© Kat Morgenstern, June 2005, all rights reserved.
The Amazon - the very name conjures up visions of vast oceanic verdure, an exuberant abundance, of lush, raw life energy pulsating in the rapid cycles of genesis and decay, a mythic realm on the edge of darkness, where primitive forces unknown to civilization have the upper hand - or so the popular imagination would have us believe.
Despite the unfathomable vastness of this forest, it is in fact a very fragile ecosystem that faces severe threats from encroaching development, climate change and pollution. The powers of progress only perceive the forest and its inhabitants as a hindrance, something that lies between them and their profits: there are the farmers, who want to clear the forest in order to grow soy beans to feed the cattle that ends up as burgers at your local fast food joint, or oil companies who have no qualms about killing or displacing whole tribes of people from their native lands, nor feel responsible for clearing up the mess they leave behind - the oil spills resulting from leaky pipes that run through the forest for hundreds of miles. Then there are the loggers who indiscriminately and often illegally clear vast areas of land (often tribal lands) to supply a market far away, with tropical hardwoods. Or the gold miners, who in an effort to extract some small amount of this precious metal, poison rivers and soil for miles around with the chemicals used in the extraction process, killing scores of species in the process. Thus, despite the apparent abundance it is not easy for this precious ecosystem that is home to so many forms of life to survive.
The Amazon rainforest is not the only rainforest under threat. Africa's, Australia's and Southeast Asia's rainforests are facing the same demise as nature is pitched against the forces of 'progress' (read: commercial interests). But 'civilization' comes at a price. Despite grand words at international big wig meetings, in the real world sustainability is all too easily sacrificed for a quick buck.
Yet, the richest treasure of the rainforest and perhaps the only resource that could ensure its survival has hardly been tapped. In fact, it is being destroyed before it has even been chartered. The richest resources of the Amazon of course, are the plants themselves as well as the people who live with them and know their special virtues. Nobody knows exactly how many species of plants, ferns, mosses and fungi there are in any given piece of rainforest, nor indeed on the planet. They have not yet been catalogued, let alone studied by science. Yet, we are senselessly destroying approximately 2.7 MILLION ACRES OF RAINFOREST PER YEAR. We will never know what we have already lost and are continuing to lose at a rate of 137 species of plants, insects and animals PER DAY . But, deep in the jungle there are people who are very familiar with these plants, who know their virtues and their poisons and whose lives depend on the integrity of the forest, which is their home. Their homeland is disappearing as the forest around them is slain for meagre profits, and their knowledge lost before it has ever been 'discovered' or recorded.
A quarter of all western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, yet less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested and researched scientifically. Some of the most valuable pharmaceutical drugs are derived from rainforest plants, and still we allow the destruction to continue, carelessly eradicating nature's own laboratory and wasting our best chance to discover the drugs that might help us combat many of our most deadly diseases.
In rainforest ecology there are in fact many micro-systems of co-evolutionary symbiotic interrelationships between plants, insects, birds and other animals, and like a giant jigsaw puzzle, each tribe, and particularly their shamans and healers hold the keys to their particular piece of the forest. Yet, each time an old shaman dies without passing his knowledge on, the accumulation of knowledge gathered over many generations is simply lost.
We can ill afford such a loss of biodiversity and knowledge, let alone calculate its impact on global climate, which in turn will affect the survival of species in other parts of the world. The continued destruction of rainforest habitats amounts to mass species extinction and genocide, as the subsistence base of rainforest people is being undermined, polluted and destroyed. For the moment the effects are most acutely felt by those who live in these forests, but in the long run it will threaten the integrity of life as we know it throughout the world.
Those of us who live a comfortable life don't want to hear such doom and gloom. What can we do about it anyway? The rainforest is far away. Its problems are of a magnitude that feels overwhelming, yet it is practically imperceptible in countries far away. But its problems do concern us. There is no simple strategy to halt the destruction. The problems are complex and each area needs individualized solutions. But each solution starts with the resolve of individuals like you and me to get involved and become a part of the solution rather than the problem. Although it might feel as if an individual can achieve little, together we CAN make a difference. As citizens we have a right to voice our opinions and let politicians and industrialists know that we care about our planet and as consumers we have the freedom to choose companies that take environmental concerns into consideration, for unless we make our voices heard and make responsible consumer choices we become the inadvertent supporters of rainforest destruction.
Reduce paper consumption. Paper seems such an everyday commodity that nobody much cares about preserving it. Yet much of the rainforest that is cleared ends up as plywood and paper pulp, and most paper ends up in the bin…we are literally throwing away the trees. Campaign for sustainable paper pulp sources such as hemp or keenaf and support recycled paper.
Avoid tropical hardwood products. Ask your wood supplier for sustainability certificates, but beware, some of the certification can be misleading. In an effort to appear green some companies have created their own certificates and claim to be green when really they are not. The best highest standards are certified with FSC certificate. (For more information: Don't buy the SFI campaign)
Support non-timber forest products. There are numerous small enterprises that aim to create a living from harvesting forest products in a sustainable, rather than destructive manner. Brazil nuts, coffee and chocolate are just some of the products promoted as agroforestry crops that can help to create sustainable incomes for rainforest people.
Embark on an eco-travel adventure and see the rainforest for yourself: experience its lush natural bounty, meet the people who have lived in and with this forest for thousands of years, and learn about the plants and animals on which they rely. Although eco-tourism IS development, it is based on the principles of low impact- incorporating traditional building methods, using solar energy supplies etc., and the monies raised go directly towards supporting local communities and local conservation efforts. Many projects have been created as collaborative ventures between tour operators and tribal people with the intention of building a sustainable income base while protecting their homelands.
Tourism is a very important economic factor, especially for developing countries. The presence of foreigners who care and who have eyes to see and mouths to report is a great incentive to protect nature reserves and national parks, and to curb the worst violations against indigenous groups and environmental activists. Eco-travel has become a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, a direct experience of the rainforest, its people and the perils they face will help you understand the intricate ways in which our fates are linked with theirs.
Get involved - Take environmental problems personally. After all it is also YOUR planet and its stewardship is in your hands as much as anybody's. There are many groups that tirelessly work to protect the rainforest and its people. You can support their good work by becoming a member or by adding your voice to their numerous action alerts and letter writing campaigns. Let your voice be heard loud and clear - for the earth!
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