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new internationalist
issue 184 - June 1988

[image, unknown]

Tree of Life: Stop the chainsaw massacre.

Every day more of the world's forest disappears.
Sue Shaw argues that, by confusing wants with
needs, we are living beyond our means.

My neighbours are chopping down the trees in our road. They say the leaves mess up the pavements, that they block out sun from the rooms. Where branches once softened the angles of houses there are now only blank walls.

But I will not cut down the lime trees outside my window. They are a sanctuary for birds and insects and their changing colours resonate against the city's monotones. They remind me of the seasons; of the earth's power to produce.

Trees bring beauty to my life. Like many city dwellers I feel drawn to parks and countrysides by a yearning to get away from the grey concrete wastes. I often spend weekends walking around woodlands looking at wildlife. You can still find butterflies and plants, birds and fungi living in the trees themselves or in the moist fat earth beneath. They are our heritage, our bond with the soil. They are what is left of the wild.

We use so many things from trees that we are almost blind to them: the paper on which I write; the chair, table, floor. Even the domestic chicken derives from the red jungle fowl of India's forests.1 Yet instead of cherishing trees, we are waging war against them.

In the time it takes you to read this article about 500 acres of tropical forest will have been annihilated.1 More than 40 per cent of the world's tropical forests have already gone,2 many of them destroyed during the past 30 years. Each year a forest area the size of Britain is destroyed.1

Although rainforests cover only a tiny fraction of the earth's surface they accommodate more than half the animals and plants in the world,3 many of them very rare. When even a few trees are demolished a host of species go with them: every half hour one species is wiped off the face of the earth forever.1 Were it not extinguished, each one might have transformed the quality of our lives.

Did you know for example, that a quarter of all medicines bought in pharmacies come from the rainforests?4 Thanks to the rosy periwinkle (a plant found in the forests of Madagascar) a child suffering leukaemia now has an 80-per-cent chance of survival instead of a 20-per-cent chance.1 Thousands more plants and animals are thought to have medicinal properties, though few have been investigated by Western science.

Tropical forest plants could revolutionize energy production. Some contain chemicals in their tissues which open up the possibility of petroleum plantations that never run dry.5 Likewise the Philippine 'petroleum nut' tree produces large quantities of oil which can be used for cooking or lighting.1 Plantations could relieve the Third World fuel crisis. Imagine the loss to the world if such plants were destroyed before we could explore them.

People are also victims of this war against trees. Thousands of forest dwellers have been shot, bombed, poisoned, infected with disease and driven from their territories to make way for mines, ranches and roads. In the last century alone 87 Indian' groups have been wiped out in Brazil,3 during March this year another 12 Tikuna Indians were mown down by machine-guns when loggers decided they were hampering tree-felling operations.6

[image, unknown]
Marcos Santilli / Camera Press

Large-scale forest destruction threatens our own future too. Picture a world without trees. You see a barren desert where no animals roam, no birds fly and few things grow. When it rains, the earth slips and slides down the hillsides to thunder onto the land below. When the sun shines, the soil cracks and dries to be blown away by the wind. There is little to eat and what there is grows scantier yearly. This could be your home after the world's last tree has been cut.

You may think that people would never allow trees to disappear completely but there is no sign yet of sanity being restored. Moreover the desert scenario is in line with what we know about deforestation. Trees act as sponges soaking up the rain and releasing it slowly in hot weather. When they are removed the earth is left exposed to be attacked by wind and rain. All over the Alps in Central Europe, steel and concrete barriers have been erected to do the work that trees once did by binding the soil and preventing avalanches.

And many climatologists now agree that the obliteration of tropical forests will change the weather. When the forests are felled or burned they release carbon dioxide which traps heat. This results in a warming of the earth's surface called 'the greenhouse effect' which on a large scale could be sufficiently powerful to bring drought to much of the Northern Hemisphere.7 The cutting down of forests increases the earth's shininess' too. Deforested lands reflect greater solar heat than before. This 'albedo effect' would also contribute to drought.

All of us add to the onslaught against trees. Most tropical wood is exported to Japan, Western Europe and the US.8 These countries use endless amounts of hardwood for doors, window frames, coffins and knick-knacks, whilst in Japan it is even used for packaging. The developed world's imports of hardwood have swelled 16 times since 1950 whilst the amount of wood used by tropical regions has increased just thrice.9

In the West we regularly consume items produced at the expense of tropical forests. Our taste for cheap hamburgers is a major factor in the eradication of the tropical forests of Central America. Almost two thirds of these have been cut down since 1950 to make ranches for beef cattle.1 Though most beef goes to the US, there can't be anyone in the West who hasn't at some time succumbed to a juicy hamburger.

