Amazon dot con

Forest conservation is now big business. British Prime Ministers across the political spectrum from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown have shown tremendous largesse with public funds to support forest programmes in tropical countries. Costa Rica is benefiting from a new round of debt-for-nature swaps which will provide more money for conservation. Corporations, conservation groups, celebrities or individuals are also channelling private funding. But when green consumers pay for the conservation of a rainforest, what are they actually getting, who benefits, and will it make a difference?

Cool Earth is a recent example. They use their sponsors’ contributions to buy forest land, passing the freehold to a local trust, and then to lease back the land to the communities affected. They contract local and international NGOs who in turn work with these communities to help their development. It is argued that the forests are thereby protected and we enjoy the environmental benefits too.

But some people are not happy at all about these sorts of scheme: “Buying up our forest makes me very sad,” said Davi Kopenawa, a leader of the Yanomami tribe, in a report in The Independent: “There is no money in the whole world that will buy the Amazon forest. You can’t buy land like you can buy meat or clothes. Land will always remain. We can use and use the earth and it will always be there. But money you can throw away in a river – it won’t last.” He calls for the land rights of indigenous communities to be recognised and respected.

He’s right – this rather than cash is often the key first step to conserving forests. Forests are cleared by farmers, cattle ranchers or loggers because the returns to them are higher than for conservation. Different countries face a range of different domestic market and policy failures, but without correcting these and providing the right mix of incentives for sustainable land uses, funding conservation is unlikely to have a widespread impact.


“There is no wealth but life”

action_250x250.jpgAl Gore’s Nobel prize is well-deserved. He has done as much as any person to popularise environmental concerns. But does he really challenge current political views, which have now taken on-board most of his arguments, i.e. they have become mainstream.

For example, offsetting carbon is – albeit slowly -becoming a middle (and business) class habit. But it remains an option. And it does not come close to taking account of our total life-span ecological ‘footprint’.

The scantiness of the debate is endemic in the political elite in the United States and Britain, where economic growth remains the paramount consideration: in such an environment even progressive policies such as carbon trading run the danger of becoming political face-saving accounting exercises.

Herman Daly challenged the primacy of growth in his seminal book “Beyond Growth: the economics of sustainable development” (1996). His basic premise is that the economy is a subset of the environment and natural resources not vice versa as traditional economics assumes, and so there are real limits to its expansion and capacity to sustain human life. The key is to find the optimal use of material resources and energy for a ‘steady-state’ economy – whose aim is to create the “greatest good for an optimum number of people over the long run.” Daly stresses the need for development which equates to a qualitative improvement in our lives, whereby the economic benefits of increased consumption of good and services must be greater than their environmental costs.

Adapting to a steady state economy would of course take time given the extent of our current unsustainable economies. Perhaps gradually substituting income taxes with ecological taxes would be a step in the right direction, which could also form the basis of a fairer system where the poorest no longer pay a higher proportion of taxes than the rich.

Ruskin (quoted above) also said that: “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”

Fellow travellers

Not having visited the tropics has not been seen as a drawback for a number of writers who have written ‘rainforest’ novels. Jenny Diski who wrote “Rainforest” (1987) – which is a fine novel – happily admits that for her research she visited London’s Kew Gardens.

Earlier, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s action-adventure stories found inspiration in nineteenth century travelogues and the popular interest given to scientific discoveries, including Darwin’s Origin of Species. Similarly, their stories also caught the imagination of the public. Verne´s “Le Radeau” [The Giant Raft] (1881) is set in the Peruvian Amazon, and Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), a forerunner of Jurassic Park, is loosely located in the northern Amazonian region.

But other ‘outsiders’ have had a varying degree of success in their evocation of tropical forests. Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust” (1934) which includes a ludicrous detour to the Amazon to resolve the protagonists’ marital problems is one of his best-forgotten novels. If Waugh’s Tony and Brenda Last’s moral compass is wonky, the eponymous hero of Brian Hennigan´s comedy “Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure” (2006) is happily unencumbered by any moral dilemmas. The Thai jungle provides a backdrop to this frankly preposterous but very amusing tale of an utterly self-centred salesman, lured in a hotel bar and kidnapped by an eco-terrorist group (the self-styled People’s Earth Friendly Liberation Group) having mistaken him for his namesake from the IMF. Continue reading “Fellow travellers”

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano’s best-known works are “Las venas abiertas de América Latina” [The Open Veins of Latin America] (1971) and “Memoria del fuego” [Memory of Fire] (1982-1986). Neither are necessarily works of fiction and only a few references are made to forests. Nonetheless, he is a giant amongst Latin American writers and political commentators.

As the author himself recognises it is hard to classify his work. He writes in The Open Veins of Latin America: “I know that I can be accused of sacrilege in writing about political economy in the style of a novel about loves or pirates. But I confess I get a pain reading valuable works by certain sociologists, political experts, economists, and historians who write in code”. Likewise: “Memory of Fire is not an anthology…I don’t know if it is a novel or essay or epic poem or testament or chronicle or…Deciding robs me of no sleep. I do not believe in the frontiers that, according to literature’s custom officers, separate the forms.”

His message is, however, unambiguous: “… underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we in Latin America are poor because the ground we tread is rich, and that places privileged by nature have been cursed by history”. His essays show how the continent’s natural resources, including its forests, have been exploited since the 15th century – five centuries of pillage. Continue reading “Eduardo Galeano”