The Burden of the Past
Earth, Wind, Water and Fire: Resource Exploitation in the Twentieth Century
J. R. McNeill
Ecological Displacement and Transnational Environmental Justice
Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century
Robert D. Bullard
How Much Should a Person Consume?
'If We Are Not Getting into Trouble, We Are Not Being Effective'
INTERVIEW: George Monbiot
The Perils of Panglossism
Climate Change: The Need for Action
Preserving the Forests: The Promise of Community Control
Roger D. Stone and Claudia D’Andrea
Justifying Sustainable Development: A Continuing Ethical Search
Holmes Rolston III
Ecofeminism, Lifeboat Ethics and Illegal Immigration
The Animal Invitation: Extending Human Rights to Other Apes
Paul Waldau and Sarah Whitman
REVIEW ESSAY: Ten Pinches of Salt: A Reply to Bjorn Lomborg
Debunking the Myth of a Lost Eden
A Social Contract for the Future
Hussein A. Amery
Volume 4 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2002—The Fragile Biosphere
Preserving the Forests: The Promise of Community Control
Forty recent years of intensive government-mandated logging have caused a good part of the damage. So have myriad projects to convert once-forested lands into plantation monocultures. In areas with rising populations, roads built by ranchers, loggers and miners give homesteading migrant farm families access to forestland. Aid lenders and donors long encouraged commercial forestry. For many years non-governmental conservation organisations struggled to establish regulatory regimes that would protect wildlife and biological diversity in some forests while ignoring the interests of local people. “We assumed that all community use was overuse,” admitted one high-ranking conservationist at a recent United Nations meeting. Almost everywhere in the tropical Southern Hemisphere, from the dawn of colonialism to this day, the state has ignored forest peoples’ traditional ownership and user rights, typically claiming possession of all forestland and unilaterally deciding what use to make of it. “Without significant change of direction,” reports one analysis, “in fifty years much remaining tropical forest is likely to have been converted to other land uses or substantially degraded except in some large, very remote frontier areas of the western and northern Amazon, the Central Congo Basin, and some well-managed national parks and other reserves.”1
Some people remain undisturbed. If we continue to do our forest business as we have, it is argued in some quarters, the world will grow its way out of the problem as the combination of economic expansion, industrialisation and urbanisation leads to the restoration of healthy forests. In some areas, such as western Europe and the United States, forests are in fact returning as less and less land is needed for agriculture and forests naturally regenerate. The same transition is likely to occur in some other parts of the world, including Taiwan and certain of the fast-industrialising tropical nations of South-East Asia. Long-departed wildlife species will reoccupy these newly reforested lands, as have the wild turkey, the black bear, the coyote and the cougar in the eastern United States.
Some people depend on forest destruction. As long as there are trees to harvest, the $400 billion wood products industry and associated workers are beneficiaries. Profitable mining and oil exploration companies often must open the forest to do their work. So must those who cannot, in parts of the world where soils are good enough, grow sufficient food or raise livestock without cutting trees for farmland or mixed cropping systems. When they prove to be sustainable, the larger-scale farming activities that result from forest clearing can represent dramatic economic gains. The bountiful US Midwest, abnormally blessed with twelve feet of rich topsoil that had never been exploited before settlers arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is a case in point.
For most people in most places, however, tropical deforestation’s consequences range from negative to catastrophic in political and economic, as well as in strictly ecological, senses. If stripping the tropical forests benefits a privileged few, the rest of us are paying a terrible environmental, economic and social price for allowing them to be so recklessly assaulted, diminished and destroyed. It is not only that standing forests sequester carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when the forests are cut and becomes a major factor in the atmospheric carbon build-up that results in global warming. It is not only that forests in the tropics hold a very high portion of all the world’s species of plants and animals, at a time when the world is experiencing species losses at a rate not equalled since the dinosaurs died sixty-five million years ago.
