Late rains have caused an energy crisis in Panama. Hydroelectric generators, as with most tropical economies, are this country’s main source of energy; so when weather patterns don’t hold up, the whole system falters: Schools have been closed, A/C prohibited during certain times of the day, public offices have shortened business hours, and rolling blackouts may follow. People are angry. A national group of engineers has demanded a government plan for alternative energy, parents are confused and don’t know what to do with their children, and in cattle country, ranchers are demanding subsidies for feed, the problem has affected everyone.
Deforestation means reduced evapotranspiration (evaporation of plants and soil) resulting in both a decrease in rainfall and changing annual rainfall patterns with unusually dry conditions
In a recent newspaper article describing the predicament, the ranchers complain of climate change, expressing frustration at their parched fields and demand government action. The problem, however, lies at their feet and looking for a bail-out is like sweeping dust under the rug. Long-term watershed management has to be a part of the conversation.
Latin America’s #1 driver of deforestation is the cattle frontier. Photo credit: Andy Berry
In other words THE essential ingredient for your operation (water), be it agriculture, forestry or ranching is directly dependent on natural forests. We can assume this (water cycle) process, can happen elsewhere, but there is significant evidence that suggests forests have an effect on precipitation in their immediate area. (See TED talk ‘How to Restore A Rainforest’.)
There is simply NO conversation about the effects of deforestation on the water cycle. Trees, brush and spores play an integral cycle in the tropical water cycle. But because more pasture, means more cattle and more meat, (and therefore money) cattle ranchers will generally clear as much land as possible. Right to the edges of their land. It is no secret that the vast majority of deforestation in Central America is driven by the cattle frontier. The process goes something like this:
1. Sell family plot
2. With the money, buy cheap land in remote areas (usually tree covered)
3. Extract and sell all and any valuable lumber on property
5. Apply herbicide
6. Introduce/establish hardy exotic grass for pasture
7. Truck in cattle
8. Make 2, maybe 3% annual profit
There’s a saying here: “A cattle farmer lives poor and dies rich”. This isn’t because cattle eventually become profitable, it’s because of land-value appreciation. And its true, cattle ranchers occasionally end-up owing significant real-estate. Recently, while pitching an environmental restoration project to a cattle ranching association, a colleague of mine posed the question: what would your land be worth without water? Unanimously, they all agreed that it would be worth close to nothing. Interestingly they all understood, from firsthand experience no-doubt, that forested areas have more water and more rain. The idea then is to convince them that if they can each allocate a small percentage of their holdings to conservation, particularly along waterways, that there is tangible economic upside. I wrote about this concept in an earlier post. Its an uphill battle I’m sure, but based on the receptive conversation I think these situations do make people reconsider their role climate change . Conversation about drought, particularly in the tropics, must include reforestation and conservation. Governments would do well to incentivize cattle operations that conserve forested areas or employ forward thinking silvo-pastoral systems instead of exacerbating the problem by buying them transported feed, or subsidizing beef.