Agro-Deforestation in Melanesia

Clearing forest is an age-old human activity - an unmodified forest is not a congenial habitat and could support only a very low density of people. Consequently, over the past several millennia very few societies have lived wholly in an ecosystem that approaches natural forest. Agriculturists had to clear forest, even if only temporarily, for their gardens. But even the small bands of hunters and gatherers - who have often been pictured as living in a state o environmental harmony, engaged only in the mild pursuits of the chase and the collection of wild products - have both casually and deliberately brought considerable environmental transformation. As A. Terry Rambo puts it in Primitive Polluters (university of Michigan, 1985), his study of Semang impact on the Malaysian tropical rainforest ecosystem, this change in the environment from its natural state takes place "simply because continued existence of all social systems necessitates it."

In the culture world of the Pacific islands, even though human settlement is relatively recent, prehistorians, anthropologists, and geographers now realize that human impact on the small island ecosystems has been profound. The islands' early inhabitants did not avidly practice a conservation ethic that preserved their habitat as an unchanging paradise until Europeans brought major disturbances and degradation; instead, the early settlers caused many extinctions (notably of birds), reduced forest cover, initiated massive soil erosion, created or extended fern-grassland savannas underlain by infertile soils, and, in some cases, significantly modified even the topography of their islands. In short, they did what all peoples, especially pioneers, do: in their efforts to make a living they actively manipulated, modified, and, at times, degraded the ecosystems in which they lived (Blaikie et al. 1987; Clarke 1990:235-236; Kirch 1984:123-151).

But in their transformation of natural landscapes into cultural landscapes, the early inhabitants of the Pacific also developed - partly to adjust to self-inflicted degradation - sustained-yield systems of agriculture, agroforestry, and reef use that still operate productively today but are in danger of disappearing in the face of changing technological, social, and economic conditions. Also at risk is much of the long-standing, culturally significant knowledge about local resources of plants and marine life gained by generations of empirical observers and still held in the minds of a declining number of traditional resource managers (Clarke 1990; Klee 1980; Ruddle and Johannes 1985).

Given the enormous importance of the sea in Pacific island life, the loss of reef and lagoon resources as well as the traditional knowledge about these resources has received considerable attention. The encyclopedic knowledge of practical sea lore that traditional fishers possess - a knowledge possibly unequalled by recent scientific inventories of reef life in many island groups - has great value, and several efforts are under way to preserve and utilize traditional knowledge as an important part of the conservation of living marine resources (Johannes 1981, 1982). Also gaining attention is the Pacific's part in the widely publicized drama of deforestation in the tropical world. The damage introduced by foreign loggers in the forests of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea - the Pacific countries with the greatest remaining areas of forest - is well known in the Pacific region. Referring to Melanesia, Baines (1989:282) writes that commercial logging "liquidates a resource which may have served a lineage for many centuries, which harbors all of that line's historical links with the past, and which has traditionally been viewed as a resource borrowed from future generations."

Less immediately dramatic and less publicized than issues of marine conservation and deforestation - but also a process of cultural and ecologic significance - is agro-deforestation, a word as ugly as the process it describes. It refers to the depletion of the great variety of useful tree species that traditionally threaded through the human landscapes of garden and village in the Pacific islands.

Traditional Agroforestry

The words coconut and breadfruit alone may conjure up at least a basic image of the significance of agroforestry in traditional cultural and material life in the Pacific. Melanesia refers to that part of the Pacific with the richest natural flora and hence the greatest reservoir of indigenous species from which local inhabitants could draw useful trees, incorporating them into their cultural world. Along with these local "inventions," some of the valued trees and the knowledge of their uses, too, were undoubtedly brought by early settlers voyaging from peninsular and island Southeast Asia. Whatever the source of the relationship between trees and Melanesians, the result was a remarkable number of tree species that came to be known, used, and complexly combined into a great variety of orchardlike agroforests.