It is also that the role of these forests as a regulator of the earth’s landscape has been grossly under-appreciated. What humans ruthlessly shoved aside during this past century of mindless deforestation was what had once been treasured: the forests’ ability to stabilise regular freshwater supplies, inhibit floods and erosion, provide nutrients and other services for agriculture, and maintain fisheries in rivers, in estuaries and along coastlines. There is no way to exaggerate their importance to the people who depend on them. Accelerating forest losses will condemn the rural poor in many lands to a future that is no brighter than what awaits those who are today barely surviving in such ravaged landscapes as those of denuded islands like Madagascar and Haiti. All people and most plant and animal species will have to suffer the adversities and sacrifices resulting from faster rates of global warming and the attrition of our priceless biological diversity if the forests continue to die. It is simply not tolerable to accept the loss of the amount of tropical forest that could vanish by the middle of the twenty-first century if we continue to do forest business as usual.
In recent years has come a rising interest in arresting the attrition through actions by national governments and the international community, revisions in the policies of conservation organisations and aid donors, setting limits or bans on commercial logging in virgin forest areas, and creating rules or incentives to encourage “sustainable forest management”. While some seek to monitor and control the trade in hardwoods from the tropics, where the most aggressive assaults on the forests are concentrated, others favour diplomatic steps in the direction of a global convention to regulate forest use. Some aid donors and wildlife organisations advocate the sequestration of large blocks of forest in order to save them from the axe and the bulldozer. Others experiment with market-based approaches that make it attractive for some companies or countries to spare forests in exchange for the right to emit more greenhouse gases elsewhere. International institutions are testing ways for forested nations to stop cutting down their trees and instead receive compensation for the ecological services their forests provide. Still others feel that cracking down on corruption in business and government circles is the key.
Looking across this broad terrain, one often senses failure. Neither governments nor their bureaucracies have been able to stem the tide of forest loss. International institutions from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to the World Bank show increasing sensitivity and concern, but the numbers indicate the inadequacy of their efforts. After two weeks of intense debate culminating in an all-night effort to achieve consensus, delegates to the fourth session of the UN Intergovernmental Forum on Forests in early 2000 unanimously agreed to “consider (within five years) with a view to recommending the parameters of a mandate for developing a legal framework on all types of forests”—whatever that means. International environmental organisations have learned the folly of pursuing the goal of designating strict nature reserves, but they have still to learn much about adapting their ideas to the needs of local people. The predatory habits of many in the forest industry remain a powerful negative force, and victories in the struggle to bring it to heel will be hard won.
All the remedies that have been suggested have some merit, but it is our thesis that no single one of them is more important, or holds more promise, than the relatively simple act of allocating responsibility for managing and protecting forests to the local groups and communities that depend upon their healthy survival rather than on their destruction. Community forestry, as the practice has become generically known, occurs in many different forms of interaction among local leaders, government officials and representatives of national and international aid and environmental protection agencies. Although transferring power, in whatever form, to local hands is no panacea, it has more than anecdotally won its spurs as an effective management technique that strengthens local economies, leads to enhanced social cohesion, lowers rates of forest-damaging shifting cultivation, narrows the gender gap—and increases the ability of forests to provide their multiple benefits to people and the landscape.
While researching our book, we saw many remarkable examples of how proficient even the poorest and most needy local people can be in bringing about the stabilisation and recovery of formerly destitute forest regions. One striking example came from northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle, a turbulent area where a number of forest and watershed protection efforts are succeeding despite strong crosscurrents involving local and international corruption, the drug trade, and trans-Mekong timber traffic with Laos and Burma. At the edge of a village called Khun Sa Nai, which is north and west of Chiang Mai and is occupied by Hmong tribespeople, what was a fully bared hillside a decade ago has enjoyed a remarkable comeback thanks to policies allocating power to local people. Healthy large trees once again dominate this micro-watershed, and clean fresh water flows into almost every house. The local economy has greatly improved as well, as the village headman noted to our small visiting delegation.
In older times, before the watershed had begun to recover, farmers were forced to range farther and farther afield and spend more time away from their families. Now, we learned, many of the villagers were farming near home and owned trucks to carry their produce to market. Lychee and vegetables were growing within the village. All children attended a primary school there and many went on to a high school an hour’s drive away on the main road. Houses were being built and enlarged. The only complaint we heard was about fluctuating commodity prices. “It’s amazing how fast a forest can recover if you give it a chance,” said Thai forester Lert Chuntanaparb. Clearly this was also a recovering society.
