A Search for Solutions
“IN arguing of the shadow,” wrote English author John Lyly, “we forgo the substance.” To avoid that pitfall, we should indeed keep in mind that today’s shadows over the rain forest are mere reflections of deeper problems and that forest destruction will continue unless its underlying causes are tackled. What are those causes? The “fundamental forces attacking Amazonian preservation,” says a UN-sponsored study, are “poverty and human inequities.”
The Not-So-Green Revolution
Forest destruction, argue some researchers, is partially a side effect of the so-called green revolution that took off some decades ago in southern and central Brazil. Before that, thousands of small-farm families there made a living growing rice, beans, and potatoes and raising livestock on the side. Then, large-scale, mechanized soybean-growing operations and hydroelectric projects swallowed up their land and replaced cows and local crops with agricultural products reserved for feeding the industrialized countries. Between 1966 and 1979 alone, farmland set aside for export crops increased by 182 percent. As a result, 11 out of every 12 traditional farmers lost their land and livelihood. For them, the green revolution turned into a bleak revolution.
Where could these landless farmers go? Politicians, unwilling to face unjust land distribution in their own region, showed them the way out by promoting the Amazon region as “a land without men for men without land.” Within a decade after the opening of the first Amazon highway, more than two million poor farmers from southern Brazil and drought- and poverty-stricken northeastern Brazil had settled in thousands of shacks alongside the highway. When more roads were built, more would-be farmers traveled to the Amazon, ready to turn forest into farmland. As they look back on these colonization programs, researchers say that “the balance sheet on almost 50 years of colonization is negative.” Poverty and injustice have been “exported to the Amazon,” and “new problems have been created in the Amazon region” as well.
Three Steps Forward
To help tackle the causes of deforestation and improve man’s living conditions in the Amazon rain forest, the Commission on Development and Environment for Amazonia published a document recommending that, among other things, the governments in the Amazon basin take three initial steps. (1) Address the economic and social problems in the poverty-stricken regions outside the Amazon rain forest. (2) Use the standing forest and reuse the areas that have already been deforested. (3) Deal with society’s grave injustices—the real causes of human misery and forest destruction. Let us look closer at this three-step approach.
Address socio-economic problems. “One of the more efficient options to reduce deforestation,” notes the commission, “is to invest in some of the poorest areas in Amazonian countries, those that force populations to migrate to the Amazon to seek a better future.” However, the commissioners add that “this option is rarely considered in national or regional development planning or by those in the industrialized countries who champion sharp reductions in Amazon deforestation rates.” Yet, explain the authorities, if government officials and concerned foreign governments aim their expertise and financial support at solving problems such as insufficient land distribution or urban poverty in the Amazon’s surrounding regions, they will slow the flow of Amazon-bound farmers and help save the forest.
What, though, can be done for small farmers already living in the Amazon? Their day-to-day survival depends upon growing crops on soil unfit for farming.
The Forest for the Trees
Use and reuse the forest. “Tropical forests are over-exploited but under-used. On this paradox depends their salvation,” says The Disappearing Forests, a UN publication. Instead of exploiting the forest by felling it, say the experts, man should use the forest by extracting, or harvesting, its produce, such as fruits, nuts, oils, rubber, essences, medicinal plants, and other natural products. Such products, it is claimed, represent “an estimated 90 percent of the economic value of the forest.”
Doug Daly, of the New York Botanical Garden, explains why he believes shifting from forest destruction to forest extraction makes sense: “It placates the government—they don’t see big chunks of Amazonia being taken out of the marketplace. . . . It can provide a life that will keep people living and working, and it conserves the forest. It’s pretty hard to find something negative to say about it.”—Wildlife Conservation.
Leaving the forest for the sake of the trees actually improves the living conditions of the forest’s inhabitants. Researchers in Belém, northern Brazil, have calculated, for instance, that transforming two and a half acres [1 ha] into pastureland gives a profit of only $25 per year. So just to earn Brazil’s monthly minimum wage, a man would need to have 120 acres [48 ha] of pastureland and 16 head of cattle. However, Veja reports, a would-be rancher could make much more money by extracting the forest’s natural products. And the scope of products waiting to be collected is amazing, says biologist Charles Clement. “There are dozens of vegetable crops, hundreds of fruit crops, resins, and oils that can be managed and harvested,” adds Dr. Clement. “But the problem is that man must learn that the forest is the source of wealth instead of an impediment to getting wealthy.”
Second Life for Wasted Land
Economic development and environmental preservation can go together, says João Ferraz, a Brazilian researcher. “Look at the amount of forest that has been destroyed already. There is no need to cut more primary forest. Instead, we can reclaim and reuse the already deforested and degraded areas.” And in the Amazon region, there is plenty of degraded land to go around.
Beginning in the late 1960’s, the government granted huge subsidies to encourage big investors to transform the forest into pastures. They did that, but as Dr. Ferraz explains, “the pastures were degraded after six years. Later, when everyone realized that it was a huge mistake, the big landowners said: ‘OK, we’ve received enough money from the government,’ and they left.” The result? “Some 80,000 square miles [200,000 sq km] of abandoned pastureland is withering away.”
