Saving the forests: is "banning" the right solution?

In many tropical forest countries, deforestation is caused by family farming. In Madagascar for instance, farmers cut down and burn the forest to plant rice as the burning of trees help fertilize the soil. However, this agricultural technique is not sustainable in the long run: the more the population increase, the faster the forests disappear.

What can be done to stop this process? For many countries, the solution seems obvious: establishing protected areas where land clearing is prohibited. But for farmers, food remains a concern. When there is not enough fertile land for everyone, farmers are left with two options: breaking the law – thereby risking a penalty – or moving elsewhere to find a new livelihood.

In countries such as Madagascar, the first solution often takes over. One reason is that the national economy is failing and does not create jobs; another reason is that the Malagasy authorities' ability to control and apply sanctions is very low (weak law enforcement and high corruption). As a result, creation of protected areas is ineffective.

The alternative solution is to provide farmers with agronomic innovations that enable them to produce as much as before, but on smaller areas of land. The idea however shows its weaknesses once the new technique is assimilated by the farmer. They may be tempted to want more and cut down new forest plots to have more fields. It's a simple logic as one hectare of cleared forest now pays more than before.

In order to avoid this, we must go back to the initial solution "control and penalty". But it can only help farmers if – and only if – they agree not to cut down the forest in the future. Prohibition itself is not the answer to deforestation, it nevertheless is necessary and part of the solution.