If community forestry fulfils its promise, the result will not be a series of idyllic islands of pristine or regenerated forest, sealed off from the nearby people and interspersed with areas of otherwise devastated landscape battered by excessive human use. More likely it will be a mosaic in which forests and people quite freely interact, with local villagers taking the lead in establishing the sustainable limits of forest use and then learning to live within them.
Forest Use and Misuse
Images of forest destruction assault us. No television documentary on the rainforest is complete without the obligatory shot of a lone man, deep in the jungle, attacking a giant hardwood tree with a snarling chainsaw. The tree at last succumbs. Creaking and groaning, carrying down with it a supporting cast of smaller trees and vines, it crashes to the forest floor. Then there is silence and the fluttering of leaves. A familiar sight is that of developers clear-cutting and burning little remnant patches of suburban forest, building shopping centres or housing subdivisions, then adorning them with smatterings of juniper bushes or other shrubbery. These acts are often said to represent economic and cultural progress—the advance of civilisation.
Forests once covered half the earth. Eight thousand years ago, they thickly mantled North America and Russia, greened the Mediterranean coastline and spread across much of what is now barren desert in the Middle East and parts of Asia. About half of this forest cover was located within today’s industrial nations. Boreal forests extended from the northern regions of North America through Russia and Scandinavia and constituted about one-third of all the world’s forests. Today, some 13 per cent of the planet’s temperate zone, mostly in Europe and the United States, is forested. In the tropics, forests are concentrated within a globe-circling equatorial belt across Africa, Asia and Latin America. They occupy high portions of the total land surface in large countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Congo. All of these forests are in a state of decline as a result of steady increases in the intensity of human activity. Deforestation has reached a rate of 15 million hectares a year, has transformed yesterday’s tropical hardwoods into timber and fuelwood and converted the tropical forestland to farmland, cattle ranches, towns and cities. Overall forest cover is down to 3.4 billion hectares, or barely more than a quarter of the earth’s surface—a figure that includes cut-over wooded scrublands that have lost much of their initial quality and value.
In tropical and subtropical regions, the record is even worse. South and South-East Asia have experienced dramatically severe forest losses, totalling about two-thirds of all original forest cover. Once thickly forested parts of Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have been reduced to fire-prone scrubland and grassland. Upland watersheds in Nepal, Bhutan, China, India and Pakistan have been badly degraded as a result of deforestation. Although tropical rainforests that are little damaged still cover 100 million hectares of western and central Africa, deforestation has led to desertification in many of this region’s drier areas, with severe implications for local people. So much of the once-abundant tropical forest in Nigeria has vanished that, during the 1980s, the country astonishingly became a net importer of timber. The 967 million hectares of tropical forests in Latin America and the Caribbean account for more than half of all the world’s closed (relatively undisturbed) tropical forests, and at least 75 per cent of the enormous Amazonian forest remains intact. But even here, the spread of human settlements and the harvesting of forest resources are causing accelerating rates of forest loss and attrition of plant and animal species.
Decline in Amazonia
The Amazon Basin is the most biologically diverse place on earth, home to 10 per cent of the globe’s plant and animal species. This mighty 6,700-kilometre river system stretches from the Andes to the Atlantic. It dumps 255,000 cubic metres of water per second into the Atlantic, and the sediment it discharges turns the water brown 150 kilometres away from land. The Amazon Basin offers a striking example of how humans have used, then misused, a priceless forest resource. Since the beginning of the basin’s recorded history, observers have advanced sharply divergent ideas about the role of humans there. Some have found this remarkable ecosystem to be terrifyingly implacable, an area that fostered the dread that Europeans often associated with uncleared forest, where indigenous “savages” could do no better than eke out a precarious living as hunters and gatherers. The basin has also often been seen as a cornucopia of exploitable natural treasure, whose human “conquest” could bring alive the El Dorado legend. The more some visitors suffered in the region, the more they treasured the notion of Amazonian abundance. Some proposed to clear-cut the forest to plant grains to feed the world on soils that they assumed were highly fertile if they could support such magnificent trees.2
Recent scholarship illuminates flaws in all these perceptions. Those who study the region’s history increasingly find Amazonia to be neither a green hell nor a breadbasket. Rather, they see it as a zone of surprising variety and resilience that, when closely examined, bears the stamp of human manipulation and domination to a far greater extent than previously supposed. These findings are being assembled from new archaeological and anthropological discoveries about prehistoric Amazonia, from the work of historians and cultural geographers, and from social scientists’ investigations of contemporary Amazonia. Human intervention in the region has been manifested in a richness of prehistoric art, in a colourful and diverse folklore, and in a lively contemporary literature.
