Political instability threatens rainforests more than industry does.

A satellite image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic shows a stark difference in the amount of forest cover. Politically unstable Haiti, on the left, lost roughly one tenth of its forest cover between 1990 and 2000. On the Dominican side, stable governments and a national interest in ecotourism have left large patches of forest intact.  Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The destruction of the rainforests is often blamed on development—human activities such as logging, farming, and urban expansion. This destruction is often framed as an inevitable conflict over resources, pitting a human population’s economic wealth against its natural wealth. But the equation of human prosperity with deforestation is too simple. Economic development is not the forests’ worst enemy.

It’s easy to see the real enemy when looking at the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, along the border that the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti. By any measure, the Dominican Republic is more developed than Haiti. Haitians live on just a quarter of their Dominican neighbors’ average income. While the Dominican Republic has a stable government, Haiti has changed governments nearly once a year for the last two decades. But despite its higher consumption of electricity, greater rates of employment, and heavier industry, the Dominican Republic is the nation that has preserved its forests.

Haiti lost nearly a tenth of its tree cover during the 1990s, and the trees keep falling. Haiti gets about half of its energy from burning wood or charcoal, so those forests weren’t cut for sale. The poor, rural population lacks the infrastructure for electricity or other fuels, which forces them to destroy their forests to cook their food. Deforestation leaves the soil loose. Because of those looser soils, mudslides after hurricanes cause more damage in Haiti than in the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s environmental damage undermines its economic growth, keeping the nation unstable and poor.

The root of the deforestation problem is social and economic. Rather than creating a conflict over resources, economic growth has given the Dominican Republic the opportunity to protect its wild places and to plan its development around them. The Dominican Republic has national parks, and eco-tourists enjoy a wide range of wild areas and the native plants and animals they support. This is due in large part to development—as measured in roads built, high wages, and industrial production. The existence of a stable government encouraged this sort of long-term thinking and has made the ongoing protection of forests possible.

Around the world—in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas—poverty and weak governments allow the destruction of wild places. Refugee crises, failed regimes, and raging wars leave natural spaces without reliable defenses. Refugees fleeing wars in Africa and elsewhere resettle in the only open places available, often in areas that were once designated as parks.

The solution to deforestation cannot simply be to demand that people stop cutting down trees. Too often, that is the only way people can survive at all, and no calculus can justify allowing them to starve in order to preserve a few acres of forest.

The solution, like the problem, is political and economic. Strong governments that see value in their nations’ natural heritage can and do establish conservation systems that encourage citizens to take an active role in protecting, rather than abusing, wild spaces. People in industrialized nations can support these efforts by buying fair trade goods, allowing farmers to make a living without employing slash-and-burn techniques. In doing so, we can encourage stability and the move towards conservation that comes with it.

—Josh Rosenau is a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. He writes the blog Thoughts From Kansas  on ScienceBlogs.

Originally published October 8, 2006


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