Susanna Hecht didn’t set out to make waves in the conservation community when she traveled to El Salvador in 1999 to help the government with its environmental plan. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the country was an environmental wasteland, a cautionary example of the devastating effects of deforestation.
But Hecht, a professor of political ecology at the University of California, Los Angeles, didn’t see a ruined landscape. Instead, she saw luxuriant “living fences” between properties, ribbons of forest along rivers, coffee plantations shaded by forest canopies, and whole new woodlands springing from abandoned fields. But were these forests merely overlooked, or were they making a true comeback? Using satellite photographs, Hecht and a colleague found a striking change: The amount of land with at least 30 percent tree cover had jumped by 22 percent from the early 1990s to the early 2000s “Many analysts have failed to note the extent of woodland recuperation,” they reported in a landmark 2007 paper in BioScience.
Since then, Hecht has returned to El Salvador many times, most recently in early March. Her nuanced studies of humanity’s interaction with forests have revealed how major social forces, such as globalization, affect our environment. For example, not only were imports of cheap food replacing the traditional subsistence agricultural system in El Salvador, but El Salvadorans who had migrated to the U.S. also were sending back large amounts of money — so-called remittances — to their families at home. That made it possible for people to buy food instead of growing their own, allowing farmland to revert to forest.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Hecht argues that it’s time to start thinking about a new conservation strategy for the world’s forests. Instead of working mostly to set aside preserves and parks for wildlife and biodiversity, we need to focus more on the unprotected areas where people live. She talks about a “new rurality,” wringing the most biodiversity from a patchwork landscape of crops, pastures, agroforestry plantations, and abandoned farmland reverting to forest. And in her latest work with the El Salvadoran government, she is focusing on yet another role for this rural landscape — helping to adapt to climate change.
“There has been a recognition that inhabited environments can have major conservation values,” Hecht told Yale e360 contributor John Carey. “If we have lots of people with forests we should be thrilled. And we should be really thrilled when the forest comes back, because we have a narrative that it doesn’t.”
Yale Environment 360: Let’s start with your first trip to El Salvador. What did you see?
Susanna Hecht: Well, anyone who teaches tropical ecology has been exposed to various lines that say nature has been extinguished in El Salvador. It’s been a place that’s been a Malthusian poster child since the 1970s. The dense population and the limited resource base seemed to create this idea that if you had people and you had forest then pretty soon you would have no forest and a lot of people.
In 1999, I was asked to come down to help them think about the vision for El Salvador for the 2020s, and also to work on legal codes and regulations. As I was being picked up at the airport and driven to the hotel, there was a big apologia. They said, ‘It’s really too bad — we just don’t have any forests.’
And I was quite perplexed because it was clear there were a lot of agro forests and secondary forests along the road. It wasn’t this blasted landscape that one had been inclined to imagine. It had people, but it also had lots of different kinds of forest.
e360: So being a scientist, you decided to see whether forests were indeed making a comeback in the country?
There has been an extraordinary recovery of forests — it wasn’t that I had trees painted on my glasses.”
Hecht: It was because people kept saying there weren’t any forests, yet I’d seen them with my own eyes. So with Sassan Saatchi, I said let’s take a look at this with satellite imagery. Because it was a war zone for a long time, there was a large and extensive archive of images. What we discovered was that there had been an extraordinary recovery of forest in these areas. It wasn’t that I had trees painted on the front of my sunglasses.
Most people thought I was relatively delusional, but the other thing that has been transpiring is that many observers in many parts of the world have been noticing this process of forest recovery as well.
e360: What is the cause of the forest recovery?
Hecht: Well, in El Salvador, part of it could be explained through migration — migration to the United States and some urban migration. But what was important was that the population density was as high as it had been when the area was being completely deforested. So you couldn’t say it was a Malthusian process. You had to say something had changed about the political ecology.
And partly this is a function of globalization. With globalization and structural adjustment programs, things like corn and other basic staples were coming in at import prices that were below the cost of their production in El Salvador. That meant if you were going to sell your corn, you would be selling it at a loss. So peasant agriculture soon collapsed, allowing reforestation.
Another thing about globalization is that for niche commodities it’s quite good. Those are crops that get a premium. What it meant in the case of El Salvador is that things like cashews and coffee and artisanal products made from wood had a vigorous market compared to the crummy returns you got for corn and the milpa crops [Subsistence crops such as beans and squash.] There was a shift to higher value crops, many of them arboreal.
I was driving around a lot this last week in El Salvador, and in areas where even a decade ago you’d still see a lot of milpa up on these steep slopes, you really didn’t see it anymore.
e360: With people buying more imported food rather than growing it themselves, how can they afford it?