The El Dorado dream briefly beckoned for a few high-living Amazonian traders (some of European descent, some of mixed ancestry) during the late nineteenth century, when wild rubber harvested by badly oppressed tappers dominated a burgeoning world market. Competition from rubber plantations in Asia swept past in the early twentieth century and the South American rubber boom collapsed. The generals and planners who governed Brazil during the 1960s launched a series of ill-advised, capital-intensive programmes to transform the region into ranches and farmland. They saw the “opening” of the vast Amazon forest as the key to future prosperity, subsidised its conversion for cattle ranching, and convinced aid donors to help finance road construction projects and colonisation schemes. Inefficient hydropower dams, such as the Balbina near Manaus in the central Amazon, flooded large areas of forest but delivered little energy. Such projects exceeded the government’s frail administrative capabilities and the basin’s ecological limits. Prospectors scoured riverbanks, poisoned Amazonian streams with mercury and dug deep pits to exploit rich lodes of Amazonian gold. Discoveries of vast deposits of iron ore, bauxite and other minerals led to large-scale extraction and refining programmes, some with sharply negative environmental side effects.
Some people have been able to cope with this encroachment. Ranchers have been successfully running cattle on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the Amazon, ever since English, Irish and Dutch settlements were founded there during the seventeenth century. Caboclos—mestizo Amazonians—have developed a viable nature-based culture on the basis of the region’s natural resources and the rich supply of nutrients that washes from the Andes down onto the alluvial várzea during the annual flood season. Descendants of Confederate refugees from the American Civil War and of migrants who fled severe droughts in the arid Brazilian northeast, not to speak of the prosperous Japanese-Brazilian farmers working in small communities near Belém, are well established in Amazonia. So is an urban bourgeoisie that is still forming the social core of fast-spreading Amazonian cities such as Belém, Manaus and Santarém. Far more frequent, however, are the tales of woe that have become ever more widespread as forest loss has accelerated. Over the past three decades millions of poor migrants have gravitated toward the Amazonian promise of gold or free land, leaving crowded urban centres or over-farmed fields elsewhere in Brazil. Few of them have succeeded in establishing viable farms or ranches on the poor soil that previously supported the former Amazonian forest, and few of the gold prospectors, called garimpeiros, have become rich.
So it has been across the forested tropics, in Asia as well as in South America. During the latter half of the twentieth century, when fully half of all tropical deforestation took place, key nations frequently let loggers exploit the forests without much thought as to what would happen after loggers had exhausted their resource. Brazil eliminated the possibility of forest regeneration by allocating the newly bare lands for development. Indonesia’s political leaders, seeking to relieve population pressure on the island of Java and increase Javanese political and cultural leverage on other islands, made the same choice. Their method, supported by the World Bank, was to ship Javanese homesteaders out to clear heavily forested areas in Kalimantan and elsewhere in the archipelago and establish small farms.
Forests and the Planet
It is odd that we should have mistreated our forests so abusively, for they are indisputably of fundamental importance to life on Earth and to the essential workings of the biosphere. In their natural state, not disrupted by human incursions, forests stabilise and restore the landscape. Especially in upland watershed areas, the binding action of tree roots slows soil erosion, reducing sedimentation and protecting rivers and fishery resources. Coastal mangroves guard the land against erosion while providing breeding grounds for many species of fish and shellfish on which humans heavily depend. Standing forests serve in such fundamental ways to create conditions for environmentally sound development, and their decline often leads to unproductive landscapes.
