Environmental Conservation

Main Papers

A Revisionist View of Tropical Deforestation and Development

Michael R. Dovea1

a1 Senior Fellow, Program on Environment, East–West Center, 1777 East–West Road, Honolulu, Hawaii 96848, USA.

This study critiques one of the prevailing theories of tropical deforestation, namely that the forest is being cleared because its riches have been overlooked (the purported solution to which is the marketing of ‘rainforest crunch’). Edelman's work on the language of ‘helping’ is drawn on to suggest that a focus on the microeconomics of forest dwellers diverts attention from macro-economic and political issues whose impact on the forest is far more serious.

The study begins with a parable from Kalimantan, relating how the discovery of a big diamond can bring misfortune to a poor miner. It is suggested that this parable applies more generally to resource development in tropical forests, and that the major challenge is not to give more development opportunities to forest peoples but to take fewer away.

This principal is illustrated with respect to gold mining, rattan gathering, and truck-farming, in Indonesia. In each case, when a forest resource acquires greater value in the broader society, it is appropriated by external entrepreneurs at the expense of local communities. A detailed case-study is presented of the development of Para Rubber cultivation. Smallholders currently dominate this cultivation, despite steadfast opposition by both contemporary and colonial governments, whose self-interests are better served by the cultivation of the Rubber on large estates.

Each of these cases illustrates the predisposition of political and economic forces in the broader society to take over successful resource development in the tropical forest. Contemporary efforts to develop ‘non-timber forest products’ are reinterpreted, in this light, as attempts to allocate to the forest dwellers the resources of least interest to the broader society. The absence of research in this area is attributed not to academic oversight but to conflicting political-economic interests.

This thesis of resource exploitation is at variance with the ‘rain-forest crunch’ premise: namely that forest reserves are being overexploited by forest dwellers, that this is due to the absence of other sources of income, and that the solution is to help forest dwellers to find such sources. It is suggested that there has been no lack of such sources in the past, and that the problem has been in maintaining the forest peoples' control of them. The lesson of this analysis is not to ignore minor forest products, but to place them — and their potential development value for indigenous forest peoples — clearly within their proper political-economic context.

Any resolution of the problems of tropical forest development and conservation must begin, not by searching for resources that forest dwellers do not already have, but by first searching for the institutional forces which restrict the forest dwellers' ownership and productive use of existing resources. One of these institutional forces is discourse. It is widely understood that state elites seek to control valuable forest resources; it is less widely understood that an important means to this end is the control of resource-related discourse. De-mystification of the current debate over tropical deforestation and development is thus sorely needed.