In this chapter we discuss trends in agricultural land use in Central America between 1961 and 2001, and how they point in the coming decades to changes in regional production patterns, changes in agricultural systems, and regional forest cover. First, we introduce some concepts of sustainable agricultural development and its significance for the transformation of agricultural land use, and consequently the sustained wellbeing of coupled human and natural systems. We then discuss limits to deforestation in Central America as a result of trade-offs between agricultural production and natural resource conservation, in the light of efforts to achieve sustainable rural development, and review some recent trends among the peninsular Central American nations (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). In particular, we explore trends in agricultural intensification, with capital and land intensive practices in food production, as an increasing response to land scarcity, and thus constituting an important factor in efforts to minimize agricultural extensification, the increase in food production through the expansion of farmland usually at the expense of forest conversion. Finally, we examine regional and national food production and forest cover trends over the last several decades in Central America. Forest cover change is based on FAO estimates of forest and woodlands while changes in agricultural production are examined jointly with its key inputs: land, labour, and capital for the period 1961 to 2001.
How to achieve a balance between socioeconomic development and the quality and quantity of environmental resources for present and future generations? This is the sustainable development conundrum. Whether current notions of sustainable development offer viable alternatives to antagonistic positions of doctrinaire development advocates and strict environmental conservationists cannot be foretold. But the intentions are clear as presented by Brundtland Report's (1987) definition as: 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to
F. Brouwer andB.A. McCarl (eds.), Agriculture and Climate Beyond2015, 91-107. © 2006 Springer. Printed in the Netherlands.
meet their own needs.' Following this definition, sustainable agricultural development is the maintenance of future production and consumption needs, which implies a sustainable interaction between humans and the environment. An adequate food production to meet food demand over time implies potential tradeoffs relative to the sustenance of rural livelihoods and forest conservation. Balancing continued improvements in agricultural output on decreasingly available arable lands while limiting agricultural expansion to forest ecosystems is critical in a world of over 6 billion and growing. In recent decades agricultural intensification has meant that yield increases have handily outpaced increases in agricultural land expansion. Indeed in much of the developed world agricultural land has declined, a forest transition that has yet to take purchase throughout the developing world.
A forest transition occurs when net deforestation gives way to net reforestation. The orthodox transition theory posits that forests tend to shrink initially and expand again later at higher levels of economic development (Mather et al., 1999). Such a transition results in the concentration of agricultural production in smaller areas of better land and the agricultural abandonment of larger areas of poor land. As this pattern develops, relatively larger areas of poor quality land become available for reforestation through natural regeneration or planting (Mather, Needle 1999). Forest-transition theory thus suggests that economic development eventually leads to forest recovery, but much is unknown about the existence, the characteristics, and the mechanisms of forest transitions that might be occurring under current socioeconomic conditions. Further, incipient stages of the transition are characterized by geographical heterogeneity. For example, Klooster's study in highland Mexico finds forest degradation to be caused by woodcutting despite the presence of agricultural abandonment and forest regeneration (Klooster, 2003). Regional variation in forest transitions has increasingly been framed within the uneven evolution of institutions that coordinate rural peoples' land use. For example, in a highland Mexican community, Klooster and Masera (2000) benefits from forestry increased dramatically after community control management improved. Thus it is argued that community forest management offers concrete local benefits while at the same time helps to conserve forests and to sequester carbon. Indeed, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol was established to leverage additional resources to promote such an approach.
The outcome of food production versus forest conservation trade-offs has important human and environment implications. With most of the best farmland already in production, much of the world's forest elimination occurs on oxidized, nutrient-leached soils, unsuitable for agricultural development (Moran, 1983). Farmers in such regions are among the poorest of all rural inhabitants (Leonard et al., 1989), and suffer a litany of problems, including poor access to roads, potable water, schools, and health care (Murphy et al., 1997).
Short-term financial gains from tropical forest conversion mortgage scientific advances in medicine, and food production as biodiversity is compromised (Smith and Schultes, 1990; Wilson, 1992). This is particularly the case in tropical environments where approximately 90% of species extinctions occur (Myers, 1993). Deforestation also causes soil erosion and watershed sedimentation
(Southgate and Whitaker, 1992), nutrient leaching (Lal, 1996), and perturbations in nutrient cycling (Fearnside and Barbosa, 1998).
Land conversion from forests to agriculture and pasture has been associated with climate changes at the global scale (Fearnside, 1996). While developed countries have contributed to much of the planet's recent warming trend by burning fossil fuels and via industrial compounds, Adger and Brown (1994) estimate that tropical deforestation is responsible for between 25% and 30% of the purported climate warming in the world; and forests are responsible for about 90% of the carbon stored in global vegetation (Dale, 1997). Furthermore, climate change is believed to affect world food supply and productivity (Brown, 1994). This situation has led to reforestation efforts in developing countries as a way to reduce carbon emissions.1 Reforestation can help to break down excess atmospheric carbon dioxide and contribute to the recycling of moisture and the reduction in reflectivity of the earth's surface (Myers, 1989).
Forest conversion is also linked to climate changes at the local scale (Shukla et al., 1990; O'Brien, 1995; Tinker et al., 1996). Deforestation can alter patterns of reflectance of the earth's surface and consequently induce local warming or cooling (Dale, 1997). Furthermore, aggregate local-level forest clearing contributes to global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere (Klooster and Masera, 2000). In Latin America, Laurance and Williamson (2001) suggest that deforestation in the Amazon has reduced regional rainfall and increased the vulnerability of forests to fire.
Nowhere are interactions among competing demands between humans and forest systems more dynamic than in Central America (Figure 6.1). Central America has cleared a greater percentage of its forests, most all of it for food production, than any major world region in recent decades. Agricultural land expansion and food production outpaced rapid population growth during this period. Most forest clearing for agricultural expansion, however, has occurred on lands marginal for production while often rich in natural biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Conversely, virtually all growth in food production has occurred on capital-intensive plantations developed mainly for export dollars. To the extent growth in the latter exceeds that of the former, food production increases are achieved with relatively minimal destruction of forest resources. Nonetheless growth in large-scale food production has accompanied other problematic impacts on rural human and natural landscapes. Capital intensive production has displaced thousands of rural farmers - most of them out-migrating to urban areas, but also to marginal lands rich in biodiversity and forest resources - and also involves other ecological alterations, such as chemical runoff into riverine, lake, and ocean ecosystems, and soil degradation. Sustainable agricultural practices in this dynamic region will be necessary to balance the demand for food and requirements of environmental conservation and reducing gas emissions to the atmosphere. We now briefly review the state of some of those efforts.
1 However, following the Marrakesh round of the Kyoto negotiations it was decided that carbon credits could not be issued for avoided deforestation.
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