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.

Cleared land looks ugly to us, but not everyone would agree

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.

The writer (tall giant in the middle) with Kenyah farmers on a recently cleared patch of land (photo credit, Mel White, on left of photo)

Author: Erik Meijaard

Erik Meijaard is one of Mongabay’s bloggers who joined in September 2010. Erik is a passionate conservation scientist with a critical eye for the both sense and nonsense in conservation management and science. Based on nearly 20 years of in-country experience in Indonesia he has written extensively in both the scientific literature and in popular media on what he thinks is right and wrong about the way we go about conservation. This included a popular blog which he wrote for The Nature Conservancy. His experience in developing countries has shaped his thinking about the need to reconcile conservation with the development aspirations that many developing countries have. Ignoring those aspirations is not only arrogant or even verging on the neo-colonial, but it will ultimately work against us in achieving conservation objectives. From his home office in Jakarta, Erik runs the forest branch of PNC International, a small independent conservation consultancy. Erik has an academic background in tropical ecology and a PhD in biological anthropology. He has worked for several international NGOs and research organizations, including WWF-Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research. From 2004 to 2009, he worked for the Nature Conservancy Indonesia's forest program as its senior scientist and program manager. At the same time he was also closely involved with developing and implementing a USAID-funded orangutan conservation programs, first as chief of party, later as Kalimantan coordinator and conservation strategy planner. Erik has a wealth of experience working with the private sector, including timber and mining concessions, as well as plantations. His editorial experience with two newsletters, frequent publications in public and scientific fora, and media experience indicate Erik's strength as an effective communicator on forest conservation and management issues. Erik’s family accuse him of being obsessed with his laptop – they are right. Ultimately Erik will get out of this though, cut himself off from the internet, lean back in his rocking chair, and sip cold beer, preferably while looking over a nice sea or landscape. But that point hasn’t come yet, so keep an eye out for his blogs, which vary from the plain rambling to the highly insightful, but always aim to be constructive in the conservation debate – and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces. After all, unless we can enjoy this world we live in, why bother conserving it? [Editor's note: Erik was interviewed at Indonesian people-not international donors or orangutan conservationists-will determine the ultimate fate of Indonesia's forests in 2010]

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