Cover Image
close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for sustainable development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)
close this folderPart II: Restructuring sectors and the sectoral balance of the economy
close this folder10. The restructuring of tropical land-use systems
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentModels of rural development
View the documentThe need for integrated solutions in tropical land use
View the documentStrategic issues
View the documentConcluding remarks
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Strategic issues

One significant background fact is that the world is currently moving through a period of extraordinary turbulence reflecting the genesis and intensification of deep changes associated with the current techno-economic revolution, led by micro-electronics and accompanied by a constellation of developments based upon new, science intensive technologies (biotechnology, new materials, new sources of energy, etc.) (Herrera 1986). This situation implies that sustainable land use must aim not only at preserving and maintaining the ecological base for development and habitability, but also at increasing the social and ecological capacity to cope with change and the ability to retain and enlarge the available options in the face of a natural and social world in permanent transformation. Sustainable land use in a rapidly changing world requires the capacity to confront many different types of change at the same time, without compromising the social, economic, and ecological sources of renewal, as well as to reduce vulnerability and retain or enlarge the range of available options.

Thus, the concept of sustainable land use cannot mean merely perpetuation. The central question is what is to be sustained and what is to be changed. Approaching sustainable land use, and sustainable development, requires (GallopĂ­n et al. 1989): (1) getting rid of accumulated rigidities and impediments; (2) identifying and protecting the accumulated foundations of knowledge and experience that are important as a basis upon which to build; (3) sustaining the social and natural foundations for adaptation and renewal, and identifying and enhancing the lost renewal capacity needed; (4) stimulating innovation, experimentation, and social creativity.

For sustainable land use, the issues of technological pluralism (complementary use of traditional, "modern," and high technology) and technological blending (constructive integration of high technology into existing technologies, such as using biotechnology to improve the yield and pest resistance of traditional crops - thus increasing efficiency and substituting for pesticides - or applying advanced ecological theory to redesign production systems based on shifting cultivation to improve sustainability) assume paramount importance, requiring new forms of organization and an integral strategy for technological development and diffusion. The upgrading of traditional technology and empirical knowledge will become especially important for the medium- and small-scale sectors of rural areas. Many traditional technologies are already better adapted to local conditions and ecological cycles than the expanding "modern" technology. Technological blending could improve yields and avoid some of the limitations of traditional techniques. Such technological integration could reduce conflicts, promote self sustainable technological innovation, be easily absorbed and adapted to local situations, and favour social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability. Special emphasis should be allocated to developing systems of production for the already altered ecosystems, including "neo-ecosystems" generated by human activities. Strategies should be developed for choosing areas for protection involving large-scale ecological functions and processes.

A general criterion is the maintenance of productive pluralism, with the coexistence of different major types of agriculture integrated through sub-national, national, and regional policies. An example of different, coexisting, types appears in table 10.5. Structural reforms and technological innovations directed to the transformation of the present subsistence agricultural sector into an efficient and sustainable peasant agriculture will be required. New forms of high-technology diversified agriculture should be developed, directed to the selective exploitation of local genetic resources for food, medicine, industry, etc. It will imply the development of technologies for a new efficient recollection agriculture in diversified ecosystems, as well as new ranching and wildlife management systems, viewing ecological diversity, heterogeneity, variability, and singularities as resources rather than as hindrances or constraints. Forestry should emphasize the revalorization of the forests as multi-purpose producers (wood, energy, wildlife, special products, ecological functions). This will require deep changes in storage and commercialization systems. Today, market and consumer demand are geared to guaranteeing uniformity in products. This has favoured the dominance of mono-cropping, which is highly vulnerable to pests and genetic erosion. The challenge is now to ensure uniformity in quality and delivery at the consumer level while managing and even nurturing variability at the production system level. This implies a completely different approach to the whole system of production/distribution of agricultural produce.

Table 10.5 Major types of sustainable rural systems proposed for Latin America


Meat production



1. Modern, capital-intensive agriculture. Located on land with higher comparative ecological advantages (fertile and stable soils, optimal climate, good irrigation potential). Not necessarily in the form of large mono- cultures. It includes diversified crops, biological control of pests, crop rotation, and soil conservation.

1. Modern intensive livestock-raising. Capital-intensive animal husbandry, in herds or in barns, and intensive raising of wildlife with high food or commercial value.

1. Integrated forestry. Carried out by companies and cooperatives linking scattered households. Based on the sustainable management of natural and altered forests, mainly in the tropical rain- forest zone, and including the rational use of most species (not just a few, as is the current practice). The products, or domestic consumption and export include timber agglomerates, hardboard, paper pulp, wood flour for animal feed, chemicals, raw materials for the plastics industry, fertilizers, soaps, charcoal, fuelwood, and hunting and fishing products.

1. Intensive marine industrial fishing. Confined to open seas. Managed by companies or large cooperatives. Mainly directed to domestic consumption and export, exploiting a diversity of species.

