Discussion And Conclusion

This chapter introduced the topic of limits to deforestation from an analysis of trade-offs between agricultural sustainability and deforestation in Central America, with a discussion of current trends and an examination of changes in a handful of key variables during the previous four decades. Following an exploration of the importance of sustainable agriculture in Central America, we analyzed changes in production for the region over the previous four decades at the expense of forests relative to intensification inputs. We will now briefly review the major findings before discussing the potential of future food production dynamics to increase production while preventing further substantial forest conversion in the region.

Agricultural production doubled in Central America from 1961 to 2001. As we expected, the greater proportion of this increase came from agricultural intensification, rather than from the expansion of agricultural land or labour investments. Extensification was greatest in the countries of most abundant remaining forestland, Guatemala and Costa Rica. However, intensification in the form of fertilizer usage increased dramatically in all nations and was highest in the nations of greatest rural development and most earnest export agriculture, Costa Rica and El Salvador. These countries also experienced the most rapid urbanization and had the smallest proportion of rural dwellers in 2001, suggesting that agricultural output per labourer, due to capital investments in mechanization and chemical inputs, increased disproportionately to agricultural output in these countries. Lastly, the more developed countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador manifested a combination of earlier urbanization and increased agricultural intensification compared with less developed countries, such as Guatemala and Honduras.

Although production has increased, there are several patterns that raise doubts about the sustainability of recent trends. Intensification in the form of fertilizer use grew several times to assist in a mere doubling of food production. Such diminishing returns augur poorly for the sustainability of current systems. Although inputs have compensated for a declining rural labour pool, as rural families continue to migrate to cities, socio-economic levels should rise, along with demand for meat. This will tax rural production systems further as livestock production is a much less efficient land use than crop production. This trend is sobering given the rapidly diminishing forestland in the region, and thus, the ever-decreasing potential to increase production through agricultural extensification. Land extensification in the next decades is expected to contribute to some important environmental problems in the region, such as the loss of biodiversity, soil degradation (as land extensification occurs into fragile areas), and regional climate change.

Thus, future scenarios point to growing conflicts between regional production to meet the demands of a growing population and international markets, and mitigation initiatives regarding conservation of forests and other natural resources (soil, water and the regional biodiversity). Increasing global and local climate change is also likely to affect food supply and productivity, with important implications on the sustainability of agricultural systems. In this sense, policies will be needed to focus on sustainable development strategies that integrate human, environment, and food sustainability in agricultural systems.

Future research will need to further probe trade-offs between the means to production and the implications not only for food production, but also for the sustainability of natural environments and rural livelihoods. Further, more detailed measures of the means to production need to be examined. For example, our measure of agricultural intensification examines fertilizers, but not the use of pesticides, herbicides, mechanization, and irrigation - and their impacts on the environment. Such considerations would add to the depth of analysis on agricultural intensification and its environmental impacts. Lastly, trade-offs between labour, land, and capital intensification on the one hand and extensification and reduction in forest cover on the other hand need to be examined explicitly in terms of percent changes in one factor relative to changes in another. Only then can estimates of relative efficiency of returns to inputs be examined in the context of agricultural sustainability and its impacts on people and the environment.

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