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The land rush

STRUGGLE FOR LAND AND THE FATE OF THE FORESTS Edited by Marcus Colchester and Larry Lohmann Publisher: The World Rainforest Movement, Malaysia, The Ecologist and Zed Books, UK. Price: Not stated

By Pranab Mukhopadhyaya
Published: Saturday 15 January 1994

For a piece of land DEVELOPMENT discourse in the post-World War II era centred on social and economic inequality. Rural poverty was linked directly to iniquitous land ownership and it was felt public policy had to take cognisance of this skewed distribution of land-holdings. It was also widely felt that the only path to social justice was through redistribution of land, but this was later relegated to the pages of history. These very issues have resurfaced - not directly because of sudden resurgence in efforts towards eradicating poverty, but as concerns for environmental protection.

As Marcus Colchester puts it, "Deforestation ... is an expression of social injustice." Concern over the loss of forest cover has put it on top of the global agenda. Various estimates place the figure of annual forest loss at between 170,000 sq km and 204,000 sq km annually. Brazil, Zaire and Indonesia, which together account for half the world's tropical forest cover, proportionately account for the annual forest loss.

The divide The consequences of accelerating forest loss have been highlighted sufficiently and there is near unanimity that this trend be reversed. It is on the question of the causes and the siode of reversing the trend that a wide divide exists. One stream of thought, which I would like to term as the "establishment" view, argues that poverty and overpopulation drive "encroachers" into forests, which are then degraded due to cultiwation of the slash-and-burn The counter, "anti-establishment" view suggests the root cause for migration by the rural poor into forest lands is structural inequalities in these economies. Skewed resource-ownership and the growth of market-oriented strategies have been the hidden hand behind the entry of rural poor from farms to forest.

The book brings together 13 papers, including case studies of Zaire, Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, on these issues. It argues and presents evidence for the antiestablishment view. Commercial logging is the prime accused and even if it does not directly account for the loss of the entire forest cover, it catalyses the movement of 11 encroachers" to the degraded lands. The initial encroachment by the landless is later regularised by large and influential landlords who dispossess the former. The cycle of migration, encroachment and eviction starts all over again.

Trans-border migration in Latin America - from Peten in Guatemala to Mexico, El Salvador and the Honduras, for instance, or from Brazil to Paraguay, Guyana, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia - is well presented. The case-studies pre- sent the whole gamut of issues and the complex links involved in understanding the problem of deforestation and poverty. The papers are tied together by a common theme: Land redistribution has to be given primacy in public policy to rationaliso forest use and check further, depletion of forest resources. The book presents a political economy and a demographic angle to the conception of deforestation.

Pranab Mykhopadhyay is a research fellow at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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