13 août 2007

From forest landscapes to agroforestry landscapes?

At the beginning of the 1930’s, the forest cover of Ecuador represented approximately 75% of the total territory, while 38% remains today (FAO, 2005; Vázquez, Ulloa, 1997). During the last four decades, deforestation rose by six and a half million hectares throughout the country (FAO, 2005 ; INEFAN, 1996). The strategies and actions of regional stakeholders are responsible for deforestation (Le Tourneau, 2004; Droulers and Al., 2001; Fearnside, 1991). These power plays are accentuated by intense pressure on land which is the consequence of scarce resources and densely established farm properties (Roper, Roberts, 2006). New agricultural land is a result of cultural or social evolutionary processes resulting in a mixed landscape (Clairay, 2005; Dubreuil and Al, 2005).
Along Ecuador’s Coast, the forest cover has decreased from 61% of the territory in 1958 to only 6% in 1988 (Sierra, 1999). In the coastal state of Guayas, dry forests have almost disappeared (ibid). The rare places where they still occur, like the hills of Churute, have been declared protected areas since a few years ago. At the foot of Cerro Simalón (Alt. 684m), fifty forest plots measuring 74 acres (30 hectares) have been allocated to agricultural labour families. Forty six years after their arrival, we met these families, their descendants or their successors. Based on testimonies collected, we will present the different stages of agricultural production in this territory. The cognitive representations concerning native forests as well as agroforestry practices will be also reviewed.

The study site and methodology
Due to land conflicts between a peasant community and private land-owners in the end of the 1950’s, Ecuadorian authorities initiated settlement and land reform operations. Our study site is an example among many others. The ancient farming plots in Churute are located in southern Ecuador, on the left riverbank of the Rio Guayas estuary about 50km south of Guayaquil.
The study was carried out from march to may 2006 concentrating on twenty-five farm owners who were mainly cultivating rice, cocoa or cotton (22). Fourteen of the farmers were soon settlers. The effects of the forest policy, the practices of deforestation and the uses of trees, were the topics of our first interview. The objective of the second one was to retrace the history of the plots ad the precise dynamics of the land as to better understand the life and the working conditions of the households. The programme year 2007 of the Rio Ruidoso Project enabled us to conduct a new series of interviews with many of the farmers in Churute. These results attest the previously described tendencies.

The conversion of tropical dry forest to agricultural land uses
When they arrived in Churute in 1961, the settlers built small houses and established subsistence gardens. Then they deforested large areas to sow rice and build new houses on stilts made of bamboo and wood. Due to the lack of equipments to climb and fell trees, fire was the first tool that allowed farmers to destroy the forest. Fire as a tool was also the most economic, effective and rapid. After eight years of occupation, the farmers had already cultivated 1,667 of the total 3,705 acres (45%). They made us of different strategies to exploit the resources. In fact, we can identify two main opposing groups: impatient and prudent ones. The impatience ones cultivated their entire plot of land. The prudent ones, once they had filled the procedure of adjudication, i.e. cultivating at least 50% of conceded surface, utilised fire only according to firewood and charcoal requirements. Contrary to what is commonly believed, "to clean the ground" quickly does not guarantee immediate success. Farmers that had chosen to diversify their agricultural production were often the first ones to have sufficient money to buy their 74 acres of land. On the other hand, some families waited thirteen, fourteen even fifteen years, sometimes being obliged to sell 24 of their 74 acres to a neighbour.
In 1977, 3,149 of the total 3,705 acres (85%) were cultivated. Relics of forest constitute the last reserves of wood. As in 1969, high hills and piedmont forest did not suffer that much damage overall. The meanders of Rio Ruidoso produced favourable habitats for growth and maintenance of native trees. Following the left bank, irrigation work in rice fields led to the disappearance of the hydrographic network and the entire woody vegetation component.
In 1994, approximately 97% of the plot’s surface, formerly occupied by dry forest, was converted into arable land. However, the evolution of agricultural practices (cocoa culture, cattle breeding), assisted in the return of trees, even if the tree species chosen are different to those which preceded them.

The conquest of the forest, the promise of a better future
The living experience of the settlers perceives the forest differently from the other social groups. In fact, their collective history was written from the beginning of the forest destruction. According to the Churute farmers, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial plantations and pasture land contributed to the economic growth and to fight against poverty. In comparison with the difficulties of selling their agricultural products, they acquired a conviction that only agro-alimentary companies can benefit from the globalization process. Consequently, they distrusted projects that supported plot sharing in favour of small properties. It is considered that poverty in rural areas is not as much related to the current economic situation than it is to the share of land. Today, four, five sometimes six families divide ancient land-plots.
Moreover, as settlers do not regard the forest as a system of interactions between living organisms and their environment, they undervalue the negative consequences associated with deforestation practices and fire management. When we tackled the question of legal protection, the forest was seem as an empty and almost sterile place: activities of gathering, fishing or hunting, which are food source for primitive ethnic groups, resulted in ridicule remarks. Ethnocentric, even racist attitudes hide behind the deforestation. These points of view lie within a much broader scope, that of the justification of the agricultural conquest with negation consequence to the wild environment.

