Deforestation By “Subsistence” Farmers In Congo Driven By Money-Making Not Self-Sufficiency, Only Very Small Portion Of Population Responsible For Most Deforestation, Research Finds

Despite some common presumptions on the matter, it seems that most deforestation occurring in the Congo Basin is the result of only a small share of locals, and those that are taking part aren’t doing so for self-sufficiency but rather to “increase their quality of life,” according to a new study from the University of Leuven.

For money, in other words. Short term benefit, at the expense of long-term responsibility to and reliance on the land. Which has consistently throughout history been the main driver of deforestation, rather than necessity, despite some commonly used arguments by defenders of the practice, and of “endless” human expansion. (Obviously human expansion isn’t actually endless as some would apparently prefer, but rather now nearing the end of the “boom” part of the boom and bust cycles seen in many generalist species when expanding rapidly into new regions.)

The new findings are the result of fieldwork in the region undertaken by bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen from KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium. The primary implication of the work is that current international “efforts” to reduce deforestation in the region aren’t taking the motives and behavior of locals into account, thus reducing their efficacy.

The press release provides more: “The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is in the world’s top 5 in terms of amount of deforested land per year. According to the government, this is mostly due to subsistence farming and population growth. The argument is that small farmers grow crops to feed their own families. As there is a rise in population, farmers have to keep on clearing forest to increase the area under cultivation… Bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen is preparing a PhD on land use and climate change in the DRC. He examined whether subsistence farming really is the main culprit for deforestation. For a year, he did fieldwork in 27 Congolese villages and questioned 270 households in a survey about agriculture and deforestation.”

He stated: “Most of the people surveyed are farmers, and only half of them deforest. A very small group is behind most of the deforestation. Their motive is not self-sufficiency, but earning money. After all, selling crops on the market is one of the few ways to get cash. They need this money to cover the increasing cost of education and health care or to buy western consumer goods. The image of the poor farmer felling trees to feed his family is therefore incorrect. The slightly richer farmers are the ones deforesting to sell their agricultural produce on the market- although ‘rich’ is very relative in this case.” A second important motive for deforestation is the possibility to claim the land that has become available as your property.”

That paints a bleak, but unsurprising picture, the increase in deforestation seen in the region in recent times seems to be directly tied to the spread of so-called “western” consumer culture. Destroying ancient primeval forests, causing the extinction of large numbers of animals, and generally diminishing one’s own support system (through increased soil erosion, worsening anthropogenic climate change, and desertification)…. All for “a better life.” Not surprising, but not a nice picture.

Before those reading this get too smug, though, it should be remembered that most of Europe, the Middle East, the Near East, and Asia was covered with enormous old-growth forests until recently as well. And, also, that these continents were filled with multitudes of now extinct animals. The European lion, for instance, only just went extinct during the late Roman Period.

Commenting on the context of the new work, Moonen stated: “Now that the Paris Agreement on climate change is about to take effect, REDD+ is receiving a lot of attention. The Democratic Republic of Congo is interested in taking part: they want to fight deforestation in exchange for financial compensation. But their response to deforestation focuses too much on intensifying agriculture — increasing the amount of produce per hectare. The reasoning is that felling trees is no longer necessary if existing fields yield more produce. This is an effective strategy when dealing with subsistence farming, but it may have a perverse effect when applied to commercial agriculture. After all, it may stimulate the wealthier farmers to deforest more land, so that they have even more produce to sell. Therefore, without local support for forest preservation, the outcome of such interventions is very uncertain. In that case, we risk wasting money and valuable time with REDD+.”

Continuing: “A more effective and fair approach requires that you and the local communities reach a consensus on a sustainable system. This means that you have to agree on which areas are protected forest. You also have to set aside the necessary resources to support development: provide basic facilities and create opportunities to increase revenues, in the agricultural system and beyond.”

While those suggestions sound better than the current approach, I remain skeptical that they would be particularly effective on their own. The situation in the region is not looking good.

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