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Nature Without People?

In recent decades, biologists, ethnobotanists, and the like have managed to convey some sense of the staggering diversity of the rainforest, often guided by the people who have lived there for eons. But in a political and economic sense the tropical jungle is as dark and mysterious as ever.

You can follow the changes in the value of the Japanese yen second by second from your desktop; reporters by the dozen struggle valiantly to explain the particulars of Microsoft’s antitrust defense. But who can tell whether the tropical forest is disappearing more or less speedily than it was in the late 1980s when every singer worth her faded jeans was cutting a CD in its defense? This question is surely worth attention, since the equatorial jungles contain more examples of creation’s fabulous imagination than any other ecosystem, and since its trees are a key part of the earth’s system for cleansing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Perhaps you have a dim sense that some agreements have been signed to protect the rainforests, some programs put in place. But are they working? What strategies make the most sense to preserve what’s left? Far more money and attention is devoted to, say, searching for and describing the possible remains of microbial life in the dust of Mars.

Any journalistic vacuum fills with bunkum and hocus-pocus. For example, in his muscular account of globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman devotes nine pages to questions of the environment, concentrating mainly on efforts to preserve tropical ecosystems. He visits a remnant of Brazil’s Atlantic coastal rainforest where Anheuser-Busch has sent one of their theme park designers to help design an “Ecopark.” He then journeys inland to the splendid Pantanal wetland system, where a “vice president for corporate partnerships” at Conservation International explains how Ford is funding research and conservation programs because, in Friedman’s words, “it believes that it can sell a lot more Jaguar cars if it is seen as saving the jaguars of the Pantanal.” Writing with his characteristic confidence, even though the notes to his book indicate that all his reporting comes from a single trip to Brazil, Friedman concludes, “if that’s what it takes to save this incredibly beautiful ecosystem and way of life, then God bless Henry Ford and the Internet.”

To judge by John Terborgh’s account in Requiem for Nature, however, that’s not what it takes. Terborgh, a prominent ornithologist with long experience in the Amazon region, is also co-director of the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke. Citing evidence from Washington’s WorldWatch Institute and the conservation group Friends of the Earth, he writes that the rates of deforestation have increased in the 1990s. Even at the rate of destruction observed between 1980 and 1990, the last tree in the last primary rainforest on the planet would be cut sometime around 2045. And Terborgh argues that none of the plans the conservationists have proposed for their salvation will work.

Take, for instance, the practice of “ecoprospecting,” where pharmaceutical companies save rainforests in order to extract new medicines from their genetic abundance. As Terborgh points out, the principal trend in molecular biology is toward synthetic compounds; in any event, once the miracle plant is discovered, it is then grown plantation style, obviating the need for protection of the wild.

Or consider ecotourism. In a few cases, such as Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, there are attractions that foreigners will pay large sums to see. Most parks, however, languish in obscurity, barren of charismatic megafauna. Terborgh tells the darkly humorous story of his attempt even to find a map of the five Ecuadoran national parks that were not the Galapagos. Even when jungles are easier to locate,

poor visibility in the forest and skittish birds and mammals pose an unresolvable dilemma for ecotourism guides. Trails in the forest are typically narrow, so people must progress in single file. Normally, the guide goes first, and it is the guide who spots the toucan or the peccary. If the quarry doesn’t bolt that instant, the guide may be able to point it out to the second person in line. The third will be extremely lucky to have a glimpse. The fourth in line might as well not be there.

He describes a conversation with a longtime ecotourism guide who was quitting the profession: “Too many customers went away complaining: The humidity was uncomfortable, insects assaulted them, and the animals they had found so appealing on the television screen were nowhere to be seen.”

Perhaps instead of cutting down trees local people can be persuaded to gather and market nuts or resins or anything else that can be sustainably harvested. This is the Rainforest Crunch approach. In Terborgh’s opinion it is unlikely to amount to much. A study he quotes found that the economic return for gathering Brazil nuts and tapping rubber trees was $4.80 per hectare annually—and “almost any other kind of land use, including slash and burn agriculture, easily achieves a higher return per unit area.” As for natural forest management schemes—which rely on carefully controlled rotation of timber harvests—Terborgh concludes that they have failed almost every place they’ve been tried, often because of the political instability that bedevils tropical nations. Without strong forestry policies, squatters will invade forest land and poachers will log at the edges. In any event the economically valuable trees are few and far between, surrounded by many ecologically vital but commercially marginal trees.

Terborgh has good evidence from his own experience for his dark views. Again and again he has been forced to watch the destruction of the tropics close up—his first field work was done in Peru’s Apurímac valley, “the most beautiful place I had ever seen.” But within a few years the Alliance for Progress had built a road across the Andes, and peasants were pouring in, “the vanguard of a demographic explosion that continues to drive people into rain forests the world over.” The frontier “melted away…in no more than the blink of an eye”—by 1972, “hardly a tree remained of the magnificent forest that had so recently filled the valley bottom.” Cocaine traffic soon followed.

