Getting the Story Right on Tropical Deforestation

The below article is a piece which I recently submitted to the Iquitos Times of Iquitos, Peru (the Times is an Iquitos paper published mainly for the benefit of tourists and visitors from English-speaking countries).  It deals with one of the tragedies of modern eco-tourism: that while this form of tourism is supposed to educate visitors from other countries about environmental issues in some of the most biologically diverse parts of the world, tourists are often fed the wrong message about what really causes environmental destruction in developing countries.  As the Peruvian Amazon is not only a vast carbon sink that we can´t afford to lose, but also a center of global biodiversity, I think there´s no place where it´s more important that visitors get the REAL facts about deforestation and environmental destruction in the tropics.  The article below should appear in next month´s edition of the Iquitos Times.

Hotspot: Toward a Positive Future for Peru´s Human and Biological Riches

By Nick Engelfried

Two and a half acres of the rainforest outside of Iquitos may contain up to 300 distinct kinds of tree—more than the total number of tree species in all of Europe.  A single tree-crown in the Peruvian Amazon can host about as many ant species as are found in the entire British Isles.  The rainforest around Iquitos abounds with birds, reptiles, amphibians and (in places free from over-hunting) mammals from tiny pygmy marmosets to huge tapirs.  Taken as a region the Peruvian Amazon, including the Iquitos area, is one of the most biologically diverse rainforests in the world.  It has been classified by scientists as a biodiversity ¨hotspot¨: an area urgently in need of new measures to safeguard native plant and animal species.  The chance to glimpse Peru´s biological riches is what draws many foreigners to Iquitos, and a large number of these visitors are rightly concerned about the many threats facing biodiversity in the area.  Unfortunately, however, myths abound when it comes to the real roots of deforestation and conservation in the tropics.  In this article, I hope to clear up some of these misconceptions.

For years visitors to the tropics, as well as concerned citizens in the US and other industrialized countries, have been fed the same basic  story about deforestation and environmental destruction in the tropics: deforestation, we´ve been told, is a function of population growth.  Rainforests, according to this outdated view, are coming down mainly because of high birth rates in developing countries, which lead expanding families to clear ever-larger areas of forest to make way for crops.

To be sure, population growth is occurring in many tropical areas, including the Amazon region, and an increased population does result in environmental problems.  But to say that population growth in Peruvian villages is the primary force behind deforestation would be inaccurate.  The single largest threat to Peru´s forest is not population growth, but oil and gas exploration; over half of the country´s forested region is already under concession to oil companies, and oil and gas development threatens not only Peru´s incredible biodiversity, but also dozens of indigenous and traditional villages.

This brings me to my next point: that the biggest problem with the old view of deforestation caused by local people is that it pits traditional communities against conservation efforts, whereas in reality the fates of both biodiversity and local people in the Amazon  are inextricably intertwined.  The truth is that the best way to protect natural ecosystems is often to empower local people to take care of their own land and keep the oil, timber, and other industries out.  Contrary to the mistaken view that traditional agriculture obliterates biodiversity, traditional plantations in local villages—managed without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or industrial methods—can support a level of biodiversity comparable to that of undisturbed forest. 

Walking through a traditional plantation is like visiting a dream world; as you pass through the shade of banana trees, brightly colored butterflies flit across the path, and emerald-green grasshoppers perch on the leaves of bushes.  Parakeets call from the crowns of native trees, and lizards scurry for a hiding place as you approach.  To be sure, these plantations are very different from untouched primary forest; the species most impacted by traditional agriculture are the larger mammals and reptiles, which are often scarce around local villages.  But in terms of plant and insect life, which make up the vast majority of the forest´s biodiversity, traditional plantations can be a reasonable substitute for undisturbed forest.  In contrast, the toxic wasteland of an oil field in the tropics obliterates life from insects to jaguars.

The startling implication of all this is that if we´re serious about conserving Peru´s spectacularly rich biodiversity, ensuring that traditional farmers continue their old way of life, rather than taking up industrial agriculture, is actually more important than preventing traditional farmer s from clearing more forest.  Industrial activity in the Amazon is a double-barreled gun which threatens the area´s ecosystems and biodiversity.  First of all, industrial activity itself obliterates vast swaths of forest, often contaminating huge areas with toxic waste that will remain in the soil and water for years.  Second, industrial practices displace traditional villages, and especially indigenous peoples, who are among the most politically disempowered populations in Peru.  The result is that traditional farmers give up a way of life that is relatively sustainable.  They may go to work for large companies like the ones that displaced them, or they may move to the outskirts of Iquitos where expanding slum-like communities, filling up fast with former residents of forest villages, are encroaching steadily on the rainforest.

Peru´s native biodiversity will not be saved so long as we consider local people and traditional villages to be the main force behind deforestation.  The first step to conserve this country´s natural wealth must be to limit the expansion of industrial activity in rainforest areas.  Second, traditional villages and indigenous populations must be protected, and given full title to the land they have long inhabited.  Empowerment of local people is beyond doubt the best, and possibly the only, way to truly ensure a future for Peru´s plant and animal life.

Finally, what can the visitor to Peru, concerned about biodiversity preservation, do to help?  Travelers returning to their home countries have a unique chance to educate friends, family , and others about the true root causes of deforestation and associated loss of biodiversity in the tropics.  Realize that many of the market forces which drive industrial activity in the Amazon region originate in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized regions, and that political involvement back home can have positive effects extending all the way to the forests around Iquitos.  Contact your elected officials, and encourage them to vote for policies that limit oil consumption and screen illegally harvested timber from your country´s import market.  Buy only from companies with proven records in social and environmental responsibility.  And while in Peru, consider visiting a traditional village, learning about agricultural practices, and letting local farmers know that you value their work.

