Peter Palmiotto, PhD
Department of Environmental Studies
Deforestation and ecological degradation of tropical landscapes have gained momentum despite growing international concerns about dwindling biodiversity and the loss of critical ecosystem services. While the reasons for this are complex, the conservation community continues to cite swidden agriculture as a major source of deforestation and this it is often the small-holder farmer (the practitioner of swidden) who is blamed for the environmental crisis in the tropics. In response many international aid organizations encourage agroforestry as an alternative to swidden practices. This study assessed the ecological impact of one such organization, Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), by developing a model that measures four ecosystem services across a time continuum of aid. Interviews with 53 smallholder farmers in southern Belize suggested that the SHI farm extension program in that country contributed positively to carbon management and soil services yet had no significant impact on water purification and biodiversity protection services. Outcomes were primarily linked to increased agroforestry practices over time. Farmers involved in the program grew significantly more organic cacao for the global market but concurrently appeared to use more synthetic chemicals in the production of staple crops for their own families and local communities. These outcomes raise important questions about the impact of globalization (via the market and international aid) on land use among smallholders. Future attempts to reduce tropical deforestation should consider an alternative strategy focused on relocalizing economies and supporting grassroots efforts to secure and manage the land and its resources.