5 Actors, 5 Trends, a Continent of Complexity

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By Christine Padoch

How do you structure a REDD+ project in tropical Latin America to make sure it’s effective and equitable at the same time? How do you deliver food, clothing, housing and income to a population of 109 million and counting, while protecting the tropical forests that are crucial to the planet’s health? Not without understanding just how different the key actors in land use change really are, designing a suitable mix of incentives, and then making some very hard choices, says CIFOR scientist Pablo Pacheco and his colleagues in a recent article published in the journal Forests.

The folks who are transforming forests and landscapes in the American tropics range from the landless migrant family clearing a maize plot in Central America to the multinational tycoon shipping Amazonian hardwoods to a furniture factory in China. These actors, their motivations, and the effects of their actions are such a diverse and dynamic lot that just getting a handle on what is happening can seem impossibly complex. To help us all, but especially those who will implement REDD+ projects, Pacheco and company — without denying the complexity and dynamism of what is happening — make sense of the players as well as the trends they embody and the landscapes they are producing. In the article they classify the main actors into five different, often competing, but also commonly overlapping groups: indigenous peoples, traditional farmers who produce limited goods for markets, more market-savvy small-scale farmers, large scale commercial farmers and ranchers, and finally, loggers and timber companies.

Each of the five actor groups is associated with a major trend that is transforming the landscapes of tropical America: (1) the rapid growth of agribusiness, (2) the expansion and modernisation of traditional cattle ranching, (3) the slow growth of small-scale agriculture, (4) logging in production forest frontiers and (5) the resurgence of traditional agro-extractive economies, that is the harvesting of non-timber products often from government sanctioned reserves. Each of these trends is, in turn, driven by global markets and national policies, and each is having significant impacts on the forests of Latin America.

Merely classifying the five trends does not make them simple: each affects people’s livelihoods in a variety of ways and each demands trade-offs between development and forest conservation. Pacheco and colleagues’ assessment argues that none of the trends is invariably negative nor is any completely benign. For example, agribusiness development is leading to higher deforestation rates, but also contributes to significant economic growth, although it tends to concentrate income among medium- and large-scale landholders. Peasant agriculture, on the other hand, tends to create jobs and boost local income but can also lead to widespread deforestation if populations increase quickly or demand for specific market crops soars. Indigenous territories protect local livelihoods, but generate few economic benefits and are often located far from markets and social infrastructure, and so on. To complicate matters further, these trends vary with time, and the actors are not unchanging.

What do Pacheco and colleagues recommend in the face of all this complexity and dynamism? They certainly offer no simple answers. But they do make a series of recommendations targeted at each of the important actor groups, that go to the heart of their complex natures to better manage land use transformations and thus minimize the risks each presents to the welfare of the poor and the future of forests, while encouraging employment and enhancing environmental services. Their recommendations range from "closing the frontier" to reduce land speculation and encroachment on public lands, to "stimulating the modernisation of cattle ranching" as a way to increase land use efficiency of already occupied lands.

And what specifically does a REDD+ implementer need to learn from this analysis? The article suggests that first it is imperative for REDD+ projects to acknowledge the diversity of trends and to identify relevant key actors and landscapes. Only then can they design an optimal mix of incentives to change behaviour and reduce emissions. Done right, potential social and environmental benefits may go far beyond climate change mitigation. Is this easy? No, but the cost that will be paid for ignorance will be higher and Pacheco and colleagues have already done much of your work for you.

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Further reading

For a copy of the paper by Pacheco et al titled Landscape Transformation in Tropical Latin America: Assessing Trends and Policy Implications for REDD+ visit http://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/2/1/1/

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