Topic Area: Deforestation

Geographic Area: Ecuador

Focal Question: How Do Penetration Roads Influence Migration and Deforestation in Ecuador?

Sources: 1. Rudel, Thomas K. Tropical Deforestation: Small farmers and land clearing in the Ecuadorian

Amazon. Columbia University Press, 1993.

2. Repetto, Robert and Malcolm Gillis, ed. Public Policies and the Misuse of forest resources,

Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Reviewer: Tom Dulong, Colby College ’00

Ecuador has the most biodiversity per hectare of any South American country. The small country measures only 3% of the size of Europe, yet is home to 20-50% more plant species. In one hectare of forest there may be as many as 300 different species of tree (Repetto, 1988). Ecuador is also the most densely populated on the continent and therefore land is a very valuable resource. The economic structure of Ecuador is one that relies on the unsustainable exploitation of these resources. National policies tend to encourage encroachment and colonization on natural lands. There are no controls over state owned lands. There are no formal property rights established in the country. If someone claims a portion of land, it is that person’s land until a competitor takes it over. This gives the ‘owner’ of the land an incentive to extract all of its resources before a competitor comes in and takes it. This results in a great deal of deforestation. If deforestation continues at its current rate of 2.3% per year, the forests in the region could disappear entirely within the next 30-35 years (Sierra, 1998).

Large companies such as oil and logging companies have developed regions throughout Ecuador. To become more productive in their field, companies build penetration roads far into the forested area. These companies do not in any way control access to these roads. Therefore, it is to the advantage of the small farmers in the area to claim this roadside land. By obtaining this land, the colonists can gain better access to markets. The companies essentially establish a small settlement through the construction of penetration roads. This tends to have harsh environmental effects because there are no established property rights. The government can establish property rights of the forested land as property of the state. However, these lands might as well be free goods because the government allows their citizens to settle there. When a penetration road had been constructed, the citizens acted as free riders. They take advantage of the easy access to the free property and clear a portion of land to call their own.

Settlement of these areas became increasingly inefficient. Local farmers try to capitalize on the construction of the next penetration road by trying to predict where it will be put and claiming more land before a road is even constructed. Therefore, it is not just the lead institutions such as oil companies and logging companies that play a role in the clearing of forestlands. Small growth coalitions were formed to occupy and protect lands from competing claims. The lead institution builds the infrastructure and then these growth coalitions claim and clear the additional land around these roads.

Up until the mid-1980’s companies would have built penetration roads into rain forest regions without any concern about incidental land clearing along the roads. However, political pressures from non-governmental organizations concerned for the environment and indigenous rights have caused many companies to enclose the areas in which they work. This was done in the hope that colonists will no longer settle along the sides of company roads. One example is the American oil company, CONOCO. This company was given permission to open a new oil field in a national park in eastern Ecuador. A penetration road was built to gain access to the wells. The company plans to prevent additional deforestation along the road by building a fence around the area, restrict the entry to the road, and use satellite images to monitor land use in their boundaries. Another company, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), has claimed a large portion of land around its mine and created a nature preserve (Rudel, 1993). These simple enclosure strategies hoped to prevent free riders from exploiting any additional land. These strategies have proven to have only minimal success. The strategies have been successful with groups such as CONOCO and CVRD because they can establish limits as well as carry on in their particular economic activity. However, to some companies it is not beneficial to preserve the land. In fact, it is much more beneficial to use the additional resources for their particular business. In this case, forests tend to be exploited. Environmental groups can only hope to minimize deforestation but not eliminate it.

It becomes obvious how limitations such as this can be seen as ineffective. It becomes especially obvious when one compares the size of the protected areas with the size of the forest at risk. There were a great deal of parks and reserves created during the 1980s, as a result of debt for nature swaps. However, these parks represent roughly 5% of tropical forests (Rudel, 1993). Poor countries such as Ecuador can not afford to give up their rights to exploit their tropical forests. It is unrealistic to them to preserve these forests for the future when they are so concerned about the present. Even if Ecuador did establish preserves, they could not afford to maintain a staff that would be needed to protect the preserve.

Agroforestry is another policy option to be considered. The most common type is one that involves small farmers combining tree crops with row crops. Some, but not many, cultivate only tree crops. Those who take part in this often have a very hard time marketing their goods. This is because they produce a small amount of a large array of products. Urban markets are the most obvious place to sell these products, but the cost of shipping them is too great. Some farmers avoid this problem by specializing in the production of a certain good. This is not environmentally beneficial because it destroys biodiversity. Others simply just see agroforestry as a source of additional income and use the bulk of their land for pasture or to grow row crops. Agroforestry can provide some environmental benefits. However, only pure forms of agroforestry can be as beneficial as tropical forests. Unfortunately, with the limitations we have seen it is an unlikely practice.

Policies taken on by environmental groups are clearly not enough to prevent deforestation along penetration roads in Ecuador. Establishing parks and preserves can be effective, but countries like Ecuador has neither the money nor the incentives to protect these lands. Government policies concerning property rights need to be established in order to create more efficient and sustainable uses of resources. With no formal establishment of property rights, it is advantageous for landholders to exploit their lands. Formal property rights would give landholders the incentive to conserve resources and become much more sustainable.