Today, however, researchers like Ferraz are finding new uses for these degraded lands. In what way? Some years ago they planted 320,000 seedlings of the Amazonia-nut tree on an abandoned cattle farm. Today, those seedlings are fruit-bearing trees. Since the trees grow fast and also provide valuable wood, Amazonia-nut seedlings are now planted on deforested land in various parts of the Amazon basin. Extracting products, teaching farmers to plant perennial crops, adopting methods to harvest wood without damaging the forests, and reviving degraded land are, in the view of the experts, enlightened alternatives that can help keep the forest standing.—See the box “Working for Preservation.”
Yet, say officials, saving forests requires more than transforming degraded land. It calls for transforming human nature.
How to Straighten Out What Is Crooked
Deal with injustices. Unfair human behavior that violates the rights of others is often caused by greed. And, as the ancient philosopher Seneca observed, “for greed all nature is too little”—including the vast Amazon rain forest.
In contrast with the Amazon’s poor struggling farmers, industrialists and owners of large tracts of land are stripping the forest to fatten their pocketbooks. Authorities point out that Western nations are likewise to blame for lending a big hand to the chain saws at work in the Amazon. “The wealthy industrialized countries,” concluded one group of German researchers, have “largely caused the already existing environmental damage.” The Commission on Development and Environment for Amazonia states that preserving the Amazon calls for nothing less than “a new global ethic, an ethic that will produce an improved style of development, based on human solidarity and justice.”
However, continuing smoke clouds over the Amazon remind one that despite the efforts of environment-conscious men and women worldwide, transforming enlightened ideas into reality is proving to be as hard as grabbing smoke. Why?
The roots of vices such as greed run deep in the fabric of human society, far deeper than the roots of Amazon trees run into the forest soil. Though we should personally do what we can to contribute to forest preservation, it is not realistic to expect that humans, however sincere, will succeed in uprooting the deep and entangled causes of forest destruction. What ancient King Solomon, a wise observer of human nature, noted some three thousand years ago still holds true. By human efforts alone, “that which is made crooked cannot be made straight.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) Similar to that is the Portuguese saying, “O pau que nasce torto, morre torto” (The tree born crooked, dies crooked). Nevertheless, rain forests around the world have a future. Why?
Some one hundred years ago, Brazilian author Euclides da Cunha was so impressed by the Amazon’s wild profusion of life-forms that he described the forest as “an unpublished and contemporary page of Genesis.” And although man has been busy soiling and ripping that “page,” the standing Amazon still is, as the report Amazonia Without Myths says, “a nostalgic symbol of the earth as it was at the time of Creation.” But for how much longer?
Consider this: The Amazon rain forest and the world’s other rain forests breathe evidence of, as Da Cunha put it, “a singular intelligence.” From their roots to their leaves, the trees of the forest declare that they are the handiwork of a master architect. That being the case, will this Great Architect then allow greedy man to wipe out the rain forests and ruin the earth? A Bible prophecy answers this question with a resounding no! It reads: “The nations became wrathful, and your [God’s] own wrath came, and the appointed time . . . to bring to ruin those ruining the earth.”—Revelation 11:18.
Note, however, that this prophecy tells us that the Creator not only will get to the root of the problem by eliminating greedy people but will do so in our time. Why can we make this statement? Well, the prophecy says that God goes into action at a time when man is “ruining” the earth. When those words were written nearly two thousand years ago, man lacked both the numbers and the means to do that. But the situation has changed. “For the first time in its history,” notes the book Protecting the Tropical Forests—A High-Priority International Task, “humanity is today in a position to destroy the bases of its own survival not just in individual regions or sectors, but on a global scale.”
“The appointed time” when the Creator will act against “those ruining the earth” is near. The Amazon rain forest and other endangered environments on earth have a future. The Creator will see to it—and that is, not a myth, but a reality.
[Box on page 13]
Working for Preservation
An area of nearly 4,300,000 square feet [400,000 sq m] of lush secondary forest in the central Amazonian city of Manaus shelters the various offices of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, or INPA. This 42-year-old institution, with 13 different departments covering everything from ecology to forestry to human health, is the region’s largest research organization. It also houses one of the world’s richest collections of Amazonian plants, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, and insects. The work of the institute’s 280 researchers is contributing to man’s better understanding the complex interactions of the Amazonian ecosystems. Visitors to the institute come away with a feeling of optimism. Despite bureaucratic and political restrictions, Brazilian and foreign scientists have rolled up their sleeves to work for the preservation of the crown jewel of the world’s rain forests—the Amazon.
[Picture on page 10]
Logging road carved out of the forest
[Pictures on page 11]
Products from the rain forest: fruits, nuts, oils, rubber, and much more
J. van Leeuwen, INPA-CPCA, Manaus, Brazil