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10. The restructuring of tropical land-use systems

Models of rural development
The need for integrated solutions in tropical land use
Strategic issues
Concluding remarks

Gilberto C. Gallopín


Rural land use in the tropics is dominated by agriculture (used here in its broad sense to include forestry, animal production, and other related topics). Rural land use, and particularly agriculture, represents perhaps the most intense and intimate link between society and nature (Turner et al. 1993). The dynamics of ecosystems, and the fact that they respond in an active, rather than a passive, way to human actions, are particularly visible in the tropics. Agricultural activities have been, of necessity, more aware of the ecological or natural resources dynamics, opportunities, and limitations than have industrial activities. However, this does not mean that integration was (or is) a basic characteristic of the activity. On the contrary, the prevailing conceptualization is vertical, by product or crop, with specified priorities and policies, as if the production situations were ecologically, economically, and socially homogeneous (Girt 1990).

Eco-restructuring in general, and more so in the case of tropical agriculture, will have to involve much more than marginal improvements and mitigating measures recognized by many orthodox economists and politicians. Eco-restructuring is, or should be, about the deep changes required to advance towards sustainable development.

In moving towards sustainable agriculture, three partially overlapping degrees of progress can be distinguished: efficiency changes, substitution changes, and fundamental redesign changes (MacRae et al. 1990)

Efficiency changes progress towards sustainability by reducing inputs for the same output, increasing output for the same input, and/ or reducing wastes (spot rather than whole-field applications of pesticides, avoidance of over fertilization, efficiency of water use, etc.). The advantages that efficiency increases provide towards sustainability (and often also towards economic gains) are generally accepted. However, maximizing efficiency can be a deadend path if the system being made more efficient is intrinsically unsustainable (White et al. 1994). Besides, efficiency gains can be offset by increases in the total volume of the activity if it grows faster than efficiency.

Substitution changes can increase sustainability by replacing limited or environmentally damaging inputs with healthier, or less limited, alternatives. Substitution changes may involve replacing herbicides with mechanical weed control, or using legumes to replace fertilization with inorganic nitrogen.

Redesign changes are more fundamental and involve whole production systems. In agriculture, the emphasis would be on cropping systems and farming systems as a whole. In some cases, even whole landscape systems should be redesigned. Redesign changes are likely also to incorporate efficiency and substitution changes. For example, changing from a mono-cultural grain production system to a multi year crop rotation system can involve numerous substitution and efficiency effects.

The general approaches of efficiency, substitution, and redesign changes apply to agriculture as well as to industry and services. However, there is a major difference between agricultural and industrial eco-restructuring. Although modern agriculture is in many senses becoming similar to an industrial activity, it is still fundamentally based upon the management of agricultural ecosystems, including living and non-living components. The functioning of those ecosystems under management depends upon (and affects) larger ecological cycles and processes, and also depends upon their own internal bio-geochemical dynamics and capacity of response. This is particularly true in the case of the tropical agro-ecosystems, and in reference to complex agro-forestry production systems that mimic many of the features of natural ecosystems. The capacity of living systems for spontaneous behaviour and unexpected changes makes eco-restructuring in agriculture potentially more complex than in industry.

Models of rural development

Different approaches to rural development, including land use, have been applied in tropical regions.1 Although the specific examples used here will mostly draw from the Latin American experience, some of the lessons have wider applicability.

Historically, the concept of agricultural development included the sum of the efforts directed towards the growth and diversification of production and towards increases in productivity. The conceptual base of agricultural development was essentially technical, mostly associated with yield increases through the Green Revolution, the expansion of the physical capital, and the creation of an institutional context coherent with the requirements of a continuously increasing agricultural output.

The concept of rural development arose as a response to the realization that agricultural development, as applied, did not lead to an overall improvement in the living standards of rural people and did not "trickle down" to the poor. Rural development was associated with a set of actions (including improvement in production systems, the availability of credit facilities for commercialization of harvesting, and the expansion of the physical infrastructure) specifically directed towards poor rural producers.

