Subsistence Farming: the Wrong Culprit?

According to a review of plans filed by more than 20 countries for REDD (“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation”), at least seven nations besides Panama — from Ghana to Liberia — also blame “swidden” farming for damaging forests. Threatening ancestral fire regimes with references to “slashing, burning” and “traditional agriculture,” Panama’s plan could allow projects to require, encourage, or at least permit a ban on these practices. This could lead to arrests of violators and forfeits of community compensation.

Ostensibly, the restrictions are designed to control illegal logging and related activities. But in Panama, a ban could end up cracking down on the wrong people, says Rodolfo Peralta, a Costa Rican forestry expert employed by a reforestation company near Emberá territory. “The area surrounding the village of Ipetí is a place where cattle ranchers, illegal loggers and indigenous peoples make their living from the forest, and there’s a lot of deforestation there,” he says. “But the Emberá aren’t the ones causing the most damage.”

In a Nat Geo News Watch companion essay to the Ruxandra Guidi story, restoration specialist Dennis Martinez points out that traditional swidden practices call for planting crops briefly, then fallowing land for a long period. This ancestral method, he writes, can introduce successions of new growth, bursting with new species and enriching biodiversity.

Even Gary Hartshorn, a Panama expert with the NGO World Forestry who is generally supportive of carbon-market schemes, concedes a flaw in the premise of the restrictions. “Indigenous agriculture is only one of many causes of soil degradation,” he says. “The indigenous communities are not the bad guys causing most deforestation. They practice subsistence agriculture in one or two hectares at a time and then abandon them, allowing the forests to grow back.”


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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn