Amazonia in the Year of the Valdez
Only three days before Christmas one hot summer evening last year, in the small village of Xapuri in Brazil's Amazon Basin, an outwardly nondescript man by the name of Chico Mendes was surprised, just as he was stepping out of his house, by a powerful blast from a 12 gauge shot-gun fired at point-blank range -- it abruptly terminated his life. Despite the media reports, for most of us in North America this event, tragic in more ways then one, passed relatively unnoticed. This is not surprising for, sadly, we live today in an age when the death of a Latin American below the rank of a President or Bishop hardly causes more than a fleeting twinge of concern, if at all, given the now all pervasive, and not entirely unrealistic, mental images of poverty, war, torture and death that we associate with that region.
Yet the brutal death of Chico Mendes, even though only one among many in the Amazon -- nearly a thousand Brazilians ranging from peasants to high-ranking politicians have been murdered over the past nine years or so over the issue of Amazonian land -- would send a shock wave world-wide among those knowledgeable and concerned about one of the most important and fast growing problems to emerge in the Third World at the close of the twentieth century: the unprecedented rapid destruction of the last remaining patches of rain forests in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is estimated that at the present rate of destruction the rain forests will be gone in a mere thirty or so years!
A simple man with no wealth, and a rubber-tapper by trade, Mendes had come to earn a reputation for leading a life-long struggle against the voracious greed of Brazil's land speculators and cattle barons, as well as the Brazilian government itself whose members have been increasingly plagued by visions of mineral riches, supposedly waiting to be discovered beneath the Amazon forest, dancing in their heads. A greed that lies at the root of the relentless destruction of the Amazon forest -- albeit fueled by the very real problem of land hunger among the poverty-stricken peasants pouring out of the Brazilian slums. Awarded the prestigious Global 500 award by the UN in 1987, his work had had sufficient impact to earn him many enemies among the ranchers. Mendes had managed to escape, at least, five previous attempts on his life. Though he had once said: ``I want to live -- funerals won't save Amazonia," it is absolutely necessary that his death and those of others like him be not in vain.
The world must work toward permanently halting the rapid deforestation of Third World rain forests, and the reasons go far far beyond those of `nature-nostalgia' that the un-concerned often think lie at the motivational roots of the work of environmentalists: First, there is the simple matter of justice: deforestation is a form of genocide perpetrated against the human citizens of these forests. Primitive and backward though the lifestyle of rain forest inhabitants may appear to the outside world they, like everybody else, have a right to their home and source of livelihood -- even if they lack the capitalist values of property ownership which ethnocentric outsiders see as necessary to legitimate their claim to their forests.
Second, the destruction of rain forest flora and fauna is symptomatic of a greed-engineered inability to co-exist in harmony with nature, an inability that must be corrected if the entire planet is not to eventually take on the barren effect of the Saharan desert sprinkled with islands of glass and concrete jungles. It must be remembered that vegetation forms a critically important part of nature's rain-making machine.
Third, the rain forests represent a huge store-house of natural products of great potential value to all of humanity: ranging from medicine to food, but only if the rain forests are conserved and properly managed. For, as ethnobotanists such as American Mark Plotkin, working today in Amazonia in Suriname documenting the medicinal uses of plants by forest Indians will testify, scientists know the chemical composition of only a tiny percentage of rain forest flora.
Fourth, rain forests are among the major `natural engines' that help in peventing the greenhouse effect' from degenerating into the `oven-effect' -- the over-heating of the planet brought about by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that allows in heat but prevents it from escaping. Deforestation on a scale such as that taking place in the Amazon basin today -- every-day an area the size of Rhode Island is going up in smoke -- not only means the addition of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also the elimination of the very mechanism that helps to reduce carbon dioxide: plant photosynthesis. Why is it important to prevent the oven-effect from coming into play? It has the potential to bring untold climatic damage to the planet: ranging from droughts and heat waves to rising sea levels and the resultant floods and destruction of existing shore-lines. It should be remembered that a mere seven degrees F. upward change in temperature was required to melt the mile high ice sheets covering the North American continent during the last ice age.
Yet while the need for halting the destruction of rain forests is beyond dispute among the knowledgeable, there is the question of how to achieve this. Here, North Americans and others in the Industrial world have a major role to play. At the minimum there is the need for the following short term and long-term steps to be taken by both the Third World governments and Western governments:
(a) Third World governments must be educated through bilateral contacts that in their haste to exploit their rain forests they are in effect killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Properly and cautiously managed rain forests can serve as an infinite renewable natural resource. They must be made aware, however, that rain forests are extremely fragile ecological environments. Hence, for example, despite the illusions created by the density and lushness of their flora their underlying soils are too infertile for arable activity. The illusions of fertility is a result of the extremely finely balanced plants-to-soil-to-nutrients-to-plants ecological cycle that cannot be touched without provoking immediate and irreversible collapse of the entire cycle. Once destroyed rain forests are not likely to come back.
