issue 235 - September 1992
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
The lie of the land
Further along the trail our tireless investigator catches up with a family of peasants.
'We're looking for a piece of land to clear and cultivate, they wearily explain.
Clearing space for human habitation results in environmental problems like deforestation, desertification and the loss of other species. Even people who concede that pollution and consumption may be mostly the fault of the rich often believe that land clearance really is the fault of rapid population growth among the poor.
The usual story told in the North is that if rural parents have several children, they must divide up the land into pieces too small to be worth having when they want to pass it on to the next generation. So some of the younger generation move on to clear more land. And since there isn't any good land left, they farm hillsides where the topsoil erodes easily and washes away. Or they raze forests, releasing greenhouse gases through forest fires - and also helping to cause climate change through eradicating the trees that are the lungs of the Earth.
I've always found this story rather strange. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there is no global shortage of land capable of growing food even for a population of 14 billion people. So why is there so little arable land left? Latin America, for example, is huge and its population is only around half a billion people.
Environmental activist George Monbiot describes an area of farmland the size of India that lies uncultivated in Brazil because its owners treat it as financial investment, while 20 million rural peasants wander landless. Brazil's richest one per cent, he estimates, own 15 times as much land as the poorest 56 per cent of Brazilian farmers put together. In the Philippines, agribusinesses producing sugar, cotton and pineapples for the North have pushed 12 million settlers into lowland forests; the forests' indigenous peoples are in turn being driven into water-sheds. And in Kenya, he says, President Daniel arap Moi's associates are rewarded with ex-colonial settler estates of up to 1.5 million acres, obliging the poor to trample the savannahs that are left.1
These are only a few examples of what is happening throughout Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. What they show is that the lack of land has less to do with population-pressure than with market-pressure. The land is being hoarded by the rich - and the poor simply can't afford to negotiate for it. In Guatemala, for example, just two per cent of the population own two-thirds of the land.
It's time to sum up what I've discovered so far. The United Nations Population Fund's report on the environment says that consumption, pollution and land clearance are the three main ways in which humans impact on the environment. But the major responsibility for all these seems to lie with economic choices made in the North - or by the richest members of Southern elites who identify with the North. Which is why I have found myself constantly looking at economics; hardly my favourite subject, rather than at people, whom I much prefer.
So who is the main culprit when it comes to the global environmental crisis? Is it us, the rich consumers?
1 George Monbiot, Oxfam/Guardian Supplement, (June 1992.).