Saturday, October 04, 2008

Whose side are you on?

In "A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens has a repentant Marley's ghost cry out "Mankind was my business!" It's a poignant moment that strikes a chord with almost everyone, for we all feel in our heart that this entity we call Mankind should be our highest concern.

Yet listening to proponents of the environmental movement in this article from the University of Chicago Magazine one would have to believe that there are many a future Marley's Ghost haunting about its conferences and meetings, forging their chains of future regret. Dead white males have nothing on living conservationists when it comes to devaluing the grubby brown peoples of the world. For them the world is a struggle between forests and people, and people are the bad guys:
When Susanna Hecht went to El Salvador in 1999 to help the government with long-range environmental planning, officials at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources told her there were no forests left in the country. To Hecht, AB’72, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on tropical development, the claim came as no surprise. El Salvador was notorious for population growth and ecological degradation. The most crowded country in Latin America, during the 1960s and ’70s it had suffered severe deforestation with the expansion of livestock and sugar-cane farming. In 1999, the same year Hecht arrived, the tropical ecologist John Terborgh declared that in El Salvador, “nature has been extinguished.”

But as she drove around the country, Hecht noticed plenty of trees. Some were remnants of old forests, but she also saw hedgerows, backyard orchards, coffee groves, trees growing along rivers and streams, cashew and palm plantations, saplings sprouting in abandoned fields, and heavily wooded grassland. Almost every village abounded with trees—“like a big jungle forest,” she said. Rather than no trees, she saw them everywhere. Nature was far from extinguished; it was thriving.

Hecht called these woodlands El Salvador’s “secret forests.” In a country only recently deforested, trees were coming back. And El Salvador was not alone. For many reasons, trees were resurgent throughout Latin America, including Honduras, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and in parts of the Amazon. But because scientists and policy-makers were preoccupied with tropical deforestation, Hecht said, they had been slow to take notice.
In another sense, she said, they didn’t see El Salvador’s forests because of an old bias toward so-called “pristine” forests—primitive and untouched—and against “anthropogenic” forests, those created by humans or shaped by human activities like burning, grazing, farming, and logging. It was these anthropogenic landscapes, which Hecht called “peasant” or “working” forests, that were reclaiming El Salvador. They were a secret in plain view. But whether you saw them depended on how you counted.

“A great deal of it looked like forest,” Hecht recalled. “If you start saying anthropogenic forests are OK, the place goes from having no forest to tons of forest.”

I've heard of not being able to see the forest for the trees, but this is a first: not seeing the forest for the people. Yet one would think that the realization that people and trees can coexist would be greeted as a win-win, as good news. One would think wrongly:
And yet the regreening of the Sahel has attracted little notice, Reij said. He and other critics of contemporary conservation efforts say that conservation groups and many scientists have neglected forested landscapes where people live and work because they are more interested in large parks and preserves. Kathleen Morrison, an anthropologist who directs the University’s Center for International Studies and was a conference organizer, studies dry forests in southern India. She said that such forests, with drought seasons that last several months, once covered more than half the world’s tropics and subtropics but receive far less study than tropical rainforests, “perhaps in part because of their entanglements with human histories.” Her own research attempts to reconstruct that entanglement over many millennia, as forests in southern India waxed and waned in response to the rise and fall of cities and the country’s shifting culinary habits.
Still, “working” landscapes have become major areas of reforestation the world over, Hecht said. Often dismissed as pyromaniacs and forest clearers, peasants are now seen as creators. Understanding the social dynamics that initiate and sustain the new landscapes is critical for conservation: “Looking at these social relations gives us much more of an idea of how we can support processes that produce forest and diminish processes that don’t.”

So when did our highest goal as a species become the production of forests?
One way to see the contradictions that still cloud Western thinking about forests, Roderick Neumann suggested, is to contrast conservation philosophy and practice in Europe and Africa. Neumann began his career studying protected areas in Tanzania. Both Selous Game Preserve (opened in 1905) and Arusha National Park (opened in 1960), he argued, are typical examples of “fortress conservation” in Africa. In each case, preserving nature has meant excluding humans. Under the influence of 19th- and early 20th-century German forestry, he said, colonial and postcolonial authorities drove the local people, the Meru, out of Arusha National Park, arguing that they were “mismanaging the forest and were ignorant of its conservation value.” Acting by the same principles, Tanzanian authorities later made Selous Game Reserve the second-largest protected area in Africa, home to elephants, lions, and black rhinoceroses, by expelling 40,000 people.

