Bringing the GreenBack
Central Americans working abroad and sending money home are not only fueling their native economies—they’re also helping to bring the trees back.
By John Carey
When Susanna Hecht traveled to El Salvador in 1999 to work with the government on its environmental plan, she didn’t know she’d end up with a controversial and counter-intuitive idea: globalization is causing a forest recovery. What was immediately obvious, though, was that the Central American country looked very different from what she had expected. After a brutal civil war and decades of deforestation, El Salvador was supposed to be an environmental wasteland. “I grew up on El Salvador as the Malthusian nightmare—the future planet awaiting us if we didn’t stop deforesting,” Hecht says. Tropical ecologist John Terborgh even declared in the late 1990s that “nature has already been extinguished in El Salvador.”
So why was Hecht, a professor of political ecology at UCLA, seeing so many trees? There were luxuriant “living fences” between properties, ribbons of forest along rivers, coffee plantations shaded by forest canopies, and new woodlands springing from abandoned fields. These trees went largely unnoticed by Hecht’s local hosts and guides. “They were always saying, ‘We don’t have any forests here,’ even though we were driving through forests,” Hecht recalls.
True, these weren’t glorious pristine forests untouched by humans. But Hecht’s previous years of research in Central and South America had already shown that the untrammeled primeval forest is pretty much a myth, anyway. Poring over centuries-old, yellowed Jesuit diaries and arcane diplomatic dispatches, she’d uncovered a vast area teeming with people who shaped and changed the forest, with more steamships plying the nineteenth- century Amazon River than Mark Twain’s Mississippi. And living for months with the Kayapó in central Amazonia, she’d seen how the indigenous people enrich the soil with a type of charcoal known as biochar, creating the fertile terra preta (dark earth) that makes sustained agriculture possible in the otherwise soil-impoverished Amazon watershed. “Susanna was one of the real pioneers in recognizing that the Amazon has had a deep, deep human footprint,” says Steven Sanderson, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “She has a much more expansive idea of what constitutes a forest than most researchers.”
In fact, Hecht believes that virtually no primary forests free of human influence exist. “It’s mostly secondary or managed forest,” she says. “So I was primed to see the El Salvador forests, and not disparage them.”
But were these trees merely overlooked, or were they making a real comeback? Hecht set out to find proof. She teamed up with Sassan Saatchi of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to compare satellite imagery of the country from the early 1990s with pictures from the early 2000s. The two researchers found a striking change within just a decade. By the early 2000s, the amount of land with at least 30 percent tree cover had jumped by 22 percent. And areas with a tree canopy covering more than 60 percent of the land had climbed by 7 percent. In other words, the overall area of woodlands had increased, but the bulk of the resurgence of trees occurred in relatively small patches as crop and grazing lands reverted to woodlands.
That observation has since helped lead Hecht to a far-reaching idea about conservation. While economic globalization has exacted a staggering toll on some ecosystems, it has also sparked a chain of unintended, and sometimes ingenious, consequences that are contributing to a patchy but significant forest recovery in places where people live. Mainstream conservationists have largely been fixated on nature preserves and set-asides, but Hecht argues that the key to preservation might also lie in harnessing the inhabited landscapes of today.
“If we have lots of people in the forest, we should be thrilled, because we know the two can coexist,” she says. Even El Salvador’s unprepossessing-looking secondary forests or Mexico’s coffee plantations can have huge conservation value. “It’s time to rethink rural areas,” Hecht says. It’s time to explore what she calls “a new rurality.”
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Not surprisingly, Hecht’s ideas are controversial. Even her initial 2007 BioScience paper coauthored with Saatchi, which simply documented the growth of new forests, created a minor firestorm in the world of conservation. (1) “I had 700 emails screaming at me for promoting deforestation or saying, thank God someone is talking about the forest recovery,” Hecht recalls. “It pissed off a lot of people.” Even terms such as forest resurgence and globalization turned out to be semantically fraught, with different meanings for different people.
The evidence of reforestation in the 2007 paper heaped fuel on an already heated debate over strategies for protecting the planet’s wild treasures. If forests are making a rapid recovery, as in El Salvador and other countries, then perhaps deforestation isn’t such a big or intractable problem. On the other hand, these new secondary forests could be conservationists’ fool’s gold—woefully incapable of harboring the needed diversity of plants and animals.
The debate continues today. Because of uncertainties in interpreting satellite imagery and because of the widely disparate official national definitions of what constitutes a forest, it’s impossible to know whether deforestation is happening faster than forest recovery or vice versa. “My guess is that reforesting areas probably exceed the areas of deforestation, so there is a net benefit in area,” says Thomas Rudel, professor of human ecology at Rutgers.
