professor John Browder of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Deforestation rates appeared to be increasing exponentially in parts of the Amazon during the 1970s.
Rainforest development policy is based upon conflicting needs, the pressure to open up agricultural land for growing populations vs. indigenous peoples' rights, the need for economic development vs. the need to preserve forest species, the ability of forest soils to sustain agriculture, and so on. It has become apparent that economic priorities must be balanced with the ecological realities.
Regenerative farming methods can help tropical farmers break the cycles which force them to either rely on escalating fertilizer and pesticide costs or to clear new land in the forest. Well-adapted intercropping and Integrated Pest Management methods which incorporate knowledge of forest ecosystems often outperform high-input monocropping systems. Agroforestry has special potential on already cleared land, which if regenerated can reduce pressure on neighboring virgin forests. Policy makers must make hard choices. The long-term survival of much forest will depend on whether bordering land can sustain its productivity. Agricultural projects have much to learn from the successful lessons of those working with, instead of against, fragile tropical forest soils.
Indigenous forest dwellers such as the Bora Indians of Peru manage manioc and pineapple with fruit and lumber trees in systems that are both sustainable and productive; their knowledge should not be ignored. Japanese settlers in Tome Acu, Brazil, use natural succession principles to interplant rice, beans and cotton with perennial vines such as black pepper and passion fruits, followed by cocoa, rubber tree and epiphyte crops. Farmers near Iquitos, Peru, cultivate umari, cashew and inga fruit in diverse systems, often earning four times the income of rice and maize farmers.
In this issue, we highlight recent publications and research about the relationships between deforestation and agriculture. Even as the wheels of bureaucracy acknowledge the crisis, the war to save tropical forests is being waged by thousands of small-scale, grass roots projects. While research and efforts to increase public awareness continue, we must strive to include shifting cultivators at the forest edge in the process of identifying and developing economically and ecologically sound farming alternatives.