Since he has seen the speed with which human beings can overpower a place, he understandably discounts the notion of “sustainable development,” the feel-good compromise between ecological protection and economic development that became the mantra of 1990s conservation.

Given the expanding human population, the competitive nature of the global economy, and our collective obsession with maximizing economic growth, sustainable development is currently unattainable…. Indeed, it cannot be achieved by the world as a whole without structural adjustments so radical as to be inconceivable to governments and citizens alike.

For Terborgh, the central question for conservation is preserving soil, and he concludes that “unsustainable erosion” of soil “goes hand in hand with mechanization” of agriculture. When land use changes—when a forest is cleared to make way for pasture or cropland—the biodiversity of the spot disappears. Soon thereafter, especially in the thin soils of the tropics, the land is exhausted and abandoned. “The accumulation of wasteland,” he writes, “is an indication of the unsustainability of human activities.” Since 1950, an area equivalent to India and China combined has been abandoned as wasteland, an amount of land that grows much larger if one also includes land converted into urban and suburban development, industrial sites, and roads. This proportion of the world’s land, he contends, will surely grow, especially as populations increase from their current six billion to eight or nine billion by the middle of the next century.

How, then, to preserve biodiversity? The most controversial part of Terborgh’s book will likely be the triage he advocates near the end. He cites the island of Madagascar, which is in desperate environmental shape. But it has a “functional government that is capable of making things happen on the ground, and so it should be viewed as a calculated risk.” To preserve its forests and wildlife would be a worthwhile investment of scarce conservation resources by the well-to-do nations. In Southeast Asia, by contrast, rapidly growing economies with an insatiable appetite for resources, and “a ubiquitous Chinese minority creating a market for everything that breathes, from tigers…down to turtles and snakes,” makes preservation difficult. “Overpopulated Vietnam and the Philippines are already beyond the point of no return. Malaysia and Indonesia are perhaps the only strong hopes for the entire region.” New Guinea has a rapacious government; Mexico is overcrowded; Costa Rica’s enlightened conservation policies are a remarkable exception to those of its neighbors. South America is corrupt but its great forests still exist, unlike those of West Africa, where

nature has all but disappeared…. Rather than pour money into conservation efforts that are doomed to fail, I would maintain the most spectacular endemic species, such as the pygmy hippopotamus and the diana monkey, in captivity as reminders of our collective impotence to hold back the forces of extinction.

After Terborgh’s gloomy assessment, one can almost read The Condor’s Shadow, David Wilcove’s account of American wildlife conservation, as a success story. It’s not that he presents a happy situation. In fact, as he points out, a third of all the nation’s species are either endangered, threatened, or “vulnerable.” Further extinctions of species are likely and the absence of “top predators” like wolves, and the consequent increase in rodents and other small animals, have been silently eroding most American landscapes for a century. A host of exotic blights, fungi, insects, and other pests are steadily wrecking our forests.

It is also true, as Wilcove points out, that there is no place outside Alaska where one can find anything like the quantity of the wildlife that greeted the early European settlers. New studies of island biogeography make it clear that even most of our national parks are too small to ensure biodiversity.1 Our prairie grasslands are gone forever as a functioning ecosystem. As Gary Nabhan and others have pointed out recently, we face a possibly devastating crisis as the insects and bats on which we depend for pollination decline in number.2 The continuing increase in the use of concrete as our suburbs spread endlessly outward fragments every kind of habitat, further reducing the odds for many species.

Moreover, destructive “forestry” continues in most national forests, as well as in huge swaths of private land, from the “clearcuts”—the decimation of entire forests, as opposed to selectively cutting down trees—of Maine and the chip mills of the Southeast to the inexcusable timbering of places like Montana’s Yaak Valley or Alaska’s southeastern rainforests. All of this combines to put American conservationists—the world’s best-organized, best-educated, and most vigilant—in a state of despair.

But those same conservationists, Wilcove points out, have won some real victories over the decades. These include the creation of the national parks since the end of the nineteenth century, and the continuing creation of large wildernesses, a project that has the support of most of the public and is at the moment blocked only by the mendacity of western Republican congressional delegations. And the reintroduction of species like the timber wolf to Yellowstone, the red wolf to coastal North Carolina, and the condor to the skies above southern California. And the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, which has made possible the recent decision to remove some dams from the Pacific Northwest and manage its river systems for salmon as well as hydroelectricity. When Peter Matthiessen published his excellent book Wildlife in America in 1959, he gave an almost unremittingly grim account of our four-hundred-year effort to kill off nearly everything we could. Wilcove is, rightly, a little more hopeful. He points out that only one percent of the nation’s species have become extinct since Europeans arrived here. A large part of American society, he believes, is at least open to the possibility of enduring some minor sacrifices in order to prevent the future extinction of species.

  1. 1

    This point was actually made more clearly in David Quammen’s compulsively readable The Song of the Dodo (Scribner, 1996).

  2. 2

    Gary Paul Nabhan, editor, The Forgotten Pollinators (Island Press, 1996).

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