Rethinking Rainforests & Soc Justic

Inst. for Food and Development Policy foodfirst at
Fri Jul 21 14:26:51 EST 1995

/* Written  3:51 PM  Jul 20, 1995 by foodfirst in igc:dev.foodfirst */
/* ---------- "Rethinking Rainforests & Soc Justic" ---------- */
Food First Backgrounder
Institute for Food & Development Policy
Please read informational material on the Institute at 
the end of this piece.
This Backgrounder is based on the authors' new book, 
"Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Truth about Rain Forest 
Destruction," Food First Books, 1995, foreward by 
Vandana Shiva.  Order information at end.

Rethinking Rain Forests:
Biodiversity and Social Justice 

by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto 

     John Vandermeer is Alfred Thurneau Professor of 
     Biology at the University of Michigan. Ivette 
     Perfecto, a native of Puerto Rico, is Associate 
     Professor of the School of Natural Resources and 
     the Environment, University of Michigan. 

The buzz is unmistakable. A huge chain saw cuts 
effortlessly through the wood of a beautiful rain forest 
tree, slicing up the trunk it has just felled into 
smaller bits to be taken away on giant lumber trucks. 
That image is fixed in our minds. It drives us to the 
same distraction it has driven so many before us. The 
rain forests are physically beautiful and contain the 
vast majority of our relatives on this planet. What sort 
of person would not be haunted by the sound of chain 
saws decimating them? 

Yet another image is equally haunting. The bulldozed 
wooden shack, formerly the home of a poor family, 
constantly reminds us that lives as well as logs are 
being cut in most areas of tropical rain forests. Hungry 
children wander among the stumps of once majestic rain 
forest trees. Their mother cooks over an open fire, and 
their father fights the onslaught of weeds that 
continually threaten to choke out the crops the family 
needs for next year's food. All live in fear that the 
bulldozers will come again to destroy their present 
home. What sort of person would not be haunted by the 
existence of such poverty in a world of plenty? 

But for us the power of these two images lies in the way 
they are connected, a fact we are reminded of every 
morning we slice up bananas on our breakfast cereal. The 
banana cannot be grown in the United States, yet it is 
one of the most popular fruits here. As we all know, it 
is produced in the world's tropical regions, usually in 
the same areas where rain forests have flourished in the 
past. The link between the decimated forest and the 
hungry children is the banana. That is why it is so 
easy, as we slice up a banana in Michigan, for our 
thoughts to wander to the image of the chain saw slicing 
up the rain forest trees and the children who view the 
banana as a staple food rather than a luxury. 

The majority of life on earth lives in the rain forest. 
Close to 80% of the terrestrial species of animals and 
plants are to be found there. And this cradle of life is 
disappearing at an enormous rate. This is what the 
popular press has labeled as the "biodiversity" crisis. 

Some view the problem from only a utilitarian point of 
view. It is obvious that we depend on biodiversity for 
the most elementary aspects of existence-plants convert 
the sun's energy to a usable form, animals convert 
unusable plants to a product we can use, bacteria in our 
stomachs help digest our food. There are a host of other 
critical functions of life's diversity and furthermore, 
future utilitarian designs on biodiversity are most 
likely to follow the patterns of the past-medicines and 
genes for new crops being the obvious examples. Yet even 
if these utilitarian concerns were absent, the spiritual 
concern that the world's biodiversity is being destroyed 
should be enough to drive us to action. Less than 50% of 
the original tropical rain forests of the world are 
left, and at the present rate of destruction almost all 
will be gone by 2025. Our families, our memories-indeed 
a piece of our humanness-will have been destroyed 
forever. For this reason many have sounded the alarm and 
called for action. 

While we echo this same alarm, we are concerned that the 
calls for action may not be correctly placed. Indeed, 
many of these calls are based on one myth or another  
about what is causing rain forest destruction. We feel 
that these myths act to mask the true issue. In this 
Backgrounder we present arguments against the five main 
myths of rain forest destruction and argue that a more 
complex understanding is necessary to grasp what is 
causing the destruction of the world's rain forests. So 
we begin with an analysis of the five myths and conclude 
with a description of "the causal web," the true cause 
of rain forest destruction. 