Many hazards loom after a region is clear-cut. Without trees to anchor it, the ground becomes less stable. Flooding is one frequent consequence. Water from storms washes loose soil into streams and rivers, and water that was once clear and clean becomes laden with mud. The soil-laden water moves downstream into estuaries and coastal waters, and the resulting siltation snarls hydropower facilities, renders waterways unnavigable and damages or destroys marine life and fisheries. The subaquatic vegetation that feeds many species is blocked from the sunlight and withers. Floodwaters carry toxic substances (from chemically fertilised farms, oil-exploration and mining projects) into heavily populated areas, where they become a threat to animal health. In the 1980s, in the Philippines, a river carried sediments from adjacent logging roads into Bacuit Bay, killing much of the coral. The consequences for the local fishery and for tourism were disastrous.
Forests, then, are critical factors in maintaining the stability of landscapes. In two other important senses, deforestation’s anticipated consequences involve the fate of all life on earth. For one thing, there is a close relationship between forests and the planet’s currently fast-rising temperature. Certain gases reaching the atmosphere from earth as a result of human activity, principally carbon dioxide, trap heat that would otherwise disperse into outer space. Instead, this heat is reflected back to earth. The consequence of this so-called greenhouse effect is global warming. If the warming trend continues at the upper end of present forecasts, the climate transformation could bring disaster to most of the planet. The likely consequences for most areas include severe storms and droughts, the extinction of many species, major disruptions in food supplies, the spread of disease and pestilence, and a rise in sea level sufficient to inundate some low-lying countries.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels by motor vehicles and industrial sites are far and away the biggest contributors to the atmospheric build-up. Forests play a key supporting role in the drama of greenhouse gas emissions, either as emitters of carbon dioxide when fires occur, or, when they remain intact and growing, as storehouses for carbon, lessening the rate of the greenhouse gas build-up. Boreal forests absorb about one-sixth of all global carbon emissions, and the influence of tropical forests is even greater because they contain more biomass per unit of area. When the carbon that trees sequester is released from the earth’s surface through burning, it builds up in the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Fire is often employed by migrant farmers, shifting cultivators, and agribusiness operators to clear forested land for agriculture and ranching. In sum, at least 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to forest burning. Moreover, the occurrence of forest burning is growing, thus reducing the forest’s ability to provide its prime environmental service of sequestering carbon.
The other great global benefit provided by the forests is protection for the planet’s biological diversity. Estimates of the number of species of plants and animals on earth vary from five million to one hundred million or more. Only about 1.5 million of these have been described by scientists, let alone assessed for their potential to contribute to human health and wellbeing as foods and medicines. Tropical rainforests cover only 6 per cent of the earth’s land area, yet they harbour at least half, and possibly 90 per cent, of all species, many that have very localised habitats and are highly vulnerable to deforestation.
The term genetic resources refers to the economic, scientific and social values of the genetic variation found among and between species. The world’s forests, especially those of the tropics, are natural laboratories for the selection of genetic material on a scale that cannot be matched in any conceivable research station. In an era of increasing pressure on resources and significantly changing global environmental conditions, they represent one of humanity’s most effective ways of guarding itself against an uncertain future. Genetic diversity buffers ecosystems from disruption brought about by pests, diseases and climate change, and it provides the building blocks for selection and breeding to adapt plants and animals to a range of environments and end-uses. We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. If the current trend toward extinction continues, one-quarter of the world’s species may disappear in less than half a century. Ecologist Walter Reid estimates that by the year 2020 up to 14 per cent of the tropical forest species of Asia, Africa and South America may vanish unless deforestation rates drop substantially.3
Forests and the Poor
If tropical forests are essential to the general stability of our landscape and climate, protecting the priceless biological diversity that is one of the planet’s richest assets, so too do they play a more direct part in satisfying immediate human needs—especially those of the poorest and weakest elements of society. Fifty million people live within the world’s tropical forests. These forest dwellers, many with indigenous or tribal ethnic backgrounds, depend almost wholly on what the forest provides. From its plants and trees come food, fuel, clothing, medicine, building materials and marketable goods to sell elsewhere and improve village economies. Meat from the forest’s animals provides protein. The survival of these forest-dwelling people and their cultures and the survival of the forest usually go hand in hand.
