Degradation is in the Eye of the Beholder
In the discussion about where oil palm and other plantations should go we talk so easily about degraded lands. But the concept is not straightforward.
When the US and Europe cleared their forests a few centuries ago, they did so to “improve” the land. Forests were seen as a source of lumber, best to be cleared and replaced by annual crops with which a lot more money could be made.
We have learned since then, and now understand the value of forests for biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services, and also because they are beautiful to us. Many of us now see deforestation as a negative thing, and call what is left “degraded”.
Not everyone agrees though.What to us looks like hell, may to a Borneo-based farmer or plantation manager look like a good opportunity to earn some cash.
Of course we could think that we know better than them, but we often we don’t. Many local people in Borneo who I have spoken to support deforestation. They don’t like it if all the revenues end up in the pockets of big companies or their village leaders who are paid by those companies. But many do not necessarily disagree that deforestation is a bad thing.
We do need to keep that in mind. If we say that plantations should be developed on “degraded” lands it is important to realize that most of those lands will have been claimed by local farmers. These farmers gain some income from lands by burning them and planting crops or getting their cattle to feed on fresh regrowth.
Using those lands for plantations requires compensation for lost revenues to these farmers, and long negotiations with many stakeholders. This is one of the reasons why companies prefer to use forest rather than deforested lands.
Of course the easy way out is to say “no” to any further plantation development. But if that’s not a realistic option, then we should at least understand what it means if we direct plantations away from forests.
We might even need to rethink the psychology of conservation. If what we call degraded is by someone else perceived as improved, then it will be hard to get some common understanding. And common understanding is what we need to make conservation work.