Myth One: 

Loggers and logging companies are decimating the rain 

Certainly the most immediate and visually spectacular 
cause of tropical rain forest destruction is logging. 
Cutting trees is nothing new. The use of rain forest 
wood has been traditional for most human societies in 
contact with these ecosystems. But the European invasion 
of tropical lands accelerated wood cutting enormously, 
as tropical woods began contributing to the development 
of the modern industrial society.(1) 

The direct consequences of logging, apart from the 
obvious and dramatic visual effects, are largely 
unknown. Some facts are deducible from general 
ecological principles, and a handful of studies have 
actually measured a few of the consequences, but a 
detailed knowledge of the direct consequences of logging 
is lacking. What can be deduced from ecological 
principles is not that tropical forests are irreparably 
damaged by logging, but quite the contrary: tropical 
forests are potentially quite resilient to disturbance. 
While this is a debatable deduction, most of the debate 
centers on how fast a forest will recover after a major 
disturbance, such as logging, not on whether it will. 
The process of ecological succession inevitably begins 
after logging, and the proper question to ask, then, is: 
how long will it take for the forest to recover? 

In analyzing the effects of logging, we cannot assume a 
uniform process. There are a variety of logging 
techniques, some likely to lead to rapid forest 
recovery, others necessitating a longer period for 
recovery. For example, local residents frequently chop 
down trees for their own use as fence posts, charcoal, 
or dugout canoes. Forest recovery after such an 
intrusion can be thought of as virtually instantaneous, 
since the removal of a single tree is similar to a tree 
dying of natural causes, a perfectly natural process 
that happens regularly in all forests. At the other 
extreme is clear cutting, the extraction of all trees in 
an area. Though the physical nature of a clear cut 
forest is spectacularly different from the mature 
forest, from other perspectives the damage is not quite 
as dramatic as it appears. The process of secondary 
succession that begins immediately after such logging 
leads rapidly to the establishment of secondary forest. 

A great deal of biological diversity is contained in a 
secondary forest. Indeed, a late secondary forest is 
likely to appear indistinguishable from an old-growth 
forest to all but the most sophisticated observer, even 
though it may have been initiated from a clear cut. 
Large expanses of secondary forest may even contain more 
biological diversity than similar expanses of old-growth 
forest.(2) No studies thus far have followed such an 
area to its return to a "mature" forest again,(3) but a 
reasonable estimate is that it would take something on 
the order of 40 to 80 years before the area begins to 
regain the structure of an old growth forest. 

Probably the most common type of commercial logging is 
not the clear cutting described above but, rather, 
selective logging. In an area of tropical forest that 
may contain 400 or more species of trees, only twenty or 
thirty will be of commercial importance.(4) Thus, a 
logging company usually seeks out areas with 
particularly large concentrations of the valuable 
species and ignores the rest. Often the wood is so 
valuable that it makes economic sense to build a road to 
extract just a few trees. Yet these roads offer new 
access to the forest for hunters, miners, and peasant 
agriculturists. In most situations this aspect of 
selective logging contributes most egregiously to 
deforestation, but it is obviously an indirect 
consequence of the logging operation itself. 

A selectively logged forest is damaged, but not 
destroyed. Even a single year after the selective 
logging the forest begins taking on the appearance of a 
"real" forest. If no further cutting occurs, the 
selectively logged forest may regain the structural 
features of old growth after ten or twenty years. 
Although the scars of selective logging wi ll remain for 
decades to a trained eye, the general structure of the 
forest may rapidly return. But this is not to say 
selective logging is, in the end, benign. The roads and 
partial clearings are obvious entrance points for 
peasant agriculture, as described below. 

Myth Two: 

Peasant farmers are increasing in numbers and cut down 
rain forests to make farms to feed their families. 