That doesn’t mean, however, that new secondary woodlands are compensating for the loss of biodiversity and conservation value from the destruction of older forests. Hecht has done “good and valuable work,” says William Laurance, distinguished research professor at James Cook University in Australia. “But I am far less sanguine about what is happening in the world than a lot of people who focus on secondary forests. It’s grossly too soon to be saying we’ve won the battle. We are still losing, maybe just not as badly as we thought.”
This question of diversity is crucial, says Kent Redford, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Institute. “A forest for me has large animals in high densities. That kind of forest is getting rarer and rarer. That’s why I get my knickers in a twist when people say forests are increasing.”
Sanderson is more positive. “Susanna has a very clever intuitive mind, and there’s always something fresh and maybe slightly combative in what she does,” he says. “What the Central American work does is draw people’s attention to something they had given up on.” Indeed, Hecht says, it’s vital to realize that forest resurgence is both possible and under way. “It seems to me that we should be really thrilled when the forest comes back, because we have a narrative that it doesn’t come back,” she says. She recalls a favorite forestry professor during her grad student days at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. “He said, ‘I know you get upset about deforestation, but trees grow.’ I resisted his admonishments then, but I came around to them.”
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Unwilling to stop there, Hecht ventured out on yet another limb in an attempt to understand why the forests were coming back. Some of the causes were obvious. The civil war made the countryside a perilous place to live. “Violence and terror stimulated urban migration and a surge of international flight,” Hecht and Saatchi explain in the paper. One-sixth of the population fled, mostly coming to the U.S. After the war, government engineered a shift in El Salvador’s economy from agriculture to financial services and manufacturing, drawing more people from the countryside to the cities. The result: farmland was abandoned. Trees quickly sprouted.
But there was still a puzzle. Even with the migrations to cities and other countries, rural population density remained high. Yet many of the families who remained were still abandoning the traditional milpa agriculture they once needed to provide their food, allowing forests to regrow. Why?
The reason, Hecht realized, was globalization. Linking El Salvador’s economy to the global trading system had brought an influx of cheap food, such as U.S. corn. But there was another powerful force at work as well—the flow of money from relatives living in the U.S.
Living in Los Angeles, Hecht had become familiar with the strong ties between immigrants in the U.S. and their villages back home. Many immigrants had formed hometown associations in L.A. In fact, one of her PhD students, a Zapotec Indian, is a leader in his home village. So she was primed to think about the consequences of the flow of money to home countries—so-called remittances.
The total value of remittances is huge. The World Bank pegs the global figure at more than $300 billion per year. That’s more than all the direct foreign investment in the countries that receive remittances, which include many in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. In El Salvador, remittances exceed $2 billion, reaching 25 percent of all rural households.
Most previous studies had looked at how these remittances fueled the consumption of goods, such as new or bigger houses. Hecht, however, wondered about the environmental effects. So when she was in El Salvador helping to rewrite the country’s environmental laws, she traveled around the country interviewing rural people. The light bulb went off when she kept hearing the same refrain. “They said, ‘We used to grow corn, but it’s not worth it anymore. It makes more sense to buy food,’” says Hecht.
With remittances, they could afford to. Hecht painstakingly documented the trail of remittances into El Salvador, showing that families getting money from abroad clear less land—and let more land revert to woods. “If you have a remittance, you live a lot better,” Hecht explains. “It doubles your income. So what is the point of farming? You might as well do something better with your time.” Sending kids to school instead of having them tend the fields is one example.
Identifying remittances and globalization as forces behind reforestation “was a brilliant insight,” says John Vandermeer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. “It was the first time anyone had suggested it.” It was yet another coup for the prolific and polymathic Hecht, a gourmet chef and accomplished horsewoman as well as a purveyor of new findings about humans and forests. “I can do all this because I’m an insomniac and dyslexic,” she laughs. “My brain does not work linearly.” Colleagues see a more fundamental talent at work. “She’s brilliant—and a character,” says Wake Forest University ecologist Miles Silman: “She’s a diva in a good way.”
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Once forests are viewed through the lens of globalization, it’s clear that today’s flat earth has a number of salutary effects. Global trade is making it possible for poor Zapotec farmers in the Sierra Norte region of Mexico to be transformed into owners of a sophisticated and diversified forest industry capable of competing with Chinese factories in the world furniture market. As a result, they are carefully managing their forests for both commercial and biological value, says Florida International University’s David Bray, who is working with the Zapotec. Bray even recently found jaguars roaming the forest. “The community has become like a developed country in terms of forest conservation,” he says.