2. Peasant agriculture. Requires the implementation of structural reforms and technological innovations. Production directed to satisfying local food requirements as well as yielding cash products of wildlife management and high unit value made possible by special opportunities provided by local ecological conditions. Multi-purpose integrated or mixed farming widely adopted. Mainly labour intensive, as well as intensive in technologies appropriate for diversified and small-scale production. Technological blending very significant.

2. Extensive livestock-raising. Implies a modernization and rationalization of the current extensive ranching, and includes the harvesting and use of native species and wildlife management. Most current subsistence and nomadic pastoralism would be transformed into this activity or, alternatively, into peasant agriculture.

2 Recollection forestry. An artisan forestry, socially organized and provided with scientific research inputs, savannas, and shrubby semi-deserts. Complements peasant agriculture, with communal organization of zones of extraction. Products, depending on the local ecology, could include palm sprouts, rubber, mushrooms, nuts, and palms.

2. Modern marine artisan fishing. In the coastal zones. Implies rescuing and improving existing techcniques, using many species. Requires research and technical assistance (mainly to reduce post-harvest losses). Produce directed to domestic consumption (assuming changes in the current patterns of consumption) and export.

3. High-technology diversified agriculture. Directed to the selective exploitation of local genetic resources for food, medicine, industry, etc. Implies the development of new, efficient technologies for diversified ecosystems.

3. Modern and high-technology harvesting. Implies the management, domestication's and harvesting of wildlife in captivity, semi-captivity, or wilderness for the production of meat, fur, fine wool, skins, and hides for domestic con- gumption and for export. Major candidates are chamelids, capybara, otter, alligator. Under good management, they can produce higher economic yields than cattle.

3. Productive plantations Run by companies or cooperatives in tropical rain forests and dry tropical and subtropical forests with scientific research inputs regarding local fast-growing species. Mainly for the production of paper, fuelwood, charcoal, and timber.

3. Marine aquaculture. In the coastal zones, estuaries, and fishponds. Implies setting priorities for the management of local species and the protection of estuaries as breeding grounds. Production for domestic consumption and export.

4. Indigenous farming systems. By respecting cultural diversity indigenous communities can maintain can maintain their lifestyles and integrated production systems if they so choose.

4. Protective reforestation. Important for watershed and highland protection; directed to restoring ecological regulation of floods and reducing erosion and the silting of reservoirs.

4. Modern freshwater artisan fishing. Similar to its marine counterpart, but directed essentially to domestic and local consumption.

5 Freshwater aquaculture. In dams, fishponds, etc. Similar to its marine counterpart. Directed to domestic consumption and export.

Eco-restructuring for peasant agriculture in Latin America: An illustration

The case of peasant agriculture is a good illustration of the potential role of technical change for sustainable development if integrated with socioeconomic policies. Peasant agriculture (including here much of so-called subsistence agriculture) is important in terms of the number of people involved, the intense environmental pressures it generates in many countries of the region, and the concentration of rural poverty.

The problem cannot be solved through technological fixes. An integral strategy for the transformation of the current subsistence agriculture into a sustainable and profitable peasant agriculture would need to include efforts in (a) facilitating access to the means of production, (b) eco-restructuring of the national economies and of the marketing and distribution systems, (c) community empowerment, as well as (d) research and development.

The strategy proposed here might be labelled Utopian by some readers. However, one should consider that technical innovation and diffusion have already occurred in the past few decades on a greater scale than implied in this section. Many remote areas are already being connected through radio, TV, and telephone networks, and communication costs are fast declining. The next decade or two will almost certainly involve tremendous additional technological change. The need to address the fact that fundamental, rather than incremental, changes in policy and values are required to move towards sustainable development is increasingly obvious.

Facilitating access to the means of production

The means of production include not only the land, agricultural inputs, capital, and technology but also (and this is likely to become increasingly important) information and knowledge. In the initial stages, the availability and redistribution of land for use through community management will be a key element, together with strategies for the restoration and rehabilitation of ecologically degraded lands. An agriculture under ecological management could in many cases lower requirements for material and energy inputs. Access to appropriate technology, and the stimulation of the social creativity to improve on it, should be supported. Finally, access to information in rural communities may be greatly improved through telematic networks connecting communal nodes. This includes quick access to information about the prices of products and inputs, the monitoring of weather conditions, of the condition of crops, and of erosion, meteorological forecasts, and the anticipation of natural disasters, besides programmes of education and capacity-building (local and at a distance). The same telematic networks could also be used to collect information about the state of the agro-ecosystems and of the population to facilitate regional and national planning.

Eco-restructuring of the national economies and of the marketing and distribution systems

Eco-restructuring of the national economies and marketing systems implies a redesign in order to benefit from technological and productive pluralism. This represents an important theoretical and organizational challenge. Many traits of the current economic systems rest on the homogenization of both production (e.g. mono-cultures) and consumption, which has often generated serious environmental problems and increased vulnerability to pests. Productive and distributive systems must be restructured in such a way that they will operate efficiently in situations where rural products are highly diversified (particularly in the tropics) and where the production of a given agricultural commodity is based on myriad dispersed exploitations, distributed in time and space. The new technologies, used within new forms of interlinked but decentralized social organizations, make possible sophisticated productive and distributive management making full use of variability and heterogeneity as assets rather than constraints. It will also be necessary to develop mechanisms for the articulation of large-scale, homogeneous agricultural production (which will continue to exist, directed particularly to urban consumption and agro-industry and to export) with diversified small-scale production (thus minimizing or reversing the expulsion of rural labour to marginal land).