The thousands of visitors who flock to the Iquitos area to experience its biological riches and glimpse native plant and animal life can play a vital role in shifting the global market forces that threaten Peru´s biodiversity.  What´s even better news is that halting deforestation will not mean limiting the rights of local people.  Rather, visiting tourists and local people can work together for a future in which local villages are assured of the right to their own land, and the innumerable non-human species in Peru´s rainforest persist into the indefinite future.

5 Responses to “Getting the Story Right on Tropical Deforestation”

  1. 1 Jeff Gang Jul 19th, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I think you’re right on with this. However, I think there’s a third step that needs to be added to your list. As you wrote, limiting industrial expansion is key, as is giving local and/or indigenous people the rights to the land they consider to be theirs. And clearly, we need to change the dream of our world, so we no longer need to continue blind pursuit of natural resource wealth elsewhere [shout out to the Pachamama Alliance]. We can – indeed, must – all work to shift the global market forces away from destruction of forests.

    But then we need to recognize the local market forces that influence everyone, including indigenous people and local forest dwellers. If they suddenly have legal titles to their forests, it stands to reason that the market forces will affect some of their decisionmaking. I have never been to Peru, but I think it’s probably wrong to assume that if you legally grant people land titles en masse, none will be tempted to convert to industrialized agriculture or sell to oil developers. This is part of the way humans work in an economic system – to seek personal profit, sometimes without considering environmental cost.

    I realize ecotourism is part of the solution – making it economically sound to preserve forest, since they could make money on it by operating a lodge, tours, etc. But I think it’s a very limited part of the solution, and not very good at enforcing its own goals, since most tourists can’t tell a somewhat good ecosystem from one that may be suffering biodiversity loss. The result may be a boom of greenwashed tourism, and further degradation of natural capital.

    I’m drawn to the only example I’m familiar with, which is Costa Rica’s system of Payment for Environmental Services. It’s certainly not a perfect system (can any nationally-run, top-heavy institution be?), but it pays landowners to manage forests in environmentally beneficial ways, financed by a tax on water use and fossil fuels. In essence, the government compensates them for the sequestered carbon and other environmental benefits that result from keeping their forests relatively forest-like, rather than cutting them down or converting them to monocrop. Some effort is being made to extend this program to those that do not hold legal titles to their land – without which, the program could be disastrous for those without legally recognized land titles. The program has had high enrollment rates, though its true effect is still being debated.

    So, my two cents: Such a program of financing intact forests might help improve the rates of forest being preserved in Perú, while also working to increase the rights of the poor. But first, as you said, we need to ensure that local people do have the right to determine what happens on their land.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. 2 Christine Marsh Jul 21st, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Interesting that I cam on your blog because I was in the rainforest just outside of Iquitos last year for a month. I was working with shamans in the rainforest and had such powerful experiences that, even though I always loved the rainforest I am now even more committed to their protection.

    I have recently decided to take steps every day towards this Big Hairy Audacious Goal:
    There is so much about the rainforest that we need as a human race.

    You wrote:
    “The first step to conserve this country´s natural wealth must be to limit the expansion of industrial activity in rainforest areas.” How can we take really effective steps to do this? I know writing my politicians is a step which I take almost daily, but I think there can be more effective steps than this.

    How can I “ensure that local people do have the right to determine what happens on their land.”?
    If anyone has any measurable ideas on this, please let me know.

    I have some ideas and info on saving the rainforest on these pages of my site:

    Thank You for writing about Iquitos and the rainforest.
    May you experience many miracles today!

  3. 3 Heather Rayment Jul 22nd, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Nick and Jeff both make excellent points, in order to protect this invaluable environment we must work with local communities. We (UK based charity) have just started working with the Crees foundation in the Manu region of Peru addressing the same problem

    What’s the problem? A large amount of land in the Manu region has been logged and cleared for pasture or farming. This quickly depletes the nutrients in the soil resulting in the land being abandoned and farmers and loggers moving onto new Virgin forest areas. As a result the land is abandoned and left unused, whist more pristine rainforest goes on to be destroyed.

    By working with CREES we aim to rehabilitate this land for local communities by creating Polycultures. Whats a polyculture? Firstly a garden containing many crops is planted, locals can sell this produce to visiting tourists as well as feeding their own families. After a few years trees are then planted with the vegetables. This system of using multiple crops in the same space imitates the biodiversity of natural ecosystems and makes crops more resistant to disease, thus increasing the annual yield and it provides habitats for more local species. We will also be helping to improve school facilities in the area which we hope will encourage farmers and their families to settle in the area, thus protecting further areas from destruction.

  4. 4 Nick Engelfried Jul 29th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks Jeff, Christine, and Heather – all three of your comments raise what I think are some excellent points. Back in the Internet Cafe in Iquitos, I find myself wanting to respond in more depth than I´d be able to in a paragraph-long follow-up comment. Your comments make me think I need to write a sequal post that takes the analysis of rainforest issues a step further than this last one did; I return to the US in a couple of days, and will get the new post up as soon as I can. Thanks again for writing in, and for your thoughtful comments on this important topic. I hope to continue the discussion soon!

  1. 1 Iquitos, Peru « EcoKnow Trackback on Jul 21st, 2009 at 3:33 pm
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About Nick

Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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