Who Is Killing the Rain Forests?
THAT question is often answered by blaming the world’s poor. For centuries, peasants in tropical countries have farmed the land by slash-and-burn agriculture. They fell a patch of forest and burn it, and either just before or just after the burning, they plant crops. The forest’s ashes provide nutrients for the crops.
This type of farming long ago uncovered a surprising truth about tropical rain forests. About 95 percent of them grow on very poor soils. The forest recycles nutrients so fast that they are mostly kept in the trees and vegetation well above ground, safe from the rains that would wash them out of the soil. The rain forest is therefore perfectly suited to its environment. The news is not quite as good for the farmer.
The Plight of the Poor
All too soon, the rains carry off the nutrients the ashes leave from the burned forest. Slowly, farming becomes a nightmare. A poor Bolivian farmer put it this way: “The first year, I cut the trees and burned them. And the corn grew tall and sweet in the ashes, and we all thought we had finally made it. . . . But since then, things have gone bad. The soil gets drier and drier, and it won’t grow anything but weeds. . . . And the pests? I’ve never seen so many kinds. . . . We’re just about done for.”
In times past, a farmer would simply fell new patches of forest and let the old plot of land lie fallow. Once the forest had returned to the earlier plots, it could be felled all over again. For this process to work, though, the cleared patches must be surrounded by the original forest so that insects, birds, and animals can scatter the seeds and pollinate the new saplings. This takes time.
The population explosion has also changed things. As farmers crowd together, the fallow periods get shorter and shorter. Often, migrant farmers simply exhaust their land in a few years and move on into the forest, burning it along a broad front.
Another factor aggravates the situation. Some two thirds of the people in less developed countries depend on wood as fuel for cooking and heating. Over a thousand million people can meet their fuel needs only by cutting firewood faster than it is currently being replaced.
It is easy to blame the poor. But as ecologists James D. Nations and Daniel I. Komer put it, that is like “blaming soldiers for causing wars.” They add: “They are mere pawns in a general’s game. To understand the colonists’ role in deforestation, one must ask why these families enter the rainforest in the first place. The answer is simple: because there is no land for them elsewhere.”
In one tropical country, some 72 percent of the land is owned by a mere 2 percent of the landowners. Meanwhile, some 83 percent of the farm families either have not enough land to survive on or have none at all. That pattern is repeated in varying degrees around the globe. Vast expanses of privately owned land are used, not to grow food for the local people, but to raise export crops to sell to wealthy nations in the temperate zones.
The logging industry is another famous culprit. Besides the direct damage it does to the forest, logging also makes rain forests more vulnerable to fires—and to humans. Logging roads forged by bulldozer into virgin forest pave the way for advancing crowds of migrant farmers.
And when the farms fail, as they so often do, cattle ranchers buy up the land and turn it into pasture for grazing cattle. This is particularly so in South and Central America. Most of the beef they raise is exported to wealthier nations. The average house cat in the United States eats more beef in a year than the average Central American does.
In the end, it is the developed nations that finance the demise of the tropical rain forests—to fill their own voracious appetites. The exotic tropical woods, the produce, the beef, that they eagerly buy from tropical nations all require displacing or degrading the forest. American and European lust for cocaine has meant the clearing of hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forest in Peru to make way for the lucrative coca crops.
The Gains That Sour
Many governments actively promote deforestation. They provide tax breaks for ranchers, timber companies, and export agriculture. Some nations will give a piece of land to a farmer if he “improves” it by clearing it of forest. One country in Southeast Asia has transported migrant farmers by the millions into its remote rain forests.
Such policies are defended as making use of the forests to benefit the poor or to boost sagging economies. But as critics see it, even these short-term gains are illusory. For instance, land that was inhospitable to the farmer’s crops may be no friendlier to the rancher’s cattle. Ranches are commonly abandoned after ten years.
The timber industry often fares no better. When tropical hardwoods are extracted from the forest with no thought to the future, forests dwindle fast. The World Bank estimates that more than 20 of 33 countries currently exporting their tropical wood will run out of it within ten years. Thailand was so drastically deforested that it had to outlaw all logging. It is estimated that the Philippines will be completely logged by the mid-1990’s.
But the bitterest irony is this: Studies have shown that a plot of rain forest can generate more income when it is left intact and its products—the fruit and the rubber, for instance—are harvested. Yes, more money than farming, ranching, or logging the same land. Yet the destruction goes on.
The globe cannot support this treatment forever. As the book Saving the Tropical Forests puts it: “If we continue the present destruction the question is not if the rainforest will disappear but when.” But would the world really suffer if all the rain forests were destroyed?
[Picture on page 7]
Agents of Deforestation
Flooding caused by dams