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8.6.05

Amazon Myths

In challenging one myth about the Amazon, this article (via Gristmill) perpetuates a few more. All of them tend to give aid and comfort to the "fence it all off" conservation impulse.

Rain Forest Myth Goes Up In Smoke Over The Amazon

... When the burning season strikes, life and health in the Amazon falter, and color drains out of the riotous green landscape as great swaths of majestic trees, creeping vines, delicate bromeliads and hardy ferns are reduced to blackened stubble.

But more than just the land, these annual blazes also lay waste to a cherished notion that has roosted in the popular mind for decades: the idea of the rain forest as the "lungs of the world."

... Far from cleaning up the atmosphere, the Amazon is now a major source for pollution. Rampant burning and deforestation, mostly at the hands of illegal loggers and of ranchers, release hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the skies each year.


First the easy one (mentioned in a part of the article I didn't quote): the Amazon is not virgin. Humans have been altering it for millennia, and the jungle we all know and love is the result of generations of native swidden farmers. Sustainability will continue to elude us so long as we insist that the touch of civilization is automatically destructive, and that natural beauty is diagnostic of a lack of humans. It's somewhat ironic that tropical rain forests are the icon of untouched wilderness given that it's there that the evidence is strongest for non-degrading human influence.

Second, the article paints a uniformly negative picture of fire and agriculture. The article is right that most of the current fires, and the agriculture that follows them (e.g. industrial soybean growing) is bad for the planet. They're also bad for the local people, who are economically marginalized by the big companies but forced to bear the environmental costs of their activity.

However, there is an important nuance that gets lost in condemning current corporate practice: some fire and some agriculture are good. Forest clearing is only a problem if it never gets a chance to grow back. And while the Amazon is hardly as fire-loving as chapparal or eucalyptus, fire still has a role in rejuvenating the forest. Smallholder swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture can provide sustainable livelihoods for Amazonian peasants. But condemning fire and agriculture with a broad brush tempts us toward strict conservationist policies -- parks without people -- that undermine the region's people in a different way.

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