Bird or Cows?

Deforestation is a complicated subject in Ecuador, as there are many types of forests and many reasons to cut them down. The highlands have been deforested for centuries, perhaps dating back to the pre-Colombian era; the temperate and montane forests that once blanketed the inter-Andean valley are almost entirely gone, but the rich volcanic soil has sustained many generations of agricultural use. The western lowlands have seen most of its rainforest swapped for monoculture farms such as African Palm, Pineapple, Cacao, and Banana. The eastern lowlands have only recently been opened up thanks to oil exploration, but some areas have already been logged selectively for valuable wood, such as mahagony. Finally, the cloud forests on the western and eastern slopes of the Andes are slowly being encroached upon by small-scale cattle farms.

Every road from the highlands to the lowlands exhibits this latter form of deforestation. The magnificent forests that drape the steep slopes are pockmarked here and there, not just by landslides, but also by cow pastures. How does this process typically play out? A farmer purchases or inherits several hectares of primary or secondary forest; since the land is too steep to support lucrative agriculture, the farmer clear cuts it with a chainsaw; pasture grass is planted, which quickly chokes off the clearing and several cows are introduced to hobble up and down the slopes and fend for themselves. The cows might produce enough milk to feed the farmer and his family, and if they're ambitious they could parlay some of their resources into the small-scale production of cheese and other dairy products. Some of the cleared land might also be planted with dwarf fruit trees, such as naranjilla, but agriculture in these areas necessitates more care and yields less profit than cattle.

Once planted with pasture grass, the clearings won't regenerate forest effectively on their own, which is why clearings persist even without regular grazing. Most plant species in the cloud forest are interdependent and require a tightly woven canopy that blocks sunlight and traps moisture. Reforestation efforts are tricky for this reason and require sophisticated knowledge of native plants, well-stocked nurseries, and multiple phases of plantings to succeed. Even then, it takes several decades for clearings to be reforested. Clearings planted with pasture grass and then left on their own are doubly destructive as they accelerate the process of erosion and affect the quantity and quality of water downstream.

What's the trade off, then? A few hectares of pasture support several cows, which could then support several people. On the other hand, a few hectares of cloud forest support perhaps one hundred species of birds, which, unless properly protected and managed, in turn support no one. From a birder's perspective, the question of birds or cows is easily resolved, but someone who has never peered through a pair of binoculars probably sees it differently.

August 31, 2008

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