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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.

So if our glass is still a quarter full, a question to ask is: Why? The most obvious answer, of course, is that we’re rich and can afford to safeguard some portion of our natural heritage without great hardship. This is doubtless true, but plenty of other rich nations have not had even the same limited successes.

In Terborgh’s opinion, America’s federal lands are the key to our limited success, and provide an example that should be emulated around the globe. He concedes the obvious: the managers of our national forests have cut down too much of their domain, taking the production of lumber as their main mission. The rangeland managers of the Bureau of Land Management have overgrazed their vast western holdings, giving in to the political influence of ranchers. Nevertheless, Terborgh insists, what biodiversity we still possess can largely be found in these lands—90 percent of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest can be found on federal territory. Private land has been so routinely abused that a flight over Oregon and Washington’s checkerboard of clearcuts is at least as depressing as a flight over the smoking Amazon. And though many of those clearcuts are in National Forests, nonetheless, “the reason so much biodiversity is concentrated on federal lands in the United States,” Terborgh writes, “is that federal law prohibits changes in land use. A national forest is a forest by law. A national grassland is a grassland by law…. Most federal land has never been plowed or planted; hence it retains disproportionate value for biodiversity.” Much of the soil on federal lands, in other words, is intact, or at least more so than on the neighboring private tracts. Terborgh writes, “The history of land use in the United States convinces me that the nation stumbled fortuitously onto a highly desirable mix of public and private landownership.”

Drawing on that example, Terborgh argues that as much land as possible in the tropics should be put under government supervision. Though he admits that the governments are likely to be weak and corrupt, he believes they are still likely to do less damage than private owners, whether they are peasants or multinationals. He calls, in other words, for a system of well-run parks and federal lands, on the American model, in the nations of the tropics. The rich nations should use foreign aid dollars, debt-for-nature swaps, and park trust funds to pay for the land; they might also fund “elite corps, well-trained and well-paid,” of park rangers that could guard these wildlands against encroachment, and a Nature Corps analogous to the Peace Corps to help oversee them. What is needed, Terborgh writes, is a global watchdog organization, akin to Amnesty International, “to monitor the health of parks around the world.”

Most of all, Terborgh doesn’t want people living in these parks. He insists that squatters, and even indigenous peoples, erode the biology of the reserves. Natives may have hunted for thousands of years without destroying many species, but now they have guns as well as chainsaws and medicines that unleash a “demographic explosion.” As indigenous people demand more rights, park authorities will inevitably “make concessions at the expense of nature.” Unlike American parks, where people enter temporarily and then leave, an inhabited park is soon so decimated by human activity that “at the end of the process there is nothing left of the park but its name.”

Terborgh has spent most of his professional life in the tropical forest and his bleak analysis of deforestation rates seems grimly accurate. His zoological absolutism deserves respect. He presents a cogent case for the emerging understanding that, if we are to preserve anything like our current biodiversity, we need large “mega-reserves” that are big enough to contain predators, and to allow species to travel freely north and south. Along with academic colleagues like Michael Soulé of UC-Santa Cruz and Reed Noss, president-elect of the Conservation Biology Society, he has been at the center of a new approach to conservation practice. Working with many others in the Wildlands Project, they have produced a series of maps for North America, and increasingly for other parts of the planet, that bring together existing public lands with corridors of wildness; in so doing they suggest ways to improve the haphazard process of park and preserve formation that has dominated to this date.

These conservationists care more about biology than about scenery, more about herds of bison than herds of Winnebagos; their bold but carefully conceived visions for different regions, which often appear in the invaluable and lively quarterly Wild Earth, are blueprints for a working planet. In Continental Conservation, a recently published anthology of essays about the project, Terborgh and Soulé write,

The goal is to restore, over large portions of the continent, the abiotic and biotic processes that sustain biodiversity. Essential processes include fire and flooding that shape the physical environment, predation, [and] movements such as migration and dispersal…. Beyond science, what we need most is the political will to succeed in an exciting venture that will ensure a better future for all.

If that political will is to be mustered, however, it will be important to avoid at least some of the despairing distrust of human beings that sometimes seems to possess Terborgh. It’s true, as he says, that we should accelerate efforts to control the growth of populations; but in a world of six billion human beings heading for ten billion, there are plenty of places where people will unavoidably be part of the landscape, and those places—though damaged in certain ways—are not off-limits to conservation. There are other approaches for these spots which don’t depend on armed international guards, and aren’t so insistent on separating human beings from nature.

Begin in Brazil. As I have said, Terborgh disdains efforts to set up “extractive reserves,” in which groups of rubber tappers can make a living from the forest without cutting it down. The 45,000 square kilometers of reserves that were set up after the murder of Chico Mendes could not be economically sustained, he says, when Brazil ended rubber subsidies—whereupon rubber tappers abandoned the land and headed for the cities, and “rubber tapping, a marginal lifestyle at best, ceased to be an economically viable proposition in an open market.”

But Terborgh doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the local rubber tappers have since managed to persuade the Brazilian authorities to restore the subsidy, and to expand the reserves. Some of the tappers have been elected mayors and senators in the region; and others are starting to return from the city to the reserves. They are not Yellowstone Park, these extractive reserves, but their inhabitants are a vigilant force against the kind of land conversion that Terborgh fears most.

So, too, at least in some cases, with respect to indigenous peoples. Indians have established their legal right to about 20 percent of the Amazon—300,000 people living in an area twice the size of California. Some of them are hunting with rifles, and that may diminish the possibility for long-term survival of “top” predators and at least some portion of the region’s biodiversity. They may even cut deals with loggers and miners; but they can, and do, stop the endless expansion of the cattle ranches that is the leading cause of deforestation. According to Stephen Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund, the boundaries of the indigenous lands and the extractive reserves show up on satellite images of the region—you can tell there’s someone there defending the land from the chainsaws and the torches.

And it’s not just the Amazon. In Tibet an America-based NGO, Future Generations, has been at work for many years. Its director, Daniel Taylor-Ide, grew up in the region; fascinated by the legend of the Abominable Snowman, he spent years searching through the lush forested valleys that run up to the edge of the Himalayan rocks and ice. He also spent years getting to know the people—he was an educational consultant to the Dalai Lama in his exile but also had extensive contacts with those who remained in Tibet and with the Chinese authorities. He watched in the 1960s and 1970s as deforestation, road-building, and hunting with rifles started to wreck the habitats of animals and reduce their numbers. He provided assistance in the 1980s and 1990s for environmental protection efforts, doing so less out of a desire to preserve biodiversity than because “conservation thinking began to be accepted as a better way of doing development.”3 Twenty-eight percent of Tibet is now protected from ecological destruction, and there are plans to raise that figure to 40 percent. Reforestation in many areas has been so successful that wind speeds in the Lhasa valley have decreased by one mile per hour; animal populations in some regions have doubled, thanks to laws banning the sale of skins, horns, and body parts.

The instrument for much of this progress has been a national park, the Qomolangma (i.e., Mount Everest) National Nature Preserve, but it is not a park Terborgh would completely approve of. Human settlements intermingle with wilder areas, and it is in these settlements that most of the conservation work has been concentrated. Each village sent a resident to be trained in primary health care, after residents decided that this was something they needed. Tree nurseries now produce thousands of seedlings that village workers plant near their houses, mainly fast-growing willows and poplars whose leaves give fodder for animals and whose branches provide fuel. Some areas in the national park have been identified as less environmentally critical; there fields are plowed and given to families who had been living on more fragile land.

Perhaps most important, the preserve has been successful enough to serve as the model for a much larger park project in the Tibetan headwaters of China’s great rivers. Chinese plans for the park were accelerated after the disastrous floods in the Yangtze, which were caused in part by the deforestation along its upper reaches. It is too soon to know if old habits of environmental destruction will really change in China, but as Taylor-Ide points out, “the first test of any preserve is not the writing of a plan, but getting the people who were damaging the land to change their behavior.” By this measure, some hopeful things have been happening in the Himalayas.

There is even precedent in the US for large-scale approaches to preservation that take the interests of human residents into account. Besides the federal lands concentrated in the West, America has one other interesting model—the enormous Adirondack State Park in northern New York, where I live. At six million acres, the park is larger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite combined. Half of that land is state-owned wilderness, protected by the New York constitution from any alteration. The other half is in private hands, much of it used for timber-cutting, though under enough restrictions to prevent enormous abuse. The public and private holdings in the Adirondacks are intermingled, with small towns dotting the landscape at distant intervals.

By Terborgh’s calculation, it should be a difficult place to make conservation work. And indeed it is not biologically perfect. But a hundred years of slow recovery from nineteenth-century deforestation have yielded surprisingly good results. First the beaver and the bear moved back in; in recent years the moose has returned; now we are discussing the possibility of inviting the wolf to reappear as well. The mere fact that the residents of a semi-wild place are actively considering reintroducing the region’s top predator, exactly a hundred years after their forebears succeeded in extirpating it, should be encouraging for Terborgh and his colleagues, and remind us all that there may be more than one way to save a catamount, a puma, a grizzly.

The Adirondacks also suggest an answer to a question that Terborgh never really gets around to: Why bother with biodiversity anyway? Not, as he points out, for new medicines. Maybe for theological reasons—out of the sense that it’s criminal to tamper any more than we must with the handiwork around us. But maybe, too, in the hope that the wilderness can teach certain lessons to human beings. This is not a sentimental argument. Human beings need to change if they’re going to deal at all with problems like global warming, which will do at least as much damage to biodiversity as deforestation.

The lessons that we might learn from the natural world—especially the idea that we are only a part of things, one component of a marvelous creation—can be learned from a visit to Yellowstone. But perhaps they can be learned even more thoroughly in those places where human beings live in intimate daily contact with the natural world, learning to make the compromises necessary to preserve both their own lives and the myriad forms of life around them. Tibet, the Adirondacks, the Amazon—these and places like them are the epicenters of some of the most radical and interesting stories on earth at the moment, even if hardly anyone wants to write about them.

  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).

  3. 3

    Daniel Taylor-Ide and Carl E. Taylor, A Just and Lasting Future: A Handbook for Practitioners (forthcoming from the University of California Press, 2001).

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