This myth is especially popular among neo-Malthusians. 
The explosive growth in the population of poor people in 
most tropical countries of the world is seen as a 
consequence of the basic forces that cause populations 
to grow generally, and a simple extrapolation suggests 
that even if this is not the main problem now, it 
certainly will be if population growth is not somehow 

Debunking the neo-Malthusian myth is not our purpose 
here; that has been done well elsewhere.(5) Rather, 
laying the blame for the destruction of the forest on 
the peasant farmer is really blaming the victim. Peasant 
farmers in most rain forest areas are forced to farm 
under circumstances that are unfavorable, to say the 
least, from both an ecological and sociopolitical point 
of view. 

At the outset, we must acknowledge the temptation to 
assume that, in rain forest areas, the potential for 
agriculture is great. Since there is neither winter nor 
lack of water, two of the main limiting factors for 
agriculture in other areas of the world, it is easy to 
conclude that production might very well be cornucopian. 
The tremendously lush vegetation of a tropical rain 
forest only heightens this impression, and indeed this 
perception may ultimately be valid. The ability to 
produce for twelve months of the year without worrying 
about irrigation is definitely a positive aspect to 
farming in such regions. But, so far at least, the woes 
are almost insurmountable, as most farmers forced to 
cultivate in rain forest areas can attest. The first 
problem is the soils. Rain forest soils are usually 
acidic, made up of clay that cannot store nutrients 
well, and very low in organic matter.(6) Even if 
nutrients are added to the soil they will be utilized 
relatively inefficiently because of the acidity, and 
then they will be washed out of the system because of 
its low storage capacity. 

This problem is actually exacerbated by the forest 
itself. Because tropical rain forest plants have grown 
in these poor soil conditions for millions of years, 
they have evolved mechanisms for storing the system's 
nutrients in their vegetative matter (leaves, stems, 
roots, etc.) If they did not, much of the nutrient 
material would simply wash out of the system and no 
longer be available to them. This means that a vast 
majority of the nutrients in the ecosystem are stored in 
plant material rather than in the soil. 

Consequently when a forest is cut down and burned, the 
nutrients in the vegetation are immediately made 
available to any crops that have been planted. The crops 
grow vigorously at first, but any nutrients unused 
during the first growing season will tend to leach out 
of the system. The "poverty" of the soil only becomes 
evident during the second growing season. This pattern 
is especially invidious when migrant farmers from areas 
with relatively stable soils arrive in a rain forest 
area. The first year they may produce a bumper crop, 
which creates a false sense of security. Then, if the 
second year is not a complete failure, almost certainly 
the third or fourth is, and the farmer is forced  to 
move on to cut down another piece of forest. 

A second problem is insects, diseases and weeds. The 
magnitude of the pest problem is often not fully 
anticipated by farmers or planners, and it is only after 
problems arise that the surprised agronomists become 
concerned. This is unfortunate, since one of the few 
things we can predict with confidence is that when rain 
forest is converted to agriculture, many pests arrive. 
The herbivores that used to eat the plants of the rain 
forest are not eliminated when the forest is cut. They 
are representatives of the massive biodiversity of 
tropical rain forests, and the potential number of them 
is enormous. Herbivores can devastate farmers' fields, 
and are able to destroy an entire crop in days. 

A third problem is that because of the uniformly moist 
and warm environment, organisms that cause crop diseases 
find rain forest habitats quite hospitable. 
Consequently, the potential for losing crops to disease 
is far greater than in more temperate climates. Finally, 
just as the hot, wet environment is agreeable for crops, 
it is also agreeable for competitive plants. Since no 
two plants can occupy the same space, frequently the 
crop falls victim to the more aggressive vines and 
grasses that colonize open areas in tropical rain forest 
zones. Weeds are thus an especially difficult problem. 

These, then, are some of the ecological problems faced 
by the peasant farmer seeking to establish a farm in a 
rain forest area. Sociopolitical forces, however, are 
far more devastating. And most of those sociopolitical 
forces are associated with a different form of 
agriculture-modern export agriculture. 