Perhaps three hundred to four hundred million people inhabit rural areas adjacent to tropical forests. High percentages of all the workers in these towns and villages make their living from the forest’s natural resources. Shrubs and farm trees producing fruits, fodder, fuelwood and medicines are important sources of income and subsistence. In India some 275 million landless people and small farmers benefit from gathering resources they find within the adjoining forest. Others who depend in part on the forest are the rubber tappers of the Brazilian Amazon, Central Americans who gather chicle and palm fronds, those who harvest wild mushrooms and fruits in South-East Asia, and Liberia’s wild-game hunters, who supply 80 per cent of the meat for the nation’s rural population.
Far more than many realise, city dwellers the world over also depend on forest values and productivity. Many derive direct economic benefit from selling or trading forest products and resources. City dwellers in developing countries rely heavily on forests for assured supplies of fuelwood, charcoal and building materials. Many sell or trade forest products and resources. Urban-based tourism ventures in Costa Rica, Belize and many other lands profit from the beauty of forests and the richness of species to be found within them.
Forests offer great potential to improve current imbalances of wealth and power and reduce current levels of global poverty. No overall improvement in the planet’s shocking poverty statistics appears likely in the near term. In some regions poverty is growing fast. Between 1990 and 2000 alone the number of destitute people in sub-Saharan Africa was expected to have increased by 40 per cent. Bad as the situation is, it would be far worse without the access that some poor people have to forests and the resources within them.
The concept of sustainable development surfaced when the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) stated in its landmark 1987 report, Our Common Future, that “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainability is widely interpreted to mean that economic, social and environmental objectives must reinforce each other to achieve what Jim MacNeill, secretary-general of the WCED, referred to as a requisite set of “strategic imperatives”: reducing high rates of population growth, increasing equity, reducing poverty, improving eco-efficiency, reorienting technologies, encouraging democracy, and supporting human rights.4 Often criticised for being too vague and too subject to misinterpretation, the idea of sustainable development has persisted for two decades and is indelibly incorporated into the conventional rhetoric of development policy. Arguments can be avoided if one simply defines it as the greater and wiser inclusion of environmental considerations in economic planning.
A cardinal measurement of sustainable development is the extent to which the world proves willing to transfer power from the strong to the weak, from the rich to the poor, from the literate to the illiterate. Equity and human rights are as essential to the process as economic advancement. The contribution of the world’s forests to sustainable development could be vastly greater if significant numbers of local communities and traditional forest users—those who benefit from the standing intact forest, not from its removal or degradation—can win back at least partial control of these invaluable resources.
Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City, sees hope in the global trend towards what he calls precision agriculture. The cropland needed to feed a single person was more than one acre in 1950, he calculates. Now the figure is only about half an acre.
Ausubel estimates that by 2050 shrinking cropland requirements will make a huge positive contribution to the planet’s stability, liberating 100 million hectares of land for reforestation. He finds other reasons for optimism. The human population growth rate is down. Total per capita water use is down. Future US demand for wood products will weaken thanks to recycling and competition from other materials. Prices may even fall, reducing the incentive to log. Overall, he finds, more and more countries will in the future replicate the experience of the United States, where forest losses peaked a century ago and where a strong comeback (in size, if not quality) has occurred more recently. “Our vision,” Ausubel concludes, “should be the expansion of the forest estate.”5
The biologist George Woodwell, director and president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, holds less sanguine views. He sees ample signs of “progressive failure” as the “human enterprise” fills the earth. He considers “the harvest of residual forests for profits from timber” to be a persistent form of exploitation requiring major readjustments in the management of human affairs. “The destruction of forests, even if the land is left as forestland to recover through succession, is always impoverishing,” he writes.6
Even if Ausubel’s optimism for the long term proves to be justified, at least for developed parts of the planet, the severe stresses that Woodwell highlights are also bound to occur in many regions during the interim, especially in the nations of the equatorial belt.
