The future Amazon rain forest
November 15, 2007 4:27 PM   Subscribe

The Green vs. the Brown Amazon. The future Amazon rain forest.

This essay by John Terborgh starts as a book review (of a bad book), but soon turns it into a powerfully insightful overview of the current state of the Amazonian basin and its most probable future under a myriad of influences: Brazilian land policies, international conservation efforts, and wildfires, droughts and global warming.
posted by stbalbach (11 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We are so fucked.
posted by wilful at 5:39 PM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

hahahaha... yea. If the future of the Amazon, and hence the future of the global carbon cycle, depends on the successor to the Kyoto treaty, we really are fucked. I can only hope that the apparent sea-change in public opinion on climate change since the initial treaty might actually make things happen this time. Many smaller scale governments have started to take action and create networks on their own, perhaps politicians will be compelled towards meaningful action. Sadly though, while politicians are more and more behooved to make gestures of greenness, I don't see the environment being the dominant issue of a national election any time soon.
posted by kaspen at 7:22 PM on November 15, 2007

John Terborgh exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with the environmental movement: nature worship, and a preference for "nature" over people.

Slowing or stopping the logging would require a political will that simply doesn't exist in a country obsessed with maximizing development.

What Terborgh consistently fails to understand is that there can be no environmental justice, no sustainability, without social justice. He talks a lot about social issues in this article and in his pathetic book Requiem for Nature, but when it comes down to it, he will not put people's needs over the nature that he worships.

All tropical countries will continue to chop down rainforests as long as it is profitable to do so, and will preserve parks for tourists as long as it is more profitable to do that. It is not an "obsession" with maximizing development, it is using the resources you've got to get your citizens what they want. The tragedy in Brazil and Indonesia is that the revenue from logging is not being translated into social improvement for the poor.

For a nice short book that puts tropical rainforests into a meaningful social and political context, I recommend Breakfast of Biodiversity. [Disclaimer: written by a former professor of mine.]
posted by BinGregory at 7:56 PM on November 15, 2007

Very interesting article.

Also see the National Geographic piece.

I recently traveled through some of the heavily deforested area in Para, along the transamazonic highway and have a self-link of some photos and blog entry (the second in particular regarding Anapu, and the work of Dorothy Stang, an amazing person whom I never met but gave her life in the struggle).
posted by iamck at 8:03 PM on November 15, 2007

So if you desire to see the great Garden of Eden that is the green Amazon today, you should not delay your trip.

No doubt true, and while you're there, make sure to buy lots of stuff, hire a local guide and tip well. Nothing is more clear to countries that depend on tourism to survive then the fact that ecotourists tend to be scurvy backpackers trying to see the rainforest on the cheap. Malaysia, a country with fantastic rainforests, well maintained and well managed nature parks [that you really ought to visit], is spending much more of it's PR efforts on attracting Gulf Arabs to Kuala Lumpur than hippies to the rainforest, because Gulf Arabs drop dirhams in abundance, at a rate many times greater than eco-tourists. Preserving rainforests for tourists represents a direct opportunity cost to any tropical country and it's up to the rest of the world to pay the difference.
posted by BinGregory at 8:07 PM on November 15, 2007

BinGregory, you seem really down on Terborgh, but to be fair, he presents other sides of the picture in his piece, not just conservation. Conservation issues are deceptively complex, boiling it down to tree huggers and greedy capitalists is never accurate.

he will not put people's needs over the nature that he worships.

Yeah well, sometimes peoples needs and nature go hand in hand. It's really not that simple to pit these two things against each other.
posted by stbalbach at 8:53 PM on November 15, 2007

He talks about people's needs, yes. But he can't get over his incredibly paternalistic perspective. Terborgh has been involved in world conservation organizations for decades as they tried one insensitive technique after another to lock up land for Nature and keep people out. You should read in Requiem for Nature how he admits the only valid reason for conserving nature in parks is a cultural preference for "unspoiled" nature, which, tut tut tut, the unenlightened peoples of the developing world don't share with us. Yeah, maybe because they're busy trying to put food in their mouths. What is desperately needed from brilliant ecologists like himself is research on how to farm tropical land in as sustainable and biologically rich a manner as possible, not the mating habits of the Peruvian orange-speckled sneep. I've got a bachelors degree in tree hugging, actually, but it's the narrow people-second perspective of folks like him that made me leave that field.
posted by BinGregory at 10:10 PM on November 15, 2007

Well I guess without people like him we wouldn't have anyone fighting to conserve wild places. I don't know much about Terborgh and your obviously more learned in this than I. I agree we need to find sustainable ways for man and nature to co-exist if both are to survive. Sadly, the destruction of the Amazon is not sustainable, the soil is poor and once enough is cut the rains stop and it turns into low quality scrub land - so really Terborgh is right on about this. Brazil would be a better more rich place not only for nature but man if it would limit its destruction of the rain forest.
posted by stbalbach at 7:49 AM on November 16, 2007

kaspen, I can't help thinking that the phrase "sea change" is going to take on a whole new level of meaning in the not-very-distant future.
posted by bassjump at 10:35 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

BinGregory, a different approach:
Jakarta, Indonesia - For decades, conservationists have sought to halt the wholesale clearance of Indonesia's tropical rainforests by loggers and plantation companies. But repeated calls for sustainable forestry practices to safeguard biodiversity haven't succeeded in stopping the chain saws.

Now, help may be arriving in the shape of a carbon-trading program that would effectively pay Indonesia and other forest-rich countries not to chop down their trees. Behind the initiative is the potential monetary value – as yet unrealized – of tropical forests as vast stocks of carbon that the industrialized world can offset against greenhouse-gas emissions.
posted by stbalbach at 11:56 AM on November 16, 2007

Yeah, no, that's cool and all. I don't want to imply that there's no hope or that nothing progressive is being or can be done about rainforest conservation or sustainable development. The linked article wasn't even objectionable. It's just that Terborgh himself is kind of a dinosaur. That's really all I wanted to say. I'll try to paste some excerpts from that book of his if I can locate it in my office on Monday, if anyone's interested.
posted by BinGregory at 12:59 AM on November 17, 2007

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