Main content area

Agroforestry and the search for alternatives to slash-and-burn cultivation: From technological optimism to a political economy of deforestation

Pollini, Jacques
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2009 v.133 no.1-2 pp. 48-60
agroforestry, shifting cultivation, farming systems, sustainable agriculture, deforestation, agricultural research, biophysics, innovation adoption, farmers, agricultural history, cooperative research, economic analysis, environmental protection, conservation programs, agricultural watersheds, land management, stakeholders
Launched in 1994, the Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn Programme is a multidisciplinary collaborative research effort aimed at addressing the issue of deforestation. This article analyzes the genesis and the history of this research effort and the causes of its successes and failures. I will show that despite the genuine commitment of the ASB Programme to achieve comprehensive analysis linking the social and the biophysical realms, its conclusions and recommendations were biased in favor of biophysical models whose adoption by farmers remained low. The ASB scientists engaged in a self-critique which led to the opening of new areas of inquiry, such as the macroeconomic context of deforestation. But an excessive faith in the positivist paradigm of Western science maintained the illusion that perfect biophysical solutions could be designed, if larger scales (watershed or region) were addressed. Economic instruments (payment for environmental services) are now being elaborated to favor the adoption of these models, and the ASB Programme may be on the verge of replicating at watershed scale the misleading approach it adopted earlier at plot scale. I conclude that in order to properly answer to the environmental challenges of our time, some myths that pervade within the practice of science have to be debunked, and the issue of unequal power between stakeholders have to be addressed. This could be achieved by paying more attention to disciplines that employ the narrative mode to depict realities and by taking more distance from managerial approaches and from the technological optimism that characterizes them.