(b) More countries than those presently involved must be included in the new strategy of swapping their national debts for measures to protect their rain forests. Six countries that account for approximately a quarter of the total Third World debt also account for nearly 50 percent of the entire planetary biological diversity via their rain forests: Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico and Zaire.
(c) The World Bank and other similar organizations must halt all aid that has helped to subsidize the destruction of the rain forests in the name of `development.' In fact from now on all `development' aid must be explicitly ecologically sensitive.
(d) The Industrial world must stop importing all products produced as a result of the destruction of the rain forests. This means, for example, North American fast food chains must stop importing Brazilian beef produced on cleared Amazonian land and the Europeans must stop importing cheap iron-ore mined in the open pit mines of the Amazon.
(e) The West must increase its development aid to the Third World if it is to convince the Third World to preserve its rain forests for the benefit of the entire planet. To the starving peasant the short term goal of placing food on the table by clearing the rain forest must of necessity take precedence to the long-term goal of maintaining the ecosystem through its preservation. Third World governments cannot be asked to keep their people poor and hungry so that we in the industrial world are spared the consequences of ecological destruction.
(f) A concerted campaign must be started to convince all concerned to declare all threatened major ecosystems in both the Third World and in the Western World as the heritage of all of humanity and place them under the joint supervisory management of a body comprising representatives from the home country and the United Nations. It is time to recognize that the consequences of environmental degradation respect no national boundaries.
(g) Western governments must demonstrate through concrete action that they too have responsibilities in protecting the environment by undertaking two immediate steps: first, permanently halting any further efforts to `develop' existing undeveloped areas -- such as, here in the U.S. the Alaskan nature sanctuaries, the Florida Everglades, and the Redwood forests. The crusade for the `Wattification' of public lands begun by Reagan's first secretary of the interior (James Watt), that is throwing them open to profiteers who see the world only through dollar tinted glasses, must be rolled back. Second, begin long-term nature reclamation projects coupled with renewed vigorous programs for cleaning up the environment. Of what use is so called `development' if the price is polluted air, water and land.
(h) A long-term sustained program of education must be launched to convince the public of the need to move away from the super wasteful, super-consumerist society. (With regard to the this point, while the new era of Gorbachev's glasnost is a welcome development, there is the danger that it bodes ill for the worlds' natural resources, because yet another industrial giant is about to launch its efforts to create a Western-style consumerist society.) Imagine for a moment that the entire planet was recreated in the image of the industrial world, so as to allow all peoples access to the same standards of living that the West enjoys; the result surely would be complete ecological collapse with ensuing wholesale degradation of the quality of life for all.
(i) This commitment to the environment must also mean the passage of laws by Western governments prohibiting the dumping of hazardous wastes in the Third World. The Third World must not be bribed into accepting these wastes because of their desperate need for money. They neither have the expertise nor the money to deal with these poisons coming out of the industrial world. At the same time new legislative and education efforts must be launched to halt and eliminate national and international trade in endangered plant and animal species and products derived from them. It is a tragic commentary on the life-style of the industrialized world that in its pursuit of vanity that it is willing to drive animal and plant species into extinction. Are ivory-made piano keys, for example, of such importance as to warrant the extinction of the majestic elephant?
(j) The global race in phallic symbols -- the arms race -- must be brought to a halt. Not only because it constitutes a total waste of scarce resources, but because it strikes at the very purpose of the effort to protect the environment: the preservation of human and other life.
(k) All stops must be pulled to find ways of harnessing the limitless energy that can be derived from the the sun, wind and the motion of the sea.
(l) A sustained nation-wide education campaign must be started to make the public environment-conscious and be funded in part through fines imposed on businesses that violate environmental regulations.
The problem of the disappearing rain forests in the Third World should no longer be seen as a deplorable but Third World problem. It is a global problem akin to such other environmental disasters as acid-rain and the depleting ozone layer. In this year of the greatest environmental disaster yet in North America, the Valdez oil spill, (which in terms of mismanagement rivals the Chernobyl disaster), and the tenth anniversary of the Three Mile Island there is an even greater urgency to reverse the tide in the relentless effort to convert the planet into a gigantic cesspool, not only for the sake of future generations but for the present generation too. Last year's summer drought, here in the U.S. and elsewhere plus the others in 1981, 1983, and 1987 are ample proof of the immediacy of the consequences of destroying the planetary ecological balance.