FPESA Research Paper Assessment: Population Growth May Not Drive Deforestation in Eastern Ecuador, Yet Still Be Unsustainable

FPESA Research Paper Assessment: Population Growth May Not Drive Deforestation in Eastern Ecuador, Yet Still Be Unsustainable

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Anders Henrik Sirén, “Population Growth and Land Use Intensification in a Subsistence-based Indigenous Community in the Amazon,” Human Ecology, vol. 35, no. 6 (December 2007), pp. 669–80, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-006-9089-y. This paper was collaboratively assessed.

Population growth in Sarayaku, a lightly populated indigenous community in eastern Ecuador, appears to have had little impact on deforestation in the area over the last seven decades, despite a growth rate of 1.6 percent a year over this period, this paper concludes. The area of agricultural land grew at only 0.4 percent a year, despite almost complete reliance on subsistence farming. The community’s demographic growth nonetheless may be unsustainable, the author suggests. The productivity of agricultural land is declining, and farmers must walk farther to fields and work harder on them. Land scarcity may be contributing to some conflict in the community and to efforts to secure off-farm employment alternatives.

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Amazonian indigenous people may depend more on low population densities than on any inherent sustainability in the shifting cultivation system itself.

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Key quotes: “[T]he apparent sustainability observed in shifting cultivation systems of Amazonian indigenous people may depend more on low population densities than on any inherent sustainability in the shifting cultivation system itself. . . . [One] way to adapt to land scarcity is community fission [splitting off of groups from communities, which occurred in Sarayaku] or relocation. . . . [S]uch fissions reduce competition for land for cultivation, and such competition for resources may be an underlying cause of social conflict.”

FPESA network assessments (eight total) were almost unanimously favorable. Some assessors wondered if technological, governmental, and other external factors might have influenced the relationship between population growth and land use. One assessor suggested that the FPESA conceptual framework  should be modified to reflect the importance of such factors. Another suggested that institutional constraints on shifting cultivation mentioned by the author (e.g., the presence of schools in the communities) were not adequately addressed in the study. Yet another assessor offered a neutral overall assessment, finding the paper unconvincing in directly connecting either land-use change or resource scarcity to population growth.

Overall assessment: Although hardly definitive in its study of population growth and deforestation in indigenous communities (and with no attention to reproductive issues such as family planning), this paper offers value to the FPESA project on several fronts. It is based on the author’s doctoral thesis and demonstrates the potential of such theses to advance methodology and research in the family planning-environmental sustainability linkage. As is the pattern in this literature, the author fails to identify convincingly a direct causation between population growth and agricultural constraints or deforestation. He acknowledges significant constraints in data collection, but he was not dissuaded and found credible ways to make best-possible estimates for his analysis.

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The author fails to identify convincingly a direct causation between population growth and agricultural constraints or deforestation.

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The author constructs a narrative of the livelihood of the people in southeastern Ecuador and probes for changes that may have resulted from population growth. The correlations between that growth and the area under cultivation, forest, and fallow (formerly cultivated land abandoned to nature to regain fertility) are obvious but not strong, but the author does not stop with this conclusion. He finds that land productivity losses have no other obvious cause beyond the stable per capita agricultural activity multiplied by modest population growth. These may have affected the community’s livelihood and social relations and may require governance and other institutional efforts for adaptation to continued demographic pressure. Overall, his conclusions are plausible and suggest avenues and the need for further research on the complexities of population growth in relation to land use and resources.

Banner Photo Credit: Kichwa Añangu community in Yasuní National Park (Wikimedia)

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The following annotation and assessment is excerpted from the forthcoming report of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project. The report will contain selected annotations from more than 930 peer-reviewed articles reviewed for potential relevance to the hypothesis that family planning supports environmental sustainability. The annotations are written by project director Robert Engelman with input from members of the project team and, where indicated, members of the project’s international network of research assessors.

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Photo Credit: skifatenum

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