A proportion of the diversified rural production would be used for self consumption by the peasant populations, contributing to a balanced diet. The marketable surplus would be composed in large part of food or industrial crops of high unit value made possible by local germplasm and ecological conditions; many of these products would not have competition at the international level. Active exploration and measures to open up new national and international markets will be necessary. Peasant agriculture will increasingly focus on the ecological comparative advantages rather than on the comparative advantage of cheap labour (the latter, besides often being associated with low standards of living, is rapidly losing importance at the world level).

Community empowerment

Creative programmes to improve the living conditions of the peasant populations will be essential. The role of the new communication system is essential here, in synergy with the fostering of social participation and communal self-reliance. Access to health, housing, and education services should be improved, as well as access to the means for family planning. Technological advances, in a participative and decentralized context, can open up huge opportunities for the discovery of new, flexible, and adaptive solutions to the traditional liabilities of rural populations, while respecting their cultural identity. Support for the peasant populations will in many cases require the implementation of financial systems capable of managing thousands of small loans and investments, rather than only a few massive investments, as is typical of the majority of the national and international agencies for rural development and financing.

Research and development

A strong push to scientific and technological research will be required, directed to improving yields and the profitability of agricultural systems based (as appropriate) on traditional, modern, or even completely new systems and making use of local cultural and ecological comparative advantages. The systematic and comparative study of the potential of the regional germplasm is a priority area of research. Another priority is the implementation of an annotated catalogue or database of the traditional and modern technologies used in the region and, whenever possible, those that were used in the past. Such a catalogue should include the social and ecological conditions to which these technologies are adapted, their degree of environmental sustainability and social suitability, the type of products and their possible yields, and the major economic, social, cultural, political, or ecological constraints on their wide utilization. Comparison with other regions of comparable ecology could be of great utility (for instance between the technologies used in the tropical moist forests of South America and in the forests of other regions with ancient agricultural traditions, such as South-East Asia, or between the semiarid American and African regions). On the basis of the comparative analysis of the relative advantages of the different technologies, it should be possible to select a menu of technologies as a basis for the development of suitable solutions for each ecological zone and socio-cultural realm, improving them on the basis of technological, ecological, and social research. These would help the development of diversified production, adapted to the different local conditions but integrated through regional, national, and international systems of capacity-building, information, transport, storage, and distribution.

The improvement of crop varieties through biotechnology and the relaxation of environmental constraints through the use of agro-technology, biotechnology, and informatics could include, for instance: the selection or creation of nitrogen-fixing or phosphorus concentrating bacterial strains, which are easy to reproduce and have little environmental impact; the application of biological pest control; genetic manipulation to increase crop resistance to pests or drought; and social and anthropological research directed at improving the cultural and social suitability of production systems and the quality of the information and capacity-building systems. New technologies such as informatics and telematics could play a crucial role. For instance, serious attention should be given to the possibility of facilitating access to microcomputers and expert systems by local communities, to aid fertilizer and irrigation dosage, pest control, the management and administration of complex agro-ecosystems, medical diagnosis, education, etc.

The current level of technological development would make it possible to keep costs within a reasonable level, provided a decentralized and collective design is adopted, with computers run by community-based rural units and linked through telecommunication networks. The research requirements for the success of this strategy are significant. It suffices to consider the challenge represented by the need to develop efficient software for rural populations who are often illiterate or, as is the case with some peasant communities in Latin America, have a culture based on magical thinking, distant from Western logic. This would require new modes of research and interaction, interdisciplinary teams that include participation by local farmers (participatory research), the development of sophisticated forms of iconic communication, and the simultaneous utilization of alternative cultural paradigms. Regarding hardware, it will be necessary to develop inexpensive but very robust equipment, of low obsolescence and easy to update.

Ecological research in combination with anthropological research, making use both of the empirical knowledge accumulated by the peasant cultures of the region and of modern science, would allow sophisticated new forms of ecosystem management. The sequence and localization of human activities and of the germplasm would allow effective management of the local bio-geochemical cycles - for instance, crops grown in a temporal sequence designed to regenerate their own nutrients, in a spatial mosaic designed so as to benefit from diversity and heterogeneity in order to minimize the growth of pest populations, and in a vertical architecture (such as multi-strata agriculture) allowing fuller use of resources.

The net result of such a strategy directly focused on peasant agriculture (upon which millions of people depend) would be an improvement in the rural quality of life, an associated decrease in the migratory flows to the urban centres, an important decrease in ecological degradation, and the utilization of an economic potential that is currently barely tapped.