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The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon

When Mar 14, 2002 6:25 PM to
Mar 16, 2002 7:25 PM
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Professor of Urban Planning and Associate Director of The Latin American Center at UCLA

Keynote Speaker, 
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute 
Conference, March 14-16, 2002 
Nittany Lion Inn

The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon

By: Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn

Susanna Hecht, Professor of Urban Planning and Associate Director of The Latin American Center at UCLA, and Cockburn provide an ecological analysis of the Amazon as a place where humans dwell. In other words, they do not, like many environmentalists, urge the designation of large tracts of land as “natural” areas in which humans may not live, gather forest products, and practice agriculture. Along with their concern for the vitality of the plants, animals, and microorganisms of the Amazon, these authors are interested in issues of social justice in the Amazon Basin. Their work contains a detailed history of colonization, enslavement of native peoples, struggles between rubber tappers and their “middlemen,” the oppression of field labors by land-owners and foremen, and the problem of capital leaving Brazil to be invested in foreign markets. That being said, the following summary draws primarily from sections of the work that discuss the health of the forest and various human practices that contribute to or debilitate it.

Europeans were first lured to the Amazon by myths of gold and wealth. When they saw the bounty of the forests, nearly all considered it a shame that native peoples had so poorly developed what the forests had to offer. Natives farms were “jumbled fields of mixed crops,” paltry and disorganized in contrast with the grandiose single-crop fields of Europeans. However, despite the lushness of forest plants, the Amazon soil is in reality quite poor. Nutrients are stored not in the soil, but in the plants. Many organisms absorb nutrients immediately from the litter of the forest floor or even from rainwater without cycling through the soil. (It is also not the case that the entire Amazon is lush, nor that it is all forested.) Furthermore, the overwhelming activity of certain pests, insects, and pathogens presents agricultural challenges unknown in Europe. In other words, the agricultural techniques of native people were extremely well suited for the environment, while nearly all of the large, single-crop fields that Europeans established in the Amazon failed miserably.

The Amazon is home to at least half of the world’s species (even according to conservative estimates). Many evolutionary theories have been invented to explain such diversity. Hecht and Cockburn claim that the constantly changing landscape—heavy rains dramatically alter land and waterways in the Amazon—has caused species to adapt frequently to a wide variety of conditions. Furthermore, humans living in the Amazon have for ages collected seeds from large areas to plant near their dwellings. In other words, this lush forest, this homeland of diversity, is no timeless, untouched Eden (as many people imagine), but an extremely dynamic, dramatically evolving landscape and climate, to which native agriculture has contributed. Hence, Hecht and Cockburn work for an “…understanding of the forest as the outcome of human as well as biological history…” and conclude that “…humans can continue to make their history in the forest, sustaining and sustained” (28).

Hecht and Cockburn give a detailed account of particular native agricultural methods. For example, the Kayapo people have an extraordinary ritual of burning to create fields. First, crops such as sweet potatoes are planted before a burn. Then after the burn (the time of which is carefully determined, and the temperature of which is carefully restricted), these crops sprout almost immediately. This is crucial, as heavy rains would wash nutrients, seeds, and microorganisms away from land that lacked growth. Next people plant both short-cycle, light-tolerant crops (to quickly cover the area) and long-cycle crops in the same field. This imitates the forest’s own cycles of regeneration after fire. Once a field has completed its cycles as a plot for agriculture, the people plant trees that provide food for animals, thereby attracting species for hunting. These “abandoned” crop fields are carefully tended as the species that resided there formerly are reintroduced. This description of Kayapo agriculture shows that, if anything, native peoples’ agriculture promotes diversity and vitality in the forest rather than reducing it.

Hecht and Cockburn contrast non-native methods of burning and planting. The negative effect on the forest is extraordinary. However, the primary destroyers of the Amazon are those who, urged and subsidized by the Brazilian military, clear land for cattle grazing—an industry which is not even profitable in the Amazon without subsidies, tax breaks, and incentives (or without selling off chunks of the land which one likely obtained unjustly). Not only does this disrupt the flourishing of diversity, but also the exhaust released into the air as a result of these clearing processes is the primary Amazonian air pollutant. In other words, contrary to popular belief, traditional “slash-and-burn agriculture” is not to blame for the problems associated with the Amazon today—instead one should look to recent developments in cattle ranching.

By showing the co-existence of native practices and a vital forest (in contrast to non-native practices which compete with the forest for their success), Hecht and Cockburn depart from the main camps of international environmentalists and support their conviction that ecologists and policy-makers must respect the “…basic rights of local peoples to determine their fate along with that of the forest” (206).

Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: developers, destroyers and defenders of the Amazon (New York: Verso, 1989).

For a copy of a selection from this work, contact the Rock Ethics Institute:

Other works by Susanna Hecht:

Cattle ranching development in the eastern Amazon: evaluation of a development policy [PhD dissertation]

Of fates, forests and futures: myths, epistemes, and policy in tropical conservation [1993]

Sara Leland prepared this summary.