Trade-offs between poverty and conservation: economic inequality is linked to decreased deforestation and fragmentation in the Peruvian Amazon

Small-scale shifting cultivation is one of the most important drivers of tropical deforestation. Previous research in riverine peasant communities in the Peruvian Amazon suggests that there is considerable variability in cultivation practices at the household level, whereby demographics and total land holdings (a measure of income) affect crop choice and the amount and ages of secondary forest fallows. Poorer families, for example, have access to less land, and thus tend to hold fewer and younger forest fallows. Where land availability is constrained, therefore, changes in the distribution of land holdings among households may drive changes in deforestation, fragmentation, and forest recovery. To analyze the dynamic effects of inequality on landscape composition and configuration, we reconstructed and mapped individual household land holdings and field histories in a traditional peasant community near Iquitos, Peru, from the mid 1960s to 2007. Data were gathered through detailed household interviews (n=50), visits to all fields and forest fallows, and combined with data collected in 1994-5 to create a long-term dataset of all land holdings. Income inequality was measured using the Gini ratio. Changes in land cover mapped through field histories were compared to independent land cover maps derived from historical airphotos and satellite imagery from 1965, 1972, 1978, 1991, and 2007. Results suggest that income strongly affects the size, location, contiguity, and land cover of fields and forest fallows at the household level. Income inequality within the village has evolved through time, declining during the agrarian reforms of the 1970s but increasing thereafter. Periods of higher inequality in land distribution are correlated with lower levels of deforestation. We discuss the implications of these results in terms of potential tradeoffs between policies of poverty alleviation and conservation.

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