Theodore Varns, MEM

2011 TRI Fellow in Argentina

The Pressure to Fell: impacts of smallholder farmers’ decision-making on the loss of tropical forest in northeast Misiones, Argentina


The tropical Atlantic forest of northeast Misiones, Argentina harbors impressive biodiversity but faces the continuing threat of deforestation from the rapid expansion of agriculture into areas that were completely forested less than 30 years ago. Many remaining forest patches exist on small private farms, where families must often plant tobacco to earn an income, but which forces them to continually deforest new patches of land. Efforts to protect biological diversity must therefore account for the needs and livelihoods of small cultivators by understanding their decision-making process in farm management, the constraints on their actions, and their social values of natural resources, in order to recommend useful strategies that include them as participants, and that reconcile their need to earn a living with promoting the conservation and recovery of native forest.

Semi-structured interviews conducted with smallholder farming families revealed a complex and difficult context for conservation. Many families claim that tobacco farming is responsible for deforestation, but in the absence of dependable income and support from the government for alternatives, families will continue its cultivation. Most cited the important environmental benefits provided by forests but lamented that rapid deforestation had occurred in their lifetimes. Though most felt that farmers had the personal obligation to conserve native forest, they maintained that external support and training, such as payments and reforestation incentives, would be necessary to reverse the trend. Diversification of farm production with sustainable crops was recommended by both farmers and agricultural technicians consulted. The focus on locally managed solutions combined with committed support from the national government characterized the solutions offered. These results will be compared to existing efforts in the region and other parts of the world in order to understand the best strategies for promoting conservation when local smallholder farmers must be included in the process as both participants and beneficiaries.