A tree grows in El Salvador

Civil war, mass emigration, the collapse of rural agriculture... Guess what, there's a silver lining

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 6, 2007 11:01PM (UTC)
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During El Salvador's bloody civil war in the 1980s, one-sixth of the population fled the country. Most of the emigrants ended up in the United States. The money sent back by those emigrants accounts for 66 percent of El Salvador's foreign exchange.

That much has been well-reported. But here's the odd thing: the regions of El Salvador that receive the most remittances are the also experiencing significant reforestation.

Rhett Butler's Mongabay, yet again displaying its routine excellence at spotlighting academic work focused on environmental issues, showcases today a fascinating paper in the September issue of BioScience by Susanna B. Hecht and Sassan S. Saatchi: "Globalization and Forest Resurgence: Changes in Forest Cover in El Salvador."

As described by the authors, El Salvador provides a remarkable natural experiment in which one can study the environmental consequences of neoliberal structural reforms, agrarian land reform, and remittance flow. On the hand, the impact of globalization (defined concisely as "the integration of countries and economies into international circuits of commodities, capital, labor, technology, and information") and Washington Consensus-style reforms greatly reduced the relative importance of agriculture in the national economy. At the same time inward remittances have provided a steady flow of income to rural households. .

Malthusian theory would predict that, in rural areas, greater population density would correlate with less or no forest recovery or with more deforestation.Our comparison, however, showed no significant correlation of forest cover with population density and a statistically significant positive correlation of forest resurgence with remittances...

Where farming investments are viable, remittances may flow to them and either increase clearing or intensify production. But when agricultural prices are low (as they have been for grains), volatile (as they are for coffee), or high-risk (as they are for nontraditional crops such as berries and vegetables), remittances are often used for human capital investments: health, housing, food, education, and small-scale investments in commerce.

So pasture land is abandoned and the pressure to cut down trees for subsistence needs slacks off.

The implications for conservationists are intriguing. Obviously, no sane person would recommend war, massive emigration, and the destruction of the agricultural economy via neoliberal reforms as an environmental tonic. As the authors note, "although globalization can be salutary for woodlands, it is arduous for rural people." Nor do they underestimate the destructive force of globalized agricultural markets on what they call "frontier" areas -- the regions where relatively undespoiled wilderness and human habitation meet.

But the principle of supplementing rural incomes so as to reduce pressure on the environment could be a fruitful line for environmentalists to pursue, whether by making it easier for emigrants to channel remittances home, or by directly subsidizing rural dwellers from their own coffers.

A number of possible measures for encouraging forest resurgence merit consideration. Payment for environmental services, whether at global, regional, or local levels, has the potential to support farmers as suppliers of environmental services. Thinking about the institutional and social contexts of remittances is another arena where environmentalists might look for conservation gains. Remittances are often highly "taxed" by financial institutions through exorbitant transfer fees. If adequate remittances get to households, they help to reduce forest clearing, as we have shown....

Those concerned about tropical conservation have unusual opportunities in globalized economies, but the old conservation models on their own will not save the day. Regardless of views about the political economy of globalization and its significant destructiveness in frontier settings, there are situations in which the tale is not uniquely one of forest loss and fragmentation. It would indeed be unfortunate if old models blinded us to new opportunities.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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