Nature Without People?

Continental Conservation: Scientific Foundations of Regional Reserve Networks

edited by Michael E. Soulé and John Terborgh
Island Press, 227 pp., $25.00 (paper)

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…

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