Different approaches to rural development were tried in Latin America. From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, the United Nations promoted the community development approach, directed mainly at the integration of rural communities (particularly the indigenous people) in the national socioeconomic context, the utilization of their potential for development through education, social organization, and social action, and participation. The strong dependence upon external financing and foreign experts, the failure to pursue rapid increases in production (to avoid conflicts with national agricultural policies), and the political struggles associated with the empowerment of communities in some countries seem to be among the major factors that contributed to the abandonment of this model.

In the 1960s agrarian reform was considered by many experts (and governments) to be the major instrument to lead to new rural structures that would be stable, efficient, and participative and result in a quantum leap in production and equity. The results have been mixed. The reform was concretely applied to no more than 20 per cent of appropriable land; today, Latin America is still the region of the world with the highest concentration of land ownership. The impacts on production were also non-conclusive: in some countries the impacts were positive, in others negative. Sustainability of the natural resource base and relations between the social changes triggered and the available technological package and credit, technical assistance, and training were neglected.

The prevailing approach during the 1970s was that of agricultural modernization, which led to economic concentration and the expulsion of labour, which is still happening in many countries of the region. Large and medium agricultural production was integrated into the national economy, as well as becoming more dependent on the market. Strong processes of proletarization, social differentiation, and recomposition affected, and still affect, the peasant economies.

The concept of integrated rural development (IRD) emerged in the early 1970s, and is still in use. It implies the definition of multiple goals: increases in production and productivity, social improvement, and physical capital formation. It also involved attempts to integrate action on different factors, institutional coordination, and strong participation by the beneficiaries. The approach was conceived as an integral state intervention, specifically targeting poor rural producers. Many of the projects operated at the micro level, in isolation. By the end of the 1970s, the need to link IRD projects with an explicit national policy coherent with national and sectoral development strategies gained political support. During the 1980s (officially known as "the lost decade" for development in Latin America), the economic crisis and recession led to the application of structural adjustment policies, including severe reductions in public expenditure. This also strongly affected IRD projects, in particular because they require substantial and sustained investments with long maturation periods. The impacts of the adjustment process upon the theoretical basis of IRD, as well as dissatisfaction with the results achieved in terms of the total rural economy and society, led to new analytical proposals in the late 1980s. These emphasized the need to focus on less complex projects, directed at a narrower target population, and to look for technical solutions that are economically viable for poor farmers and allow increases in production and income within the context of current macroeconomic and agricultural policies.

During the 1980s, a more integrated approach, "social forestry," started to be implemented as a response to the problems generated in ecologically fragile areas with high demographic pressures and a high incidence of poverty. A number of successful experiments exist. These projects emphasize the active participation of small and medium farmers in the design, implementation, and control of the project; the goals of the project are defined by the community; the projects integrate many relevant components (such as crops and farm animals associated with trees and other woody plants, small industries, marketing, training, agro-forestry, social organization of the population); the concept of the sustainability of the productive system is incorporated in the design of the projects as a prerequisite for rural development; and the projects explicitly attempt to reach synergy between the resources of the community (land, labour, appropriate traditional technologies, and organization). In general, they are not intensive in financial resources per person or per hectare.

In general in Latin America (although less so in the case of IRD and social forestry projects) the generic policies for rural development had few explicit linkages with macroeconomic policies (particularly with those defining urban rural exchange relations) and with public investment. They also suffered from a lack of complementarily with the policy instruments applied to foster agricultural modernization. They concentrated too much on the productive aspects, without addressing the issue of the sustainability of production, and sometimes resulted in increased environmental degradation. They did not address the linkages between international agricultural trade and the degradation of natural resources within prevailing economic patterns. They were too much influenced by economic criteria and by the institutional policies of the international funding agencies. And, finally, they were often biased towards expensive and unconnected projects, which ended when the external financial resources were exhausted.

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