Many developing countries will need to double their food production by 2020 if they are to feed burgeoning populations. In such places further forest conversion for agriculture is inevitable. Past patterns of agricultural growth in developing countries provide scant reason for encouragement. Most successful breakthroughs have occurred in well-endowed agro-ecological zones and have involved intensive use of irrigation water, fertilisers and pesticides. The Green Revolution, which has enabled many developing countries to feed themselves since the mid-1960s, has been confined largely to irrigated rice- and wheat-growing regions. Agriculture based on the intensive use of modern inputs easily lends itself to mismanagement, with dire consequences for the environment, particularly when managed by small farmers with little technical knowledge. Unlike developed countries with agricultural surpluses, most developing countries cannot simply switch to low-input farming systems because they cannot afford the associated reduction in yields. If India were to return to pre–Green Revolution technologies, for instance, it is said that close to half the current population would go hungry. The way out is strewn with hazards.
For all the talk of sustainable forestry, as said to be practised commercially in places like Sweden and North America, evidence mounts that many loggers in such places still function just barely within the law and beyond the grasp of regulators. Even so, the picture there is far prettier than those presented by the fully despoiled landscapes in many parts of Madagascar, El Salvador, Indonesia’s Kalimantan island, or any other poor country where migratory loggers find politicians an easy mark. Suriname, alas, is only an exception.
Countering Ausubel’s forecast of decreasing demand for industrial wood products in the developed world is the prospect of increased consumption within developing countries. By 2020, although opinions vary as to the exact figure, global demand seems likely to grow from the present level of 1.6 million cubic metres a year to about 2.4 billion cubic metres a year.7 Production from temperate forests and from industrial wood plantations in developing countries will meet rising portions of this demand, but for all the theoretical advantages associated with the movement of industrial forestry into the Southern Hemisphere, practical problems remain. Tighter rules, incentives and financial and technical support could minimise the damage and concentrate the plantations on agricultural wastelands or cut-over degraded forests rather than in areas that retain high biodiversity values. Such a tidy outcome is hardly likely in countries that will continue to be plagued by weak and corrupt governance. Some of the new tree plantations will inevitably replace natural forests, which will be cut and burned, and some portion of the demand will be met, often illegally, by slashing yet deeper into the natural forest. Amazonian forests will continue to recede as frontiers for ranching and agricultural monocultures continue their advance, and the same fate awaits much of the Indonesian forest, which was widely burned again in 2000 to make way for palm-oil plantations.
Current world consumption of fuelwood accounts for more than half of all wood production. Projecting the future of this demand is not easy. As household collectors (usually women and children) need to walk ever farther in search of wood to burn, usage becomes more sparing. Many people have turned to burning agricultural residues in place of wood. New and more efficient kinds of wood-burning stoves have become available, and they can be widely distributed at no great cost. For all that, however, it seems certain that rural wellbeing in many parts of the world will indefinitely continue to rely heavily on access to ever scarcer supplies of fuelwood that are harvested unsustainably from traditional sources.
Against these unrelenting sources of pressure on tropical land and forests is arrayed the battery of official institutions that are meant to cope with them. Once again, reasons for hope are in short supply. As Woodwell says, not only do governments fail to control the activities of loggers, miners, ranchers and others who damage the world’s forests, but they are also often active partners in the destructive enterprises, whether overtly or behind the scenes. Management of parks and protected areas is often slipshod and insufficiently concerned with the needs and skills of local people. In many lands “forest police” continue to harass community forest managers.
No agency of the United Nations seems capable of winning the attention or funds required to stop the haemorrhage in the world’s forestlands. Even though the World Bank and other donor agencies have been struggling towards reform and are currently emphasising forest protection over forest production far more than in the past, their “first imperative”, as the prominent Australian forester Neil Byron puts it, remains to justify their existence and expansion by “transacting business”, too often in ways far behind the cutting edge.8 The banks today shovel out the money faster than they can fully measure its results or check to see that policies dutifully proclaimed at headquarters are actually being adhered to in the field.
Many observers are persuaded that approaches involving only public officials are categorically doomed to failure. They fear that economic remedies will be no more than Band-Aids and that the political discussions will inconclusively dither on while tropical deforestation and global forest degradation continue. They warn, ever more shrilly, that government officials backed by powerful special interests, often facing severe constitutional impediments to action, will never be likely to commit either their own nations or the world to new systems of forest controls and priorities that truly represent the interests of civil society. For substantive improvement to take place, it is ever more widely believed, civil society itself will have to take the lead.
