Though farms and forests are often described in terms of black and white, shades of grey would appear to be the more appropriate palette for depicting the complex links between these two sectors. Two events taking place this week alongside Rio+20 drove home that message.
One was a science discussion panel on forests, energy, food, and income, which formed part of Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20, an event held on 19 June and organized by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Amicable in tone, the discussion nonetheless resulted in the demise of several divisive misconceptions.
Among them was the persistent image of the smallholder farmer as a chief protagonist of deforestation in the Amazon. Ruth DeFries, Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University in the USA, painted a more nuanced picture, pointing to evidence from satellite imagery, which shows a marked shift toward large-scale forest clearing by export-oriented commercial agriculture.
The commercial pressures driving forward the agricultural frontier pose a serious threat to forests as well as traditional rural livelihoods. But these pressures also represent an opportunity, DeFries suggested, because they can be shaped by market incentives, like the Brazilian soybean industry’s recent extension of a moratorium on deforestation in the Amazon. Signals from the market, she said, could lead to more efficient land uses – such as the restoration of degraded land already cleared rather than more forest clearing.
Another misconception laid to rest was that of forests as a natural resource standing in the way of food security. On the contrary, DeFries said, forests are a critical food source, serving as “virtual natural supermarkets for 1 billion of the world’s poorest people,” to quote a CIFOR fact sheet.
And “that’s not the end of the story,” Defries continued: Forests also provide farming with critical ecological services, such as regulation of water supplies and protection of wild species related to crops, which may contain useful genes for plant breeding.
This discussion echoed a lengthier debate on the food-forest nexus, which took place the day before at Agriculture and Rural Development Day. In a learning event that addressed the “land sharing or land sparing conundrum,” various partners in the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry painted the vision of a whole-landscape approach that helps reconcile environmental protection with improved food security.
Though farms and forests are often drawn in black and white