Even Small Scale Agriculture Threatens Rainforests: Study

It’s not just big palm oil plantations that are bad. Small-scale farming that puts short term profits ahead of sustainability also damages the rain forest, study says.

AsianScientist (Oct. 21, 2016) – An international research team has mapped the effects of small farmers on the rain forests of Southeast Asia for the first time, revealing discouraging findings with regard to environmental impact, biodiversity and the economy over the long term. The study was published in Nature Communications.

Until now, studies of this kind have always focused largely on large-scale palm oil producers and how they exploit the forest and soil. Instead, the research team led by Dr. Yann Clough of Lund University, studied the agricultural methods of small-scale Indonesian farmers.

They assessed the biodiversity and ecosystem functions in natural forest; in traditional agroforests and in monocultures of palm oil and rubber trees; measuring data such as forest growth, soil fertility and carbon storage. The team also interviewed 450 small scale farmers to better understand why they chose to cultivate only oil palms or rubber trees and how this affects their economy.

“For the great majority of small farmers, chopping down diverse forests and investing in a single species of tree—monoculture—is the simplest and quickest path out of poverty. Productivity increases, the financial risk drops and income rises”, noted Clough.

However, the short-term financial gain is the only benefit of monoculture, according to the study. Biodiversity declines dramatically; the forest loses significance as a carbon source; and the increased use of mineral fertilizer leads to additional leaching of nutrients such as nitrogen.

The study and its results contradict the traditional view that small scale agriculture is environmentally-friendly. Collectively, small farmers cultivate a larger part of Indonesia’s forests than that exploited by large landowners. When the small farmers largely embrace monoculture as an agricultural system, they put a great deal of strain on the environment and on biodiversity.

Changing the agricultural methods of small farmers requires efforts from various sides and must comprise financial support in order for the farmers to change their way of producing, according to the researchers.

The article can be found at: Clough et al. (2016) Land-use Choices Follow Profitability at the Expense of Ecological Functions in Indonesian Smallholder Landscapes.


Source: Lund University; Photo: Yann Clough.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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