issue 206 - April 1990
5. Save the trees
Forests are gigantic carbon banks, soaking up CO2 from the air - until it is released when their trees are felled and burned. The clearing of the world's trees for farming and grazing (now mostly tropical rainforests) accounts for more than ten per cent of global warming. Deforestation is an ecological timebomb that must be defused now.
Photo: Sven Simon / CAMERA PRESS
Tropical rainforests are more than rich reserves of plants
and wildlife. Susanna Hecht believes that if forests are to be
saved we must first see the people behind the trees.
When the first Europeans sailed down the Amazon they saw river banks teeming with people and were greeted by flotillas of canoes. Rich fields and orchards adorned the shores. Then European diseases quickly burned through the native populations of the Americas; Amazonian peoples were decimated by waves of smallpox and influenza which followed the trade routes.
Naturalists and explorers who came later had little sense that the majestic forests they so admired were the archaeological record of a human history obliterated by foreign fevers. However, researchers have discovered since that a rich science informs the land-use practices of native peoples. It is now known that indigenous agriculture often increased the numbers of species in an area. The forests themselves were formed from intentional plantings after agriculture.
The Kayapo Indians, for example, brought plants into their Amazonian lands from an area the size of Europe. They reforested savannas and planted useful herbs and trees under the rainforest canopy. They carefully controlled the regrowth of their fields in ways that also supplied food and habitat for many animals, permitting them to live at densities well above what would be found in a 'natural' forest. As Ailton Krenak, of Brazil's Native People's Union notes: 'Native people don't preserve forest. They live together with it.'
Later forest settlers learned from tribal people, making their living by hunting, farming and by harvesting forest products to sell. In the Amazon, there are now more than two million people who depend on the forest for part of their livelihood.
These people are no friends to those who would turn their forests into ashes. Or to those who would flood millions of acres for hydropower. But they also object to Western environmentalists who want parks without people - like the one proposed by the Brazilian government near the Peruvian border that would expel more than 12,000 rubber-tapping families.
Forest people first gained international attention when union leader Chico Mendes was assassinated. Mendes had been forging an alliance between environmental groups in the rich world and the National Rubber Tappers Council. To Amazonian residents he was a charismatic labor organizer. But to environmentalists he was known as a keen advocate of 'extractive reserves' - a type of agrarian reform to protect forests from land speculators. Extractive reserves were immediately recognized by Western environmental organizations as a major conservation step. Parks with indigenous people already exist (like the Guyabeno reserve of Ecuador), but parks incorporating 'peasants' were unknown.
Most Western sympathy for preserving rainforests has been based on a romantic nineteenth-century vision of nature as primordial or 'virgin'. Until recently there was general agreement that forests are best preserved by keeping people out, so that tapirs, monkeys and leopards can cavort in some bucolic Eden without the corrupting presence of humans.
Virtually all of Latin America developed a forest-conservation approach along these lines. What this overlooked was that tropical forests are full of people. Faced with the pillage of the rainforests, the environmental community with its emphasis on parks devised a pastoralism as anti-human as the degraded pastures that replaced the forests.
As the Co-ordinating Committee of Indian Organizations of the Amazon stated in 1989: 'We are concerned that you have left us. out of your vision of the Amazonian biosphere. The focus of the environmental community has typically been the preservation of the tropical forests and its plant and animal inhabitants. You have shown little interest in its human inhabitants who are also part of that biosphere.'
Extractive reserves are an attempt to change that. But it's not an easy fight. Because of contested land titles and the huge profits to be made from clearing trees, forest protection is a deadly business - as the constant assassination attempts, harassment and murders attest.
Rubber tappers are not anti-development, but they do want to control development on their own terms. According to the National Rubber Tappers Council, about five million acres of forest have been saved by their protests - called empates. Men, women and children join together to face off against chain-saw-wielding laborers and the hired guns that protect them. This determination, along with a fierce commitment to labor organizing, has made them a powerful force in some parts of Brazil. But it has also earned them powerful enemies in the Uniao Democratica Rural - the landowners' vigilante group responsible for Chico Mendes' murder.