When a modern export agricultural operation is set up, 
it tends to do two things regarding labor. First, it 
purchases, or sometimes steals, land from local peasant 
farmers, thus forcing them to move onto more marginal 
lands, with the kinds of problems we described above. 
Second, it frequently requires more labor than is 
locally available, thus acting as a magnet to attract 
unemployed people from other regions. Indeed, in most 
rain forest areas this magnet effect is a far more 
important factor leading to increased local populations 
than population growth. 

But the modern agricultural operation, as detailed in 
the following section, is subject to dramatic 
fluctuations in production, since it is usually 
intimately connected with world agricultural commodity 
markets. Thus, there is a highly variable need for this 
labor, which means that today's workers always face the 
prospect of becoming tomorrow's peasant farmers. 

In the contemporary world most peasant farmers find 
themselves in this precarious position. While it is true 
that many indigenous groups have lived and farmed in 
rain forest areas for hundreds of years and certainly 
deserve the world's attention and support in their 
attempts at preserving traditional ways of life, the 
vast majority of poor peasant farmers today are not 
indigenous. Rather, they are people who have been 
marginalized by a politico-economic system that needs 
them to serve as laborers when times are good, and to 
take care of themselves when times are not. As long as 
times are good, the banana workers of Central America 
have jobs. But when economies sour, many of those banana 
workers suddenly become peasant farmers. 

So in the end, the myth of the peasant farmers causing 
rain forest destruction is perhaps true in the narrow 
sense that a knitting needle causes yarn to form a 
sweater. But little understanding of what really drives 
the process is gained from the simple observation that a 
peasant's ax can chop a rain forest tree. 

Myth Three: 

The transformation of rain forests into large-scale 
export agriculture is the main factor leading to 

Given the above description of how peasant agriculture 
is driven by industrialized agricultural activities, it 
is no wonder that many have concluded that the modern 
export agricultural system is the ultimate culprit. 
Furthermore, the images of large cattle ranchers 
purposefully burning Amazon rain forests to make cattle 
pastures fuels this interpretation. Again, there is some 
merit to this position. However, we feel that it, too, 
is an inappropriate window through which to view the 
problem of rain forest destruction. 

The direct action of large modern agricultural 
enterprises is not really as involved in direct rain 
forest destruction as is popularly believed. Burning 
Amazon rain forests to replace them with cattle ranches 
is certainly an example of the direct destruction of 
rain forests by "big" agriculture. But the vast majority 
of modern agricultural transformations in tropical areas 
are confined to areas that had already been converted to 
agriculture. Developers of expanding banana plantations 
of Central America claim, for example, to be cutting no 
primary forest at all. While we doubt their full 
sincerity, it does seem that about 90% of the current 
expansion is into areas that had long ago been 
deforested. Attributing direct deforestation to them is, 
as they argue, probably quite unfair. On the other hand, 
their activities are not totally unrelated to the 
problem, as can be easily seen from a closer examination 
of their underlying structure. 

The basic structure of modern agriculture is frequently 
misunderstood because of an overly romantic notion of 
agriculture - the small, independent, family farm, rich 
with tradition and a work ethic that even a Puritan 
could be impressed with. Such romanticism is fueled by a 
confusion between farming and agriculture. Farming is a 
resource transformation process in which land, seed, and 
labor are converted into, for example, peanuts. It is 
Farmer Brown cultivating the land, sowing the seed, and 
harvesting the peanuts. Agriculture is the decision to 
invest money in this year's peanut production; the use 
of a tractor and cultivator to prepare the land; an 
automatic seeder for planting; application of 
herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, nematodes and 
bactericides to kill unwanted pieces of the ecology; 
automatic harvest of the commodity; sale of the 
commodity to a processing company where it is ground up 
and emulsifiers, taste enhances, stabilizers and 
preservatives are added; packing in convenient 
"pleasing-to-the-consumer" jars; and, finally, marketing 
under a sexy brand name. In short, while farming is the 
production of peanuts from the land, agriculture is the 
production of peanut butter from petroleum.(7) Over the 
last two hundred years, and especially in the last 
fifty, much farming has been transformed into 