Agricultural trees: sources of income and protection of crops or animals by live fences
All interviewed farmers undervalue the rage of trees in their production system, because they do not regard the cocoa tree (Theobroma cocoa), which has a low stem, as a tree. The fruit-bearing is presented as a food crop from which the surplus is given to neighbours and friends. However, the arboriculture generates revenue for most of the exploitations. The production of fruits (Carica papaya, Psidium guajava) is supplied to the market of Milagro, town with around 110.000 inhabitants, located approximately at 40 kilometers north of the plots. The sweet lemon (Citrus limetta), frequently used as a seasoning in many dishes or as juice, are also sold. Add some sales of Matisia cordata, Citrus sinensis, Persea drymifolia, Cocos nucifera, Inga Sp. Sometimes, the toxic seeds Cassia fistula are bought for the pharmacies. But all the edible fruits are not sold: it is the case of Vitex gigantea, Mangifera indica, Spondias purpurea, Muntingia calabura, Syzygium jambos or Spondinas monbin.
The inventory of timber trees indicates that the volume and value of the production is marginal. Only four farmers have one, two or three feet which will be used very soon for construction or the repair of a dwelling: Tabebuia chrysantha, T. rosea or Triplaris cumingiana. Wood pastures and parklands create the conditions for invasion and colonization by native species: Cecropia obtusifolia, Ochroma pyramidal, Ziziphus thyrsiflora, Samanea saman. Since about fifteen years, the stockbreeders also plant teak trees around their farms; sometimes they devote 5 or 10 acres to product timbers. It is a risky investment because experiments reveal that conditions are less favourable for their growth. Probably these plantations reflect a desire to imitate the social practices of the great landowners of the Santa-Elena peninsula or Esmeraldas coast. In a more unexpected way, two farmers have realised a testing of agroforestry in a cocoa field. This initiative is always not appreciated by the group. In the spirit of the farmers, the timber production is not regarded as a priority – the financial returns seem to be too far away to comprehend or to benefit (20 to 30 years). Moreover they do not see any revenues until the trees are harvested.

The arrival of the stockbreeders in the 1980’s introduced a rupture with the past of the Churute plots, because it implied potential changes in landscape composition and structure. Indeed cattle breeding encourages return of native trees: directly to support the regeneration of pioneer trees or to put them in tree plantations (cattle well-being, product fodder); indirectly to the construction of defensive hedges. Along the roads attended by the cattle, the farmers install barbed wire fences. The fence posts used: Gliricida sepium, Sesbania grandiflora, Erytrim ilauca, take roots quickly, and then the tree's branches are regularly cut off. Most of them plant these branches pruned between the posts, so as to make a quickset hedge. These hedges are also very frequent around the kitchen gardens.

At the end of this study, we note that the farmer of Churute, and more still when they are settlers, develop a very negative perception of native forest. For a majority of them, forest protection policies deprive their country of opportunities for profits. Let us not forget that their collective history was built starting from the conversion forest to agricultural land. Nevertheless, this duality demonstrated on several occasions in the specialized literature, loses its strength after a contact with the stockbreeders or with all those who did not directly take part in this forest conversion. Today, the forest hills of Churute are the last examples of a landscape that has disappeared from the rest of Guayas. The physical constraints related to the Cerros, has contributed largely to its maintenance. With the diversification of agriculture, the land pressure and the cattle breeding development, the situation would undoubtedly be quite different if the ecological value of this dry forest was not fully considered since 1987.
What is right for the native forest is not the same for the tree. Indeed tree plantations or woody plants colonization in field boundaries, is one of the visible consequences of the evolution of agricultural and social practices. It would seem that the farmers, yesterday the main agents of the deforestation, are making a new woody landscape. During the last winter, the plantation of 5,000 trees by a French Association confirms this transformation of mentalities and, thus, the possibility to develop an agroforestry system in Churute.

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Thanks to the members of the scientific committee of “Un arbre pour demain” and Anni Valkonen for the careful review.

Appel à Anglophones pour relecture de la présente communication. Par avance merci.
Samuel Perichon / Président-fondateur de l'Association Un arbre pour demain
25, rue Voltaire, 22190 Plérin - France. Tél. +(033) Email : infos@un-arbre-pour-demain.fr