Hecht: More than half the households receive remittances from various countries, mostly from family members in the Los Angeles area. People work at jobs here in the U.S. and send money back. If you are getting remittances, you live a lot better — it basically doubles your income. Instead of having to produce corn with low yields on, say, steep slopes, you could buy the corn for the tortillas and not have to go into these forest areas. The result was a lot of land abandonment. The land was allowed to go into successional activities or forest-based economies rather than being used for producing basically corn.
e360: How much money is flowing into these countries?
Click to enlarge
Hecht: There has been a major structural change in these economies and essentially they have to be seen as being highly globalized. They are run, in part, though large remittances. If we were to think about it globally, we would be looking at about 10 percent of the world’s population and something like $320 billion a year flowing through these informal channels to households to improve their well-being. So in a certain sense what you see in these areas is that they are less producers of commodities than they are generating services through providing a sort of refuge for households in times of stress. And they are increasingly maintaining biodiversity services and carbon absorption services, for which they are not paid.
e360: Are these global forces driving forest recovery in countries other than El Salvador?
Hecht: We are beginning to see a lot of forest recovery in lots of places. One salient place is the United States, although the mechanisms are somewhat different here. In the Sahel, more than two million hectares have been recuperated because of women planting tree crops and families receiving remittances from men who have migrated. You also see the rise of really high-value tree crops that have taken over areas that used to be in pasture in Amazonia.
Overall, around the world, we are seeing a net increase in forest cover. We’re seeing not just a forest recovery, but declines in deforestation as well. I think this is a ‘good news’ story.
e360: This raises the thorny question of whether or not these rural areas, which have lots of people along with the reforested areas, really do have any conservation value. Do they? And might saying that forests are recovering cause people to say that we no longer need to worry about deforestation? I heard that when your 2007 paper came out, there was quite a reaction.
Hecht: It pissed off a lot of people. I had 700 emails screaming at me for promoting deforestation. On the other hand, others said: Thank God someone is talking about the forest recovery.
I am always surprised how controversial this is. I think it’s partly because some conservationists don’t count secondary forest as real forest. They see forests as ahistorical and apolitical, and the forests just aren’t. It was pounded into people in Bio 101 that human interaction with forests is destructive. But there has been extensive human influence even in places like the Amazon. What my work there taught me is that these places weren’t empty, and that if you only look at the ecological side, you don’t see the social side of forests. The conservationists really don’t like this.
What helped me to see forests in degraded areas was being around people messing in the forest. So I was primed to see the El Salvador forests and not to disparage them. To me there is almost no primary forest; it’s all secondary forests. All landscapes will have to be working landscapes. If we have lots of people with forests, we should be thrilled. And we should be really thrilled when the forest comes back because we have a narrative that it doesn’t come back.
e360: But are these secondary forests valuable?
“Hedgerows, woodlots, gardens and domestic forests all end up supporting biodiversity in surprising ways.”
Hecht: There has been a recognition that inhabited environments can have major conservation value. Even though the reforested areas are fragmented, they are quite diverse in terms of landscape. They end up actually having a rather interesting impact at regional levels — they scale up rather better than one might imagine. Even those hedgerows can provide something like 40 to 50 percent of the biodiversity that you get in a riparian system in El Salvador. And hedgerows, land demarcations, woodlots, gardens and domestic forests of various kinds all end up supporting biodiversity in ways that are kind of surprising. For instance, the bird diversity of El Salvador is about equal to that of Belize, which has a fraction of the population and far less fragmented forests.
Given the kind of magnitude of the changes that are coming no matter what, you need to have more access to more different kinds of conservation landscapes than merely the large-scale set-aside. A lovely conservation area can lose its virtue simply because of strong climate change.
e360: Which brings us to your most recent visit to El Salvador, working with the country on responding the threat of climate change. It sounds like they are taking this threat far more seriously than we are in the U.S., and that secondary forests can play a major role?
Hecht: El Salvador and Central America take climate change seriously because they are getting nailed by these intense storms. As I always say, I never thought the future would come so soon. Last year El Salvador got hit so badly that the cost of recovering from storms and floods was much more than the costs of recuperating landscapes to build in more resilience to climate change. Now they see adaptation as the primary goal — it is the cost-effective thing to do.
Maintaining arboreal vegetation helps build resilience to climate change, and also brings slope protection, water channel protection, and tidal surge protection. In fact, the national climate policy of El Salvador essentially invokes the idea of agroforestry and forestry activities as a means of adapting to climate change — and of contributing to larger scale mitigation. Their economic and ecological development programs are now one and the same. For them, climate change isn’t an abstraction or something that you debate in Congress.
Lamentably, the United States has lost its legitimacy in dealing with climate change because it has cut its funding for it and pretends it’s not going on. Other countries lack the luxury to do so. They are taking it seriously and using everything they can.
And at the same time, these complex inhabited landscapes provide complex habitat over large areas linking different kinds of land uses for conservation ends. And I believe, with E.O. Wilson, that there is a kind of a biophilia. People like biodiversity in their heart of hearts when they’re not obsessed with controlling everything and turning it into a uniform place.