Poor farmers often lack the resources to maintain or improve the productivity of their land. As the soil becomes depleted, they will move operations if they can – leaving a used-up landscape behind, too exhausted to support robust restoration of habitat. Or the market for their crops may crash and they are forced to turn to other land uses to make up the difference, disturbing more habitat in the process. (This type of thing happened a few years back when shade coffee farmers in El Salvador cut down the shade to sell wood after the coffee market crashed.) People living on the edge can’t be expected to put habitat protection above the well-being of their families.
And if you’re a small landholder, you’re always going to be on the edge if farming is your main source of income and food. Given the vagaries of markets and weather, the life of small farmers is too uncertain for them to be reliable custodians of the earth. Subsidies or artificially high prices may keep destitution at bay but are rarely enough to achieve sufficient income security for long term planning or considerations of the greater good. Farming is also hard work and children are sources of labor, so poor farmers tend to have large families, putting more pressure on the land and perpetuating human misery, chronic poverty and habitat loss.
Poor farmers must be helped to find other livelihoods. Governments should encourage consolidation of small holdings so that the remaining farmers can afford to fallow more land and be in a better position to ride the bumps in the market. Marginal land should be allowed to revert back to nature. And then people can be concentrated in fewer, denser, settlements, abandoning much of the countryside to the restoration of wild habitat.
Yeah, it’s a tall order. And it won’t happen without robust economic growth and aggressive infrastructure investment, allowing urban centers to absorb all those farmers and their families.