Tending to Eden: The rural poor are tangled in the roots of creation’s groaning

March 1, 2010


By Scott C. Sabin

Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010

Nearly one billion people make their livings as farmers at or near subsistence level. Since these men and women barely participate in the cash economy, they are overlooked by most economic indicators.

Urban poverty tends to get the most attention. It seems more ugly. The squalor of open sewers or the sight of children picking through smoldering garbage is shocking, whereas poor rural villages look quaint, peaceful, and bucolic.

But in many ways rural poverty is worse than urban poverty. Aid, opportunities, and services tend to be more available in cities. Yet the rural poor make up almost 80 percent of the 840 million chronically hungry people in the world, and the rural poor rank lower than the urban poor on almost every measure of human development.

The lives and land of a forgotten people
Although details vary depending on culture, climate, geography, ecology, and local markets, subsistence and near-subsistence farmers around the world have much in common in terms of lifestyle and the choices they are forced to make.

Land is scarce and severely degraded. The poor are left with the most marginal land: steep hillsides, rocky ravines, edges of forests, and the borders of national parks. Many families farm hillsides so steep that they are often injured falling out of their fields. Having gingerly made my way down some of those fields myself, I know how treacherous they can be.

Farmers frequently cultivate multiple small tracts of land several kilometers apart. A farmer might own a couple of plots, rent a few others, and sharecrop another. Much of the day is spent walking between fields. Hand tools such as picks, hoes, and machetes are used to work the rocky fields. Animals are rarely used.

I once spent an afternoon planting beans with some farmers in Haiti. Each of us carried a small sickle in one hand and bean seeds in the other. We dug through the rocks to make a small hole, dropped in a couple of seeds, and moved on. In short order, my hands started bleeding, my back ached, and I held out little hope for the beans I had planted. At least I had the comfort of knowing that I would be done in a few hours. For my friends in that field, this was daily life.

Farmers have no bank accounts, so they prepare for emergencies by investing in livestock. Pigs, goats, and cows are viewed like insurance or savings.

Farmers eat a large percentage of what they grow, and they sell the surplus to buy cooking oil, rice, soap, and other necessities. A family may generate income by selling produce or animals, or buying goods in the city and reselling them at the local market. Those who trade in goods from the urban areas rely on public transportation. In Haiti, that consists of enormous open trucks that ply the eroded dirt roads. Truck beds are filled with goods—charcoal, fruit, corn, animals, and produce. Dozens of people sit on top, cling to the sides, or ride on the front bumper. Many people make the trip on foot, pulling a donkey that carries everything they have to sell.

Diets are primarily beans, rice, and roots. A well-off family may eat three meals a day; in tougher times, only two. Meat is a luxury, eaten rarely.

Despite these hardships, visitors often remark on how happy these people seem to be. In Haiti, work is accompanied by motivational songs. There is a tradition of working cooperatively, sharing the labor on one another’s farms. I have always been impressed by the sense of humor and the stoic perseverance of the Haitians.

Americans tend to have one of two equally inaccurate reactions to the poor. The first is to imagine poor people as helpless victims, and thus be surprised at their joy, intelligence, and abilities. Most short-term visitors have their stereotype of grim, downtrodden victims shattered by the reality of people with hopes, dreams, jokes, and compassion.

But this can often lead to the opposite reaction, which is to romanticize the poor. When speaking with first-time visitors to one of our programs, I often hear comments like “They are so much happier than we are,” or “They don’t even seem poor.” This impression changes with a longer visit, as the reality is more complex. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, marital infidelity, petty crime, violence, and delinquency are common. The poor have the same character flaws and talents we have.

Deforestation: At the root of poverty
Among the many causes of widespread deforestation, cattle grazing and commercial logging are best known. Clearing of land for large-scale industrial agriculture is another. Because of the limited choices in where and how they can live, subsistence farmers are significant contributors as well.

The poor contribute to deforestation in two principle ways: by cutting trees for timber or fuel (firewood and charcoal), and by clearing the forest to plant their crops.

In many parts of the world, firewood and charcoal are as important to the local economy as oil is to ours. Some years ago I visited the tiny community of La Muralla, high in the pine forests of the Mixteca Alta in Oaxaca, Mexico. As I talked with the local mayor, I was shocked to learn that their only “cash crop”—the only source of income the community had—was charcoal. They used firewood for their own cooking and heating, but made charcoal to sell to those in the city.

Near the mayor’s office in La Muralla, a young family was making charcoal in a small clearing below the road. The entire family, including two small children about eight and five, bagged the product, their hands and faces covered in soot. They made a couple of hundred dollars per year this way—enough to buy a few items to supplement the corn and beans they grew for themselves.

For people with no other opportunities or resources, the forest becomes an emergency savings account. Charcoal production is one of the last options open for the poorest and most desperate, even in places where it is illegal.

People often assume deforestation occurs because people don’t know any better, but many poor farmers have a profound understanding of how their land works. I have had Haitian and Dominican farmers give me detailed descriptions of how a watershed functions. But Haitian farmers also have a proverb that says, “Either this tree must die, or I must die in its place.”