In this regard, a notable and hopeful feature of the official policy dialogue in recent years has been the influence of non-governmental organisations within it. These organisations are far from without their own shortcomings, but they have grown fast in sophistication as well as in power and they are increasingly effective as representatives of civil society vis-à-vis the official institutions. Especially important is the extent to which non-governmental organisations in poor countries are now serving as bridges between national governments and the local communities that form civil society’s bedrock. The Indonesian Environmental Forum and the Peru-based Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica in Amazonia are examples.
Empowering local communities hardly guarantees an easy ride toward stable forests. Friction will prevail in instances where local people are totally denied traditional access to forests that are designated as parks or protected areas. Even if honest and authentic community representatives gain control and local officials show sympathy, there is no guarantee that the forest will be saved. But the general failure of other forest management systems leaves the world with no better bet than community empowerment. We do not recommend abandoning all other kinds of efforts to save forests. The community empowerment approach will always remain one of many pathways toward improvement. In our judgement, however, it is both the most neglected, at the moment, and the most likely to achieve positive results. This was our hypothesis when we began the research for our book in 1994. Although our views have become more nuanced, nothing in our subsequent travels, experiences, readings, or conversations shakes our fundamental conviction about this. Witnessing the wisdom and skills of uneducated local people with few possessions has, if anything, reinforced it. So has the evidence we have accumulated of official apathy, neglect and inadequacy.
For all the forces arrayed on the side of the status quo, changing circumstances in a variety of respects favour the dispersal of forest power. As developing countries industrialise, traditional timber tycoons are losing political clout to other, faster-growing, business power centres. Logging king Bob Hasan of Indonesia may have been the last of his ilk. With little or no commercial timber left to harvest in countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria and Thailand—countries that have become net importers of wood products—many newer avenues for economic development are seen as more promising.
Subsistence farming will far from disappear. Indeed, our ideas and recommendations are largely targeted to the world’s neediest rural people. Yet the demographic shift toward cities can also be helpful. Two Amazonian cities now have seven-figure populations; the region’s population will soon be 70 per cent urban. With the environmental problems of Amazonia becoming ever more ones of slums and shanties as well as of forest cutting and burning and of advancing agricultural frontiers, the chances of saving the preponderance of its remaining primary forest have improved somewhat.
For nations endowed with the kinds of forests that attract hikers or ecotourists, recreational travel represents a growing economic opportunity. Travel is now the world’s biggest industry, and ecotourism is a dynamic portion of it. A positive example is Bhutan. Change is everywhere in this remote and beautiful Himalayan land, but the pace of tourism has increased gradually. Launched only in 1971, when the country suddenly felt its first need to earn foreign exchange, the tourism industry ranked sixth in the national economy in 1999, and was the top foreign exchange earner. Tourists stay on the main trails and pay for their upkeep. Local people are allowed access to resources that seem likely to stay around for a while.
Local participation in managing forests not only saves trees, it also leads to improved human rights for many people, especially women, and to fairer and more equitable societies. Those who exploit the forests unsustainably have no sense of history, no sense of place, no sense of where the public interest lies. One cannot expect forest policies to change sharply in favour of the public interest in countries lacking a more general concern for equity, openness and participation. Even in countries that do have those tendencies, strong forces will continue to oppose policy reform. Nonetheless, we have an unprecedented opportunity to score gains for forests across the globe. Perception of the threat that environmental degradation poses to humanity and the planet has sharpened, and the strength of citizen-driven campaigns to protect the world’s natural resources, including its forests, is growing rapidly. The people have their best chance in centuries to get their forests back.
2. Roger D. Stone, Dreams of Amazonia (New York: Viking, 1985), p. 64.
3. Walter Reid, personal communication, January 2001.
4. Jim MacNeill, speech to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, August 1997.
5. Jesse H. Ausubel, remarks made at the meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., 20–1 January 2000.
6. George M. Woodwell, “Whither the Public Interest?” (submission to the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, 1997), p. 3.
7. Sten Nilsson, Do We Have Enough Forests? Occasional Paper No. 5 (Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 1996), p. 12.
8. Neil Byron, “International Development Assistance in Forestry and Land Management” (draft paper, undated).