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Development and Change; Review on Agricultural Expansion and Tropical Deforestation: Poverty, International Trade, and Land Use, by Solon Barraclough and Krishna Ghimire

8 Sep 2003

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  • Title: Agricultural Expansion and Tropical Deforestation: Poverty, International Trade, and Land Use
  • Author(S): Thomas K. Rudel
  • Date: 1 Jun 2003
  • Publication: Development and Change

These decisions are, according to Barraclough and Ghimire, shaped by local political conditions that reflect the unequal political economic order in the larger world. By extension forest destruction will not cease until political reforms curb monopoly power and alleviate rural poverty. The authors base their argument on comparative case studies of landscape transformations in five countries: Brazil, Guatemala, Cameroon, China and Malaysia. With financial support fro the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the authors and their field assistants carried out case studies of how cultivators destroy forests in different regions of each country. In Brazil, for example, the UNRISD team carried out field studies in five regionally disparate locations: one in southern Brazil along the coast; another in the Pantanal; and three in ‘the arc of deforestation’ along the south-western fringe of the Amazon basin. The case studies are short, so they do not provide detailed descriptions of how agents destroy rain forests. The authors do provide excellent accompanying descriptions of the national political economic context within which the landscape transformations occur. Barraclough and Ghimire’s ability to move across continents and up or down geographical scales in analysing forest cover change adds significantly to the value of their explanations.

As noted above, the authors see an inequitable political economic order as the chief force driving the destruction of tropical forests. Their general thesis seems incontrovertible, but the political economic order interacts with other driving forces, and the book does not do a good job of describing these interactions. In effect Barraclough and Ghimire offer a single factor explanation for tropical deforestation, privileging the political dimension to an extent that seems empirically unwarranted. For example, in Cameroon structural adjustment agreements in the late 1980s depressed the economy, spurred out-migration from the cities, and reduced the cultivation of export crops (cacao) after subsidies for inputs ended. These changes prompted an increase in the numbers of smallholders who cleared land to produce food crops for sale and for their own subsistence. Population growth within these smallholder households increased the amount of rain forest cleared for cultivation. Rain forest destruction in this instance stemmed from a combination of political economic and demographic forces. Barraclough and Ghimire miss this point and others like it.

The book ends with the assertion that only radical change towards a more democratic and equitable political order, governed at the local level, can end tropical deforestation. This assertion would seem to oversimplify the situation. In East Africa or South Asia where people are plentiful and trees are not, devolution under conditions of democracy offers great promise as a means for restoring tropical forests. In sparsely and recently populated parts of the Amazon basin or insular Southeast Asia a different set of institutional changes might work, with money flowing from wealthy northern NGOs like Conservation International to agents of forest protection in Brazil or Indonesia.

In sum, this is a provocative work, offering interesting case studies and a fundamentally sound thesis that the authors push beyond its limits. I have assigned it in several courses, and students have reacted positively to it. This book might also serve as an epitaph for its senior author, Solon Barraclough, who died in December 2002. His landmark work on agrarian structures in Latin America and around the world inspired a whole generation of students during 1970s. It is a testimony to his intellect and to his commitment to the ideals of social science that he could produce such an engaging piece of work so late in life.

by Thomas K. Rudel, Departments of Human Ecology and Sociology, Director of Graduate Program in Sociology, Rutgers University.

Posted with the permissions of Development and Change (Volume 34, Number 3, June 2003), Blackwell Publishing, and the author himself.