Susan Stonich and Billie Dewalt, in a study on deforestation in Honduras, quote a Honduran farmer’s eloquent explanation:

I can only expect destruction for my family because I am provoking it with my own hands. This is what happens when the peasant doesn’t receive help. . . . He looks for the obvious way out, which is to farm the mountain slopes and cut down the mountain vegetation. . . . I know what I am doing. . . . I am destroying the land.

The problem is not ignorance, but a lack of opportunity and options.

Clearing land for small-scale agriculture is an even more important factor in deforestation than fuel wood. The practice of swidden agriculture, sometimes called slash-and-burn farming, is often blamed. Swidden agriculture involves clearing the forest, burning the residue to release nutrients into the soil, farming for a couple of years, then moving on to new land when the soil is depleted. This practice can be sustainable in the appropriate settings and conditions. Indeed, it has been practiced sustainably for millennia. Traditionally it was practiced with long fallow periods between plantings, which allowed the forest to grow up again. However, population pressure and the use of marginal land upset this balance. When land is scarce, it is not left fallow long enough for the forest to regenerate.

The inability of the poor to own their land or gain appropriate land tenure is another factor in its degradation. Squatters, sharecroppers, renters, and people who cannot gain legal title to their property have no long-term stake in the land, so they are unlikely to invest much in its future. In fact, for many, investing in the land could actually contribute to their losing it to covetous neighbors, landlords, or officials. No matter how well meaning a poor farmer might be, if he or she has no legal claim to the land, the economic incentives are against investing in its care. People tend to take care of what belongs to them.

Yet we cannot lay the responsibility for the environmental crisis at the feet of the poor, the victims of environmental degradation who are forced by desperation, oppression, and lack of opportunities to abuse the environment. This is a vicious cycle in which they have little choice. Greed, exploitation, and carelessness on the part of governments, multinational corporations, businesses, and wealthy individuals are major contributors to the environmental crisis. And these people and organizations do have a choice.

Not many miles from La Muralla, there is another Mexican community, El Porvenir, which means “the future.” When I first saw it, it was almost barren—in effect, a desert. Eroded hillsides were dusted with struggling patches of corn. Much of the region’s income came from remittances from the United States, as there were few alternatives for income. The citizens of El Porvenir no longer had firewood and timber to sell. Making charcoal was not an option, and agriculture was marginal. This situation was a stark reminder of the potential future for the whole region.

The need for trees
The most important assets a poor farmer has are the soil and water on the land he or she works. Soil and water are the wealth of the land, the basic building blocks for nutrition.

The great medical missionary Dr. Paul Brand points this out vividly in his essay “A Handful of Mud.” In it he quotes an old Indian farmer, Tata, who, watching soil washing downstream, says:

“That mud flowing over the dam has given my family food since before I was born, and before my grandfather was born. It would have given my grandchildren and their grandchildren food forever. Now it will never feed us again. When you see mud in the channels of water, you know that life is flowing away from the mountains.”

God used Dr. Brand mightily to bless thousands of people. Among other achievements, he pioneered new techniques for fighting leprosy and wrote several books. Yet in spite of these contributions, he says:

“I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.”

In a recent study, David Pimentel reports that worldwide soil erosion rates are 10 to 40 times higher than replenishment rates. As a result, nearly 30 percent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive in the last 40 years.

Deforestation dramatically increases soil erosion. Tree roots hold the soil in place, while the forest canopy and leaf litter on the ground mitigate the impact of rain as it hits the soil, allowing it to soak in instead of running off.

Deforestation also dramatically impacts water availability and quality. Absence of trees results in a decrease in rainfall. Several studies have shown the important role of forests in recycling fresh water into the atmosphere through a process known as evapotranspiration. Rather than entering the atmosphere locally, water runs off to the sea, affecting cloud formation.

Deforestation, leading to changes in precipitation, is believed to be one of the leading culprits in the melting glaciers of Kilimanjaro. Elsewhere drought has increased and farmers who work without irrigation can no longer count on the regularity of rainfall.

It is tempting to think of deforestation in these far off continents as someone else’s problem. But researchers have identified a connection between tropical deforestation and global rainfall patterns. A 2005 NASA study indicated that deforestation in the Amazon results in less rainfall in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, whereas deforestation in Central Africa impacts rainfall in the U.S. Midwest. A combination of deforestation in both of these areas creates drought in California. We are all connected by our dependence on the health of this planet.

Deforestation magnifies the problems caused by reduced rainfall. When rain does fall on deforested areas, there is little to stop it from running off before it can soak into the ground. Where the soil is protected by trees, the canopy breaks the fall of precipitation, leaf litter slows runoff, and roots increase soil permeability, so water is able to infiltrate and replenish local aquifers.

Trees also act as a filter. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the absence of forest cover and the presence of E. coli and other contaminants. Healthy watersheds are so important to water quality, the City of New York invested $660 million in upstream land to protect its forests, thereby saving the $6 billion it would have cost to build an additional water purification plant.

