Smallholder profits, policies collide in Peruvian Amazon

Blame for Amazon deforestation falls wrongly on smallholders who clear small fields for crops.
Timber from agricultural fallows slips between the cracks in Peru’s forestry regulations.

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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles about CIFOR’s research on smallholder bolaina logging in the Amazon.

Robin Sears squints up at the top of the tree, then pats its straight, white trunk. “This is the mother of all these other trees,” she says, gesturing at the stand of young bolaina (Guazuma crinita) trees dotting the muddy hillside.

Just a few years ago, this was Segundo Saboya’s cornfield. The bolaina trees grew after the natural vegetation regenerated in his field, and a few years from now the trees, which in this region are typically managed in fallows, will be ready to harvest, providing some much-needed cash for Saboya’s family.

The catch is that the law allows him to cut the trees for his own use, but not to sell them. So when he takes the timber to the market, he will run the risk of being fined, having the wood confiscated or needing to pay bribes en route to the sawmill.

Timber from agricultural fallows slips between the cracks in Peru’s forestry regulations, Sears said. She is part of a team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) studying how smallholders manage and market bolaina and other species common in agricultural fallows. The goal is to suggest policies that could help smallholders take advantage of the fast-growing timber in a sustainable way.

“We’ve always seen the forest as a safety net for farmers,” said Sears, vice president for academic affairs at The School for Field Studies, which offers study-abroad environmental programs in nine countries.

As part of her research, which she started with colleague Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez in 2005 as a Columbia University scientist, armed with Tinker Foundation funding and a Fulbright scholarship, Sears interviewed farmers in the area around Contamana, the capital of Ucayali Province in the Peruvian Amazon.

Now Sears is following up that study about timber production in agricultural fallows by counting and measuring trees to reassess the same plots the team worked in some years ago. She is particularly interested in hearing about the opportunities and constraints of managing and selling the timber the farmers produce. The information from this study will help the team to inform policy.

Smallholders generally clear small patches of land where they plant crops in forested areas. After a few years farming, they let the forest grow back. The land undergoes this treatment repeatedly over the years, resulting in a “mosaic” of forests, fields and “managed” fallows where bolaina, other timber species and fruit trees grow.

Besides commercial products, we need to understand what other services they provide to people living in the landscape

Peter Cronkleton

Saboya’s plot, with its small fields of corn and rice and its fruit trees — including a stand of large trees bearing ripe avocados — is a typical mosaic, Sears said.

“In the old days, when loggers came through here, they planted bananas and other fruit trees so they would have food along the path,” Saboya said, pointing out orange, lemon and mango trees, as well as plants with medicinal uses, as he strides through the woods.


Over the past two decades, Saboya has also planted about 100 mahogany trees. The slow-growing tree is one of the most valuable in the Amazon forest, but is increasingly rare. Saboya, who is 64 years old, knows he may not live to harvest his trees, but sees them as money in the bank for his children and grandchildren.

Blame for Amazon deforestation sometimes falls on smallholders who clear small fields for crops, but “they are not the villains,” Sears said. And particularly today with low prices for agricultural products, farmers are seeing the value of fallow timber production on their landholdings. Most deforestation occurs along roads, where ranchers clear land for pasture, or in places where companies are establishing large oil palm plantations.

Smallholders are leery of planting all their fields with a single crop variety because pests or a drop in the market price could leave them without enough money to repay the loan they took out for planting.

By planting some corn, some cacao, and some bolaina, while maintaining some mature forest they buffer themselves against financial disaster. The resulting mosaic also provides environmental services, including biodiversity, forest corridors for wildlife and protection of water supplies, according to Pinedo-Vásquez, who also studies smallholder timber production.

One goal of CIFOR’s research is to understand what senior scientist Peter Cronkleton calls the “forest-farm interface” — the areas managed by smallholders in a cycle of crop fields, fallows and secondary forest.

“We are studying how these systems function and how many people they support. Besides commercial products, we need to understand what other services they provide to people living in the landscape,” Cronkleton said.

“With that information, we can open up a dialogue about how these smallholders should be supported and how policies could be adjusted to facilitate this type of production.”

This research is carried out by CIFOR as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Peter Cronkleton at

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