Our willingness to buy is called 'demand'. Yet I don't remember feeling deprived before hamburgers existed. The dead have never complained about the calibre of their coffins. And before there were hardwood toilet seats, we used something else which worked just as well.

We buy such things because they are fashionable, because they are advertised on television, in magazines, on billboards. We have learnt to want them. We even confuse want with need. We may think the economy exists for us, but in fact we buy to keep the economy going. Hence our wants are often downright wasteful: whoever invented the idea of disposable chopsticks secured their company a bottomless market.

Commercial loggers do tremendous damage in order to meet our demand. Their methods are so careless that huge numbers of trees are injured unintentionally, which means that companies destroy much larger tracts of forest than is officially acknowledged.

Each year improved technology makes timber companies faster at tearing down trees. A tree crusher topples and pulps several forest giants in an hour whilst a complex of modern machinery can clear two and a half acres of forest in just a couple of hours. Another development is the chipper. This machine reduces an average-sized tree, branches and all, into chips the size of a nickel in about one minute. Over a day it can eliminate 12 acres of forest - as much as would cover half a city block.9

There are two main cogwheels in this engine of destruction. One is internally powered by the corruption and incompetence of those Third World governments that are impervious to the suffering of their own people. The other, which is more important, is externally driven by the unrelenting pressure of international debt. The poor, and the environment on which they depend, are remorselessly ground down by the interlocking teeth of these two cogwheels.

Some Third World countries pay around half their annual export income as interest on their debts (see table below). This means there is enormous pressure on them to use all their available assets, which includes cutting down forests. Sometimes these countries invite foreign companies to log the trees; sometimes they do it themselves. Whichever way it is an arrangement that benefits very few in the long run.

The poor countries earn some money from the timber trade but much less than appears at first sight. Wood exports bring about $8.7 billion a year to developing countries but after deducting the cost of imported equipment, the income that foreign workers send home and the profits that foreign corporations transfer to parent companies, the wood export earnings often shrink by half.11

In many cases the money made by tree cutting is immediately gobbled up by the need to import sawn timber, plywood and paper. Nigeria and Thailand were both major timber exporters once, but now they import massive quantities of wood. The Ivory Coast will soon do the same. Another 23 countries have already cut down so many trees that instead of selling wood they are importing manufactured forest products to the tune of $50 million a year.8

Some host countries are actually making an immediate loss from logging projects. In Papua New Guinea a Japanese company called Jant pays no dividends or income taxes at all because it sells its wood to the parent company at such low prices that it never makes a profit.11 This is costing Papua New Guinea $11 million a year, and by the end of the 1980s virtually all the country's lowland forest will be gone.12 Local elites may have benefited and the foreign corporation certainly has, but the poor have gained nothing at all.

A Namibquara Indian woman from Brazil had her forest-home flattened by a highway.
Marcos Santilli / Panos pictures

Things are much the same on the Solomon Islands. A short while ago people there were able to derive almost all their food from the forests. Then Unilever came along. Having offered the country badly needed money in exchange for trees, the company logged the islands with the result that many food sources have disappeared. Obligingly it imports tinned food on return journeys - which it sells to the people, who are still poor and now nearly forestless. Soon all the trees will be gone. The islanders will have to think of something else to sell to survive, and their lovely islands will be bare.'13

Debt repayments impose pressures in all directions. Imagine a peasant farmer whose crops fail. She borrows money from the money-lender to tide her over. The next year she has to devote more of her limited land to growing cash crops rather than food for her family. She sells the produce to the moneylender's cousin at a pathetically low price because the local market is flooded with similar crops from other farmers in an equally desperate plight. She can just about manage to pay the interest that is owing, but still can't repay the loan. The next year she cuts down the few remaining trees on her farm to sell as firewood and enable her to squeeze a bit more out of her tired soil. And so it goes on...

This is what debt means for Third World countries. And because only big landowners and transnational corporations can afford to produce cash crops at competitive prices, the small farmers go bust and are turned off their land.

In a ceaseless pilgrimage to survive peasants follow the roads that timber companies have built into the forests, searching for land. There they scratch a living as best they can by clearing trees to grow crops. But because the soil of tropical forests is so fragile it only sustains a few harvests. Before long the settlers must burn more trees to reach fresh soil, or starve. So they go on biting deeper into the forest, and when the world looks around and realizes that trees are disappearing, these are the people it blames.

