Rural Sustainable Development Efforts

The promotion of sustainability as an instrument to reconcile economic development with the conservation of natural resources was first advanced in earnest at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The main document emerging from the historic meeting, Agenda 21, underscores the intimate relationship between poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries, along with the unsustainable pattern of consumption in developed countries (United Nations 1992). A major conclusion of the Agenda authors was the need to maintain and improve the capacity of the most productive agricultural land to support an expanding population, while at the same time to implement measures towards conservation and rehabilitation of natural resources (land, water, forests) on less productive lands. Many scholars argue that a primary means to achieving this outcome is through the promotion of sustainable intensification techniques (Tisdell, 1988; Tisdell, 1999; Lee and Barrett, 2000). However, as explained in the following section, agricultural intensification, increasing output per unit of land, is far from a panacea with diminishing returns to inputs and potentially deleterious impacts for humans and the environment.

To date policy prescriptions have insufficiently reconciled the tension between the imperative for economic development and the desire for environmental conservation in rural regions of developing countries. Many of the poorest Central Americans are situated in rural populations concentrated on marginal, less productive lands. Given the lack of access to capital, land security, credit and alternative income sources, poor farmers are more likely to adopt short-term land use strategies to maximize income. Often this has meant overexploitation of available resources, including land degradation and the depletion of soil fertility, and subsequent agricultural expansion to other marginal lands, especially lowland tropical lands, with further land degradation ensuing in a vicious cycle as farmers attempt to compensate for declining yields (Barbier, 2000).

A host of authors have called recently for policies integrating the three pillars of human, environmental, and food sustainability in agricultural systems. Advocates of this 'eco-agriculture' approach aim to address these three issues concomitantly and, consequently, to create systems that produce food and safeguard wild lands and essential ecosystem services. To quote the authors of a recent book on the topic: 'enhancing rural livelihoods through more productive and profitable farming systems is a core strategy for both agricultural development and conservation of biodiversity' (Mc Neely and Scherr, 2002). We now examine some trends in trade-offs between deforestation and agricultural development in Central America.

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