Lack of clean water is one of the biggest health hazards in the world today. As many as five thousand children die every day from waterborne illnesses. Churches and humanitarian agencies have responded admirably to this need by drilling wells and providing water filtration or purification equipment. But few have followed the problem further upstream to the damaged watersheds where the problem originates.

Deforestation hurts us all, but especially the poor who cannot afford to have water piped into the home or to buy bottled water to drink. Instead, family members, mainly women, walk hours to fetch water and the firewood necessary to boil it to make it safe to drink. As firewood becomes scarcer, costing more time and money, people are less likely to boil their water or adequately cook their food, compounding health risks and contributing to the downward cycle of desperation. Families who have no safety net are forced to take greater risks with their health and the well being of their families.

Catastrophic effects of deforestation include increased landslides and flooding. In 2004, massive flash floods along the Soliet River, caused in part by deforestation, raced through eastern Haiti, wiping out half of the community of Fonds Verrettes before arriving at the Dominican town of Jimani in the early dawn hours. A fifteen-foot-high wall of mud and boulders swept through the eastern part of this small border city, completely wiping that half of the city off the map and killing perhaps two thousand people. Such tragedies are by no means isolated to Hispaniola. People die in floods and landslides around the world every year.

Thankfully, many of these devastating processes are reversible. Just as deforestation robs people of their health and livelihood, reforestation and sustainable farming practices can begin to return it. This is a cycle we at Plant With Purpose have been fortunate to begin to see.

Trees of life
When environmental restoration, economic opportunity and discipleship combine, real transformation can take place.

The residents of El Porvenir, Mexico are moving toward a more hopeful future. Having realized their considerable talents, they began a sewing enterprise, a bakery, a fish farm, and numerous agroforestry and vegetable farms. Homes now have composting latrines and fuel-saving stoves with chimneys to protect families from smoke. Where once the community produced only tortillas and beans, on my last visit they offered me fish tacos with garden vegetables and freshly baked bread. Children are healthier with a diversified diet.

They have also taken it upon themselves to start a community tree nursery, and have planted thousands of trees on their once-barren hillsides. Rainwater is harvested from rooftops and stored in cisterns. People who left the area have begun to return. Silvio Miguel Lopez, the pastor of the Presbyterian church in nearby Santa Ynez, said:

“El Porvenir has changed. It is not like it was when I left. Now I see that there are more trees, people have plants and vegetable gardens around their homes. I also see that they are producing trees in their nursery and that the people are planting vetiver grass on the hillsides. They said to me, “What seemed impossible now is possible.”

We have seen transformation in the lives of countless individuals as well. I once sat with Floresta’s Dominican staff (Plant With Purpose’s partner in the Dominican Republic) in a busy café on the main north-south highway in the Dominican Republic. Over the sounds of traffic, spurious car alarms, nearby conversations, and music, our sawmill manager, Cristian, told me his story.

In the late 1980s, when Cristian was just 12 years old, his father received one of the first farm loans from Floresta. After the first tree seedlings were delivered to his father’s farm, Cristian felt excited as he and his brothers helped plant them. They represented hope and opportunity.

The neighbors were skeptical. “You can’t eat trees,” they said. But Cristian’s father proved the skeptics wrong. “Our family made more money on that first harvest than had ever passed through our hands before.”

Later in the afternoon we paid a visit to the home of Luis Garcia, another of the first Floresta farmers. When I visited him fifteen years ago, his wooden house sat on a barren hilltop in the village of Tocoa, and most of the poor farmers in that region grew cassava. Now he lives in a neat cinderblock home with glass windows and electricity, situated in a pleasant grove of trees surrounded by orchards. The barren hilltop is almost unrecognizable. Most of the children I’d met on previous visits are now college graduates.

These stories represent long-term success. The fruit of the harvest has been an enduring testimony to what is possible with God.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture comes from Isaiah 41. The Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says:

The poor and needy search for water,

but there is none;

their tongues are parched with thirst.

But I the LORD will answer them. . . .

I will make rivers flow on barren heights,

and springs within the valleys. . . .

I will put in the desert

the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.

I will set pines in the wasteland,

the fir and the cypress together,

so that people may see and know . . .

that the hand of the LORD has done this.

—Isaiah 41:17-20 (NIV)

The initial problem in this passage is that the poor are suffering from lack of water. God answers them by planting trees and causing springs to flow in the wilderness. The purpose of all that—the needs of the poor being met, trees planted, water flowing—is to glorify God.

Environmental restoration leading to economic opportunity is a virtuous cycle. As it brings glory to God, it becomes a victorious cycle, a foreshadowing of the kingdom to come.

Scott C. Sabin, MA, is executive director of Plant With Purpose, a nonprofit Christian environmental organization with operations in seven countries. Sabin has been published in The New York Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and Christianity Today. He is a contributing editor with Creation Care magazine and a national speaker in the creation care movement. This article is an excerpt from his book Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People.

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