As more forests are burned to grow cash crops, fewer trees remain to provide the poor with their only energy-source: firewood. If you have ever been caught in a power cut you will realize what a basic need energy is. Without it you and your family cannot cook food or heat water over a long period you may get sick from disease or malnutrition. This is a problem poor people face daily. As one Senegalese woman says: 'Not long ago we could send a three year-old girl to get a day's firewood and she could find it all within five minutes of the village. Now we have to drive a horse and cart ten kilometres to get our wood'.14

This terrible destruction is a modern phenomenon. Many traditional societies managed their forests perfectly well before the invasion of colonialists. In Australia the forests survived 40,000 years under the watchful eyes of the Aborigines. Yet in the last 200 years white settlers have cleared two thirds of native forests.15 Similarly in India local people conserved their trees over generations until the British started exploiting them for commercial purposes during the nineteenth century.16

The earth cannot provide for an unlimited range of wants indefinitely. But it can meet our needs. If human beings are to continue benefiting from trees we must learn to distinguish between the two: to give priority to needs.

But that alone is not enough. On a personal level we manage our resources in a way that ensures we always have something put by for tomorrow, that we do not live above our means. And that is what we must do with trees. 'Sustainable forestry' is one of those terms now bandied around by all and sundry. The World Bank's social forestry programmes, for instance, are often quoted as good examples of sustainable development. But in general they still involve commercial plantations which may have some positive ecological spin-offs but which only enrich a few. These plantations are a far cry from community forestry projects which help people to meet their needs directly without devastating the environment.

Successful community-forest programmes, like the Chipko movement in India, regard trees as producers of food, shelter, fodder and firewood rather than as money-spinning cash crops. Trees are used to meet the basic needs of the poor by working within ecological constraints. Such programmes require land to be handed over or taken back by poor communities so that they can plant and manage their own trees once more: as many as 90 per cent of the trees planted by the Chipko movement survive - compared to forest department plantations where survival usually does not touch 25 per cent.17

Some indigenous people are capitalizing on their traditions of sustainable forestry. The Gavioes Indians of Western Brazil are so capable of collecting, transporting and marketing forest goods that, in dense areas of Brazil nut trees, their produce generates more revenue than an equivalent area of pasture devoted to cattle ranching.18 We could learn a lot from such folk.

People who live close to the earth have an advantage over those of us who do not because they can see the effect of their actions. We have to become aware through what we read and are told. Managing trees for us means using less - employing alternatives where possible, recycling paper and other waste. It means replacing the trees we use. And it means persuading governments to take positive steps: the first-ever deals were struck in Bolivia and Costa Rica where debts were cancelled in return for conservation of tropical forests (see article).

The very smallest of our efforts helps. The chainsaw massacre must be stopped. If my neighbors ask I will tell them: 'Trees are our future. And conservation begins in our own back yard.'

The debt burden
Many Third World countries have to commit a high proportion of their Gross National Product to debt re-payments1 and exporting timber is one way of subsidizing this.


Total external public debt 1985 millions of $

Debt payments as % of export goods and services 1985







*Costa Rica






























*Ivory Coast









South Korea









*Papua New Guinea









* Countries where logging has been significant.
All figures from World Development Report 1987

1 Rain forest, Friends of the Earth leaflet, 1987.
2 Panoscope, No 3, October 1987.
3 Catherine Caulfield, Tropical Moist Forests, Earthscan, 1982.
4 Norman Myers, Tropical Moist Forrests: Over Exploited and Under-Utilized?, Elsever Science Publishers, Netherlands, 1982.
5 Norman Myers, Rescue Tropical Forests, New York Times, 7.7.84.
6 Survival International 1988.
7 Earthscan Bulletin, 1983.
8 Francois Nectoux & Nigel Dudley. A Hard Wood Story. Friends of the Earth, 1987.
9 Norman Myers, The Primary Source, WW Norton & Company, 1985.
10 Norman Myers, What's Happening in the Forests, Information Bulletin 2, Friends of the Earth.
11 Catherine Caulfield, In The Rainforest, Pan, 1985.
12 Nigel Dudley, The Death of Trees, Pluto, 1985.
13 F E Trainer, Abandon Affluence, Zed, 1985.
14 Only One Earth, North South Productions, 1987.
15 New South Wales Wilderness Society.
16 Vandana Shiva, Forestry Crisis and Forestry Myths, World Rainforest Movement, 1987.
17 Anil Agarwal, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, India.
18 Forestland Farming in Western Amazonia: Stable and Sustainable, NM Forest Ecology and Management, 1986.

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New Internationalist issue 184 magazine cover This article is from the June 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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