And don’t forget the global spread of ideas, such as the notion that natural areas deliver “ecosystems services” of tangible economic value. That realization has led the Mexican government to pay the Zapotec people for the hydrological benefits—clean water—provided by their forest, further tipping the balance toward conservation. “Globalization has been a driver of forest recovery in many places,” Hecht concludes.
Of course, that’s a hot-button statement. For every positive example, there’s a horror story. Witness the thousands of hectares of rainforest destroyed for soybean fields in Brazil or for rubber and palm plantations in Southeast Asia.
Or look at the human cost, from exploited seamstresses in Bangladeshi sweatshops to health woes from polluted skies and soils in China. Even El Salvador’s forest resurgence comes with a human toll. “In essence, Susanna Hecht says that if you have a savage war and a collapsed economy and massive emigration, and if agriculture no longer pays and rural people are starving so they have to go to cities or to the U.S., then your forests remerge,” says David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Okay. If you want to say that globalization is good for forests, you also have to say that it is terrible for people. It breaks up families and communities and destroys cultures.”
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Hecht readily agrees there is human suffering. But asking whether globalization is good or bad is beside the point; it’s here, whether we like it or not. “I don’t take it as a moral process, but as an economic reality,” she explains. “It’s the sea we swim in.”
The more useful exercise is trying to harness globalization to maximize its benefits and minimize its costs. That, in turn, ties in with Hecht’s latest insight—the idea of a rural transformation that brings benefits both to people and to the natural world.
This “new rurality” notion pulls together much of Hecht’s three decades of work. It begins by acknowledging that in many cases, forests are as much a work of humans as of nature. The charcoal Hecht observed being added to soils has since been found throughout the Amazon. “Finding charcoal is always disconcerting if you want to be in the forest primeval,” she notes. Even many areas now considered pristine, such as La Selva Biological Station in northern Costa Rica, were once farmed or heavily managed. “So you can understand why I get a little snorty about the ‘wild nature’ set trained in La Selva,” Hecht says.
Then add in the fact that parks, reserves, and other nominally protected areas make up only about seven percent of the tropics, says Bill Laurance. That’s far less than the forested areas more heavily used by people. As Michigan’s Vandermeer, Ivette Perfecto, and Angus Wright argue in their book Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, rural tropical landscapes have become islands of habitat interspersed among crops, pastures, and other uses. (2) That puts a greater onus on wringing the most biodiversity and conservation value from nonprotected areas, most of which are used by people to make their living.
In Mexico and Costa Rica, Vandermeer and Perfecto have shown, coffee plantations where beans are grown in the shade of a forest canopy harbor a far more diverse fauna of ants than plantations without tree cover. “There’s a dramatic decrease in biodiversity in sun-grown coffee, from 16 to 20 species of ants to two or three species,” Vandermeer says. Moreover, the team’s latest studies show that higher diversity is not just good for nature; it also pays off financially for coffee growers. That’s because ants are capable of keeping a major pest of coffee, the coffee berry borer, in check. But only some ant species have a taste for the pest. So “the more biodiversity you have, the more likely you are to have ants that prey on the borer,” says Vandermeer.
Another part of the solution is finding forest crops and products with high-enough economic value to enable woodlands to compete with other potential uses of the land, such as intensive soybean agriculture or cattle ranching. Examples range from acai to premium forest-grown tea from Taiwan. It also helps to find additional sources of revenue for local people. “The lesson is that poverty causes people to do things against their long-term interest,” says David Morris. “If they have more money, they will not destroy the environment around them.” That money could come from remittances, payments for ecosystem services, eco-tourism, or a climate policy such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)—where people are compensated for the value of emissions avoided when trees aren’t cut. There may also be innovative ways for conservationists to help make remittances even more effective, such as working to reduce often-onerous transfer fees.
“Thinking about how we can keep both people and forests alive seems to be the central environmental challenge,” says Hecht. “It would be unfortunate if old models blinded us to new opportunities.” For Hecht, areas such as El Salvador’s resurgent woodlands—the forests no one else noticed—offer hope that the challenge can be met. “Inhabited environments will be our matrix for where we imagine a new conservation,” she argues. It’s still a controversial notion, though. So it’s a good thing she’s a gourmet cook, she laughs: “If I am going to make people drink the Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid better be good.” ❧
1. Hecht, S.B. and S.S. Saatchi. 2007. Globalization and forest resurgence: Changes in forest cover in El Salvador. BioScience 57(8):663-672.
2. Perfecto, I., J. Vandermeer and A. Wright. 2009. Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.
Veteran science and environment writer John Carey considered doing a PhD in forestry after graduating from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies 31 years ago but was lured away by journalism instead. Among other things, he has served as a senior correspondent in Business Week’s Washington Bureau, as an editor for The Scientist, and as a writer for Newsweek, where he covered science, technology, and health.