Win-lose’ on the Nicaraguan frontier


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Lately, everyone is talking about ’win-win’. That means that when you do something good for the economy or for poor people it helps the environment too. Sometimes things work that way. Often, they do not. Robert Faris’’Deforestation and Land Use on the Evolving Frontier: An Empirical Assessment, published by the Harvard Institute for International Development, documents a case where farmers that become better off clear more forest. Faris used data on 170 small farmers in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua collected by the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and the University of Central America. On average, these farmers had around 50 hectares each, 30% of which was still in primary forest and another 28% in secondary forest and regrowth. About half of the famrers had annual cash incomes of under $500 and 70% had acquired their farms since 1990.

Farmers with higher incomes earn more of their money from cattle and less from selling their labor. They invest a large portion of any wealth they acquire in livestock and pastures. Farmers with cattle use twice as much land for agricultural purposes as farmers without cattle. By the time they reach twenty head they are farming four times as much. Faris concludes that, in that context, ’any policies that increase household incomes and hence wealth will apparently also result in an extension of land use and therefore more deforestation.’

Faris also found that farmers with title to their land had less primary forest. This relation held even after he took into account other factors such as household wealth and labor and distance to the nearest town. So the next time you hear that ’poverty causes deforestation’ or that ’secure property rights encourage forest conservation’ just remember it is not quite that simple.

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