(Dr. Randy Thaman, a geographer with the University of the South Pacific, and I have recently finished a long monograph on agroforestry in the Pacific [to be published by the United Nations University]). This work will provide a useful compendium of information on Pacific agroforestry for scientists, extension workers, governments, and local people seeking to extend or reestablish some of the benefits gained from traditional agroforestry. This article provides only a few details of those benefits and of the multispecies, multifunctional complexity of Melanesian agroforestry. Further details are now available in Thaman [1988, 1991] and in Thaman and Clarke [1987].)

Traditional agroforestry, like some of the agroforestry systems being popularized today, was far more than a matter of intercropping trees with annual crops or using trees for a fallow cover between annual crops. Traditional agroforestry was an integral part of agriculture, housing, medicine, and the production of a wide range of useful goods; at the same time the component trees beautified the landscape and provided shade, erosion control, wind protection, soil improvement, and wildlife habitats. Planted trees even had a strong social function. They served as memory markers in the landscape, a living record of land ownership or rights; a man could point to a particular pandanus or breadfruit tree planted by his father or uncle as an indication of previous use of that land by his family or clan.

In the Melanesian agroforestry systems of Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea more than 300 tree species had agroforestry significance. These included traditional staple tree crops such as coconuts, breadfruit, and bananas as well as a wide range of fruit and nut trees and other useful trees, which were either planted, encouraged, and protected in garden regrowth or spared when new garden plots were cleared in forest. Thus natural forest was converted more and more into useful agroforest, which contained a very high proportion of useful trees. As Firth wrote half a century ago of Tikopia, the island in eastern Solomon Islands that he studied for several decades, "what appears to be bush is really a collection of trees and shrubs, each having its own value to the people, either for food or in their material arts." Some such humanized orchards came into being haphazardly over decades or generations as certain trees were favored, protected, or randomly planted. Other orchards were deliberately planned and planted - for instance, those among the Maring people of highland Papua New Guinea. As shifting gardens grow old and unused for root crops, the Maring plant seedlings or cuttings of the striking Gnetum gnemon tree, which provides protein-rich edible leaves and fruit and an excellent fiber, and the Pandanus conoideus tree, which produces a large fruit that is steamed and squeezed to yield an oil-rich sauce that is an important supplementary food and condiment. The Maring also planted as minor components some breadfruit and a species of fig (Ficus wassa) that provided bark cloth, edible leaves, and fruit. As they age over several decades, these valuable orchards merge back into secondary forest and their sites again become available for shifting gardens. Within the mosaic of Maring gardens, orchards, and forest, the orchards provide an extension of he useful yields from garden areas while providing the benefits of fallow to the land.

All the studies of tree species in the Pacific stress their great range of uses and products - medicinal, general construction, body decoration, perfume, beverages, fuelwood, ceremonial or ornamental purposes, tools, food, cordage, boat or canoe making, bark cloth, food wrapping, fertilizer or mulch, and animal feed. Trying to make a comprehensive list, Randy Thaman and I came up with 69 different cultural-economic uses, including, aside from those listed above, things such as brooms, torches, deodorants, chewing gums, aphrodisiacs, and abrasives (the "sandpaper" leaves of some fig species). The several ecological services provided by trees are an added bonus. In much of Melanesia, trees provide - or did at one time - a richly productive and protective matrix that was also a part of each people's cultural heritage, not only materially but also spiritually. Almost everywhere some trees are associated with spirits or sacred places; groves of trees may mark taboo places and ancestral sites.

Agro-Deforestation Today

The diverse and highly useful agroforests created by Melanesians over many generations are now disappearing - a process called "agro-deforestation" to distinguish it from "deforestation," which is the clearing of more natural forest by commercial logging or for the extension of agriculture. The less immediately noticeable loss of trees that marks agro-deforestation has consequences as serious as those of large-scale forest clearing. House gardens start to contain fewer trees and so have a simpler structure and produce a smaller variety of products. Agricultural landscapes are given over more to monocultures of annual crops and lose the ecologic benefits provided by trees, such as habitats for wildlife or the protection and enrichment of soil. Even in the urban landscapes of South Pacific cities and towns, which often have richly varied plantings of trees, agro-deforestation is taking place. The loss of trees through agro-deforestation means the loss of environmental services as well as a certain kind of stability and beauty derived from fields, gardens, villages, and towns. The loss of many useful tree products also means that Melanesians are becoming more tightly locked into economic dependency as they turn to imported products to replace arboreal goods.

