When does technological change in agriculture promote deforestation?


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That is the question asked in a recent paper by Arild Angelsen and David Kaimowitz, presented at a recent symposium on Agricultural Intensification, Economic Development, and the Environment in Salt Lake City. The paper answers that question using both analytical models and by reviewing the qualitative literature on major technological changes in different parts of the world. (Non-economists may have difficulty with the modeling sections).

The paper concludes that technological changes in agriculture are more likely to promote deforestation when:

* The changes involve capital-intensive technologies that can be applied to agriculture frontier conditions.

* The demand for the products involved is elastic (more output will not reduce the price much).

* The supply of labor is elastic (increased employment opportunities will not lead to much higher wages).

* Farmers attempt to maximize their profits and not only obtain a subsistence level of consumption.

* When the opposite conditions exist technological changes will be more likely to reduce deforestation.

Examples of where capital-intensive technologies applicable to agricultural frontier conditions probably increased deforestation include new soybean and livestock technologies in Latin America and the introduction of chain saws in several regions of the world. The elastic demand for agricultural exports and policies designed to ensure an elastic supply of labor help explain why the arrival of new cash crops such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, oil palm, and sugar historically led to wide spread deforestation in many countries.

The Green Revolution technologies in rice and other grains probably produced the opposite result. Large increases in food crop production helped lower prices and discourage bringing new areas into cultivation. The substitution of shifting cultivation systems with perennial crops or more intensive annual crop production are examples where more labor – intensive technologies may have reduced pressure on forests.

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Further reading

If you would like to obtain an electronic copy of the paper, please write Ambar Liano.

If you would like more information on the symposium and other papers that were presented there, you can write David Lee at: mailto:drl5@cornell.edu

CIFOR is also currently planning a short workshop on the impact of technological change in agriculture on deforestation for March, 1999. If you would like additional information on that workshop you can write Arild Angelsen.