Friday, October 7, 2011

Our Forests, Ourselves

This week in class we discussed horticulture: not the gardening you do around your house, but the lifestyle of indigenous peoples in the rain forest who plant using hand tools only, supplementing their crops with hunting and the gathering of fruits from forests surrounding their villages. They grow or protect not only plants and trees used for food and drink, but other useful species such as trees that provide leaves for shelter and plants that have a poison used to stun fish, making them easy to catch.

Specifically, we looked at the Guarani of Paraguay and the Runa of Ecuador. Both are traditional peoples whose self concept is intertwined with the forest. They practice forest management techniques that disallow over use of their territories. People fish only in rivers near their homes. With swidden agriculture, useful trees are left standing while the rest is burned and root crops planted amidst the cooled soil. Villages are camouflaged by forest canopies, hidden down winding, overgrown paths, almost invisible to outsiders. For the Guarani and the Runa, their only wish is that their children live just as they do, in the forest, building canoes and houses and gardening just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Moreover, myths and everyday speech are peppered with stories and phrases elaborating on the human characteristics of natural phenomena. In their world view, nature and humanity depend on each other and there is no room for laziness or greed on either side.

While the Runa have formed communas to protect their way of life, the Guarani have seen their lands shrink through encroachment by colonos. These outsiders clear cut the forest, use fertilizers and over use the lands. Unable to practice their traditional lifestyle because their territories have been planted with monocrops, the Gurani now depend on wage labor and must buy their foodstuffs. Their nutrition has suffered. Families must relocate for work. Traditional relationships - personal and spiritual - are unsustainable. The Guarani now suffer high rates of suicide among males between 15 and 24, high rates of depression and a lowered self concept, referring to themselves now as "indios" a perjorative term, instead of "the people of the forest." When the forest dies, people die. This is not a metaphor.

Unfortunately, forests all around the world today are dying. Both climate change, where cold seasons give way now to warmer temperatures that fail to destroy invasive insects, and corporate interests, whose efforts clear cut forests for logging, ranching and agriculture, are destroying the trees. If this continues, humans will not be able breathe.

Recently, at the same time I was lecturing on the Runa and the Guarani, I saw two articles addressing the death of the forests. One approached the subject from a scientific (Western?) point of view, taking a global look at how humans are harmed by the loss of natural forests. The other provided an insiders perspective, an intimate look, at the human cost of greed.

The New York Times article, With Deaths of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors, states that "while a majority of the world’s people now live in cities, they depend more than ever on forests, in a way that few of them understand." The article further says that forests have absorb more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that people are putting into the air by burning fossil fuels and other activities, "an amount so large that trees are effectively absorbing the emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks." The article details:

If forests were to die on a sufficient scale, they would not only stop absorbing carbon dioxide, they might also start to burn up or decay at such a rate that they would spew huge amounts of the gas back into the air — as is already happening in some regions. That, in turn, could speed the warming of the planet, unlocking yet more carbon stored in once-cold places like the Arctic. 

Deforestation through human efforts and through forest fires warm the climate. In turn, an environment friendly to the proliferation of harmful insects is created. These insects kill trees whose decay spews carbon dioxide back into the forest in a loop of despair! And this is only one example leading to the death of forests on every continent, from the American Southwest to Siberia to the Amazon.  It is as though, in contrast to forest management practiced by the Indians whose worldview aims to maintain the Earth for future generations, current economic and technological activities are destroying the very hand that feeds them.

Balancing this presentation of scientific research and environmental efforts is a piece in Al Jazeera, The Crying Forest. This article highlights a documentary that investigates the life and death of Ze Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, an Amazon rainforest activist well known for standing up to loggers, ranchers and agriculturalists and their corporate interests. He was gunned down, alongside his wife Maria, on May 24, 2011 in a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon. Six months earlier he had predicted his own death saying, "I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment."  Since 1996, at least 212 Amazonian activists have been murdered because of the battle to preserve nature or over land disputes with wealthy loggers. These deaths, a crying forest, humanity and nature.

One story, two perspectives. Either way, it affects us all.

To read the New York Times article click here.
For Al Jazeera, click here.

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