Because part of Melanesian cultural heritage is an intimate feeling for the social and spiritual meaning of trees, together with an immense knowledge of their habits and products, agro-deforestation also brings with it a cultural loss. As the trees disappear, traditional knowledge is eroded and landscapes lose the depth of meaning imbued by protected or palnted trees. Although commonly useful species of trees are in no immediate danger of becoming extinct because of agro-deforestation, there is a significant loss of biodiversity; many species of agroforest trees contain a great number of varieties, each with its own characteristics. Many of these varieties, the result of careful selection by generations of Melanesian gardeners, are being lost; for instance, all the breadfruit trees on an island may now fruit during the same short period of the year rather than serving as a food source over a longer season, when each of several different varieties bear fruit in succession.

The process of agro-deforestation can be associated with aspects of modernization and economic development. Children are no longer educated by the family and tribal group; instead, they receive formal education that, until quite recently, gives little time to locally valuable knowledge and land-management practices. Fathers and mothers no longer pass down traditional knowledge to sons and daughters. New occupations in the cash economy attract the most able and diminish traditional subsistence activities. Opening a can of imported peaches for a feast, going to the local pharmacy for medicines, buying imported plastic flowers, perfumes, and deodorants - all these acts have replaced the products that depend on the planting and protection of trees.

Although newly devised agroforestry projects are increasingly proposed as components of rural development, the subtle process of agro-deforestation goes largely unheeded by national governments and international aid agencies because the sophisticated forms of traditional agroforestry fall in the gap between the formal economic sectors of agriculture and forestry. Moreover, trees scattered in the landscape are believed to make mechanization difficult and are seen to take up space that could be used for more "economic" plants. The value of trees is greatly underestimated because their ecologic services and their provision of a wide range of products (all import substitutes) are not taken into account.

Present-day Melanesian agro-deforestation in the form of the neglect, removal, or nonreplacement of trees in the inhabited landscape can be seen as a degrading stage of land management. This has happened before in the Pacific and is part of a worldwide trend toward agricultural simplification and specialization. It is unlikely that the wide range of traditional forms of agroforestry can be wholly restored in today's Pacific, but there are moves toward some revitalization. The practical as well as the cultural and social value of traditional knowledge is increasingly recognized in the Pacific. The region's well-respected environmental agency, the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), supports traditional knowledge as a management tool. National education authorities are beginning to see local traditional knowledge and land-management techniques as worthy of a place in the schools - for instance, the introduction of a unit on local forests in the high-school curriculum of Solomon Islands.

But the pressures that act against the use of traditional knowledge and conservationist techniques of land management remain strong. The rhetoric of "sustainable development" will not in itself resolve the development demands of growing Melanesian populations or the imperative of commercial expansion on limited island lands. Many island leaders and development planners do not see the value of planting and preserving trees within agricultural systems. Continuing effort is required to ensure that within the strategies put forward to sustain development a place is saved for the wide range of agroforestry systems developed by past generations of Melanesians.

Combined with aspects of modern land management and agroforestry research, the past systems and their component tress can help provide for Melanesians today while protecting and stabilizing their environments. Even the storm-driven wave surges that will invade coastal lands if sea level rises can be partially resisted by expanding and renewing traditional coastal agroforests of salt-tolerant trees. Given the whole dynamic history of people is land relations in Melanesia, taking steps now against insidious agro-deforestation would be a strong adjustment to the commercial and demographic forces that encourage land degradation. The wealth of knowledge and traditional heritage contained in Melanesian agroforestry systems makes up a storehouse of sustaining management techniques, trees, products, and aesthetic and spiritual meanings that can and should be integrated into the continuing search for a durable existence.


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Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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