Bolstered by the ideology of the 'empty' forest, some environmental groups are enthusiastically supporting 'debt-for-nature' swaps as a way of saving tropical rainforests right now. In countries ravaged by debt, austerity programs and lurching economies, debt swaps are one way for banks to recoup their losses and governments to reduce their debt liability.
A 'debt-for-nature' scheme works like this. A commercial bank is owed some money by a debt-burdened country. A secondary market in this debt exists where the debt can be purchased at a fraction of its face value (these markets were set up so banks could salvage a portion of what appeared to be uncollectable debts). If banks sell the debt to a non-profit organization they can write it off against tax. So an environment group buys the debt at a reduced rate and the nation agrees to pay the full face value in local currency for use in environmental projects. In principle everyone wins: banks get cash and a tax break, environmental groups get a lot of bang for their buck. And the indebted nation gets credit for applying local currencies to national problems - instead of scrambling to boost export earnings to pay off steely-eyed bankers.
In principle there is nothing wrong with the debt-swap mechanism; in practice all has not been smooth sailing. In Bolivia, a national park was proposed in an area of the Amazon inhabited by rubber tappers and Chimanes Indians. But the locals were not involved in the plans and soon found themselves pushed out of the area. Others were annoyed that virtually all the Bolivian environment budget was being spent in the Amazon, when other issues like safe water and erosion control might carry equal weight.
Costa Rica, the favorite country of many North American environment organizations, has also embarked on several 'debt-for-nature' exchanges. But the country's Special Advisor for Natural Resources, Rodrigo Gamez, is phlegmatic. 'I wish we could say "these are our priorities, these are our terms of trade" but it has never been possible for us to set our terms of trade in coffee or cocoa. Countries without power can never determine these things: this is dependence.' Besides, the small sums involved in debt swaps so far have had no tangible effect on foreign debt at all. Says Gamez: 'The reality is, the country can't pay the debt, even in colones (the local currency).'
What will keep rainforests standing? Since people chop them down, in the end it will be people who keep them up, whether these are courageous rubber tappers and their empates or native peoples protesting against dams in the corridors of the World Bank. The battle is not just over lines on maps or even a marvellous natural resource - it is over justice for the rainforest people.
Susanna Hecht teaches at the University of California and is the author (with Alexander Cockburn) of The Fate of the Forest.
A billion trees
When Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised last July to plant a billion trees by the year 2000, sceptics went scurrying for their calculators. In hard figures Mr Hawke's goal meant planting 100 million trees a year or 273,972 a day. It looked like someone had got their figures wrong; but the numbers were confirmed by Allan Brown, Deputy Chief of the Government's Forestry and Forest Products division. 'The current planting target is ambitious,' he said, 'but not unrealistic.'
Some critics see the 'Billion Tree' project as a glossy public-relations exercise, an attempt to divert attention from more pressing environmental issues - especially an ambitious plan to boost the country's pulp and paper industry. Seven 'world-scale' mills are planned by the year 2000. If they were developed under guidelines suggested by the September 1989 Industry Task Force, the impact would be devastating. Each of the pulp mills would consume 1.5 million tons of wood per year; within a decade the industry would consume more than ten million tons of timber a year.
Environmentalists argue that there are simply not enough trees to sustain the planned pulp mills and that old-growth forests will be their first target - a suspicion supported by the Government's Pulp Task Force. Critics charge that the value and diversity of the ancient forests can't be compared with the scattered saplings that will result from Mr Hawke's scheme.
The Prime Minister has also said that 'trees combat the greenhouse effect in the short run by providing a means of storing carbon dioxide'. But if thousands of acres of old-growth forests are destroyed at the same time the net effect will be more not less CO2 added to the atmosphere.
Says Keith Tarlo of the Australian Wilderness Society: 'It's like running into an art gallery and slashing the Mona Lisa to pieces, then walking out and announcing you're instituting Community Finger-Painting Programs to take its place. It may be a good thing, but the two things don't compare.'
Allen Matheson and Yolander Asty work for the Wilderness Society of New South Wales.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.