“Typically these evictions are based on neo-Malthusian concerns of overpopulation and claims of irrational and sustainable resource use,” Neumann said. “And these ideas continue in conservation initiatives today.”

If forests and people really were implacable enemies, wouldn't that argue for taking an adversarial attitude toward forests? Have you ever heard an environmentalist decry the clearcutting of people from a region? I don't find it odd that there are people who would prefer the existence of a pristine forest to a thriving community of people, but it is surprising that such a misanthropic consensus could become so ingrained in a field which the general public has placed in such high regard.


Blogger Susan's Husband said...

You might want to pick up the book "1491", which has as its thesis that most of the ecology of the Americas was in fact anthropogenic, shaped over millenia by the Amerinds. If that became widely accepted, what would happen to those people who venerate the Amerinds as Nature's Stewards but hate humans living in ecologies?

October 04, 2008 5:38 PM  
Blogger David said...

"Mankind" doesn't exist. All there is is people.

Also, note a hidden lesson about the benefits of capitalism and the development of a bourgeoisie that our environmental betters will never acknowledge.

October 05, 2008 7:32 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There are some good books about forests and people in the South, including Jack Kirby's "Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South" and "Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society"; and Donald Davis' "Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians."

However, you have to look beyond "trees" to "species."

There are trees in the lowlands where I live, but they are not the original trees, or the critters that depended on them, that were here. Most of those are extinct.

Not all trees are functionally equivalent, either, even if you care nothing for extinctions. The native forest that provided a large watershed for people where I live (the name of my village in Hawaiian means "edge of the forest") is being replaced by exotics, which are not nearly as good at conserving water.

The replacement of Malagasay forests by rice cultivators is looking less and less sustainable. They are destroying their watersheds. This is shaping up as one of the great demographic catastrophes, although nobody pays attention.

October 05, 2008 11:14 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


All good points, but the question is what to do about it. Removing people is not an option.

I think part of the solution involves a process of reversing the agricultural revolution worldwide. By that I don't mean eliminating agriculture, but converting populations that practice subsistence agriculture of one or a few staple grains, like rice, to a mix of cash agriculture and industry. The example from El Salvador is instructive.

I don't place a lot of value on the notion that a geography has a set "natural" flora and fauna. Nature is constantly experimenting with the ecological mix, it holds nothing sacred, so why should we care if some newly introduced species of tree overtakes some older resident?

Saying that one species of tree conserves water better than another places a value on that tree for human purposes. Is nature trying to conserve water? No, Nature is not trying to do anything, it has no preferred outcomes.

When North America collided with South America, the south was invaded by a whole host of new species, and many existing species became extinct. So what? Do we count that extinction event a tragedy?

October 06, 2008 6:27 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, as between, say, Southern corn blight and corn, I choose corn. Nature is, as you say, indifferent.

Also, since in the east Maui case, the invading trees did not get here naturally, but were brought in by deluded, ignorant foresters, it is hardly natural succession we are talking about.

Google 'Tahiti miconia' for an even more dramatic example of unnatural succession.

I agree about uplifting subsistence agriculture, but in most cases that requires land reform, and in all cases land reform requires -- gasp! -- government interference with private property and markets.

October 06, 2008 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Google 'Tahiti miconia' for an even more dramatic example of unnatural succession.

Must we, Harry?

Have you ever noticed how modern economic/environmental doomsdayers like Harry and Diamond love to start by recounting tales of woe from small, isolated, often pre-modern islands and conclude their examples make an unanswerable case for government planning and management for the rest of us? Sorry, Harry, but this brings out the inner Darwinist in me, and I look to my paleolithic ancestors from East Africa for inspiration. When times get tough, start treking!

October 07, 2008 2:38 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Duck said 'removing people is not an option.'

I agree.

But that's what's coming up in Tahiti (small) and Madagascar (very big, Madagascar).

We removed people from the American South, too. Arable there peaked in 1860.

October 07, 2008 11:30 AM  

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