The consequence of this evolution is that modern 
agriculture is remarkably intrusive on local ecologies. 
Take, for example, the establishment of a banana 
plantation. When the banana export business began, local 
peasant farmers grew most of the bananas and sold them 
to shipping companies. Gradually, the shipping companies 
turned into the banana producers, with huge areas 
devoted to the monocultural production of this single 
crop. To establish a modern banana plantation it is 
often necessary to construct a complex system of 
hydrological control wherein the soil is leveled and 
crisscrossed with drainage channels, significantly 
altering the physical nature of the soil. 

Contemporary banana production even includes burying 
plastic tubing in the ground to eliminate the natural 
variability in subsurface water depth. Metal monorails 
hang from braces placed into cement footings to haul the 
bunches of bananas. To avert fungal diseases, heavy use 
of fungicides is required, and because of the large 
scale of the operation chemical methods of pest control 
are the preferred option. The banana plants create an 
almost complete shade cover and thus replace all 
residual vegetation. Pesticide application is sometimes 
intense, other times almost absent, depending on 
conditions, but over the long run one can expect an 
enormous cumulative input of pesticides, the long-term 
consequences of which are unknown but likely to be 
unhealthy for both workers and the environment. 

A major social transformation is also required. Banana 
production tends to promote a local "overpopulation 
crisis" by encouraging a great deal of migration into 
the area. As the international market for bananas ebbs 
and flows, workers are alternatively hired and fired. 
When fired, there is little alternative economic 
opportunity in banana zones, and displaced workers must 
either look for a piece of land to farm, or migrate to 
the cities to join the swelling ranks of shanty town 

Thus, the direct effect of most modern agricultural 
activities is not inexorably linked with the cutting and 
burning of rain forests, despite some obvious and 
spectacular examples of where it indeed is. More 
importantly, the overall operation of the modern 
agricultural system is integrated into a bigger picture. 
It is that bigger picture that we must examine to 
understand the causes of rain forest destruction, as we 
argue in the final section of this Backgrounder. 

Myth Four: 

Local governments institute policies that cause rain 
forests to be destroyed. 

Probably the most cited example of local government 
policy that promotes deforestation is that of the 
infamous transmigration programs of the Indonesian 
government, in which hundreds of thousands of Javanese 
farmers have been displaced to the exceedingly poor 
soils of Kalimantan.(8) However, most local government 
programs in forestry and agriculture are frequently 
dictated by very specific economic and political forces 
that are effectively beyond the control of local 
governments. Once those forces are understood, it is 
difficult to lay the full blame on local governments. 
They may be corrupt, they may be inefficient, but in 
fact their hands are frequently tied by forces beyond 
their control. 

Given today's global interconnectedness, in order to 
understand the Third World we must view it as embedded 
in the modern industrial system. In that system the 
people who provide the labor in the production processes 
are not the same people who provide the tools, machines 
and factories. The former are the workers in the 
factories, the latter are the owners of the factories. 
The owners of the machines and tools directly make the 
management decisions about all production processes. A 
good manager tries to minimize all production costs, 
including the cost of labor. 

However, the owners of the factories face a complicated 
and contradictory task. While factory workers constitute 
a cost of production to be minimized, they also 
participate, along with the multitudes of other workers 
in society, in the consumption of products. In trying to 
maximize profits, factory owners are concerned that 
their factories' products sell for a high price. This 
can only happen if workers, in general, are making a lot 
of money. In contrast to what is desired at the level of 
the factory,  the opposite goal is sought at the level 
of society. Factory owners must wear two hats, then: one 
as owners of the factories, and another as members of a 
social class. Owners wish the laborers to receive as 
little as possible, but members of the social class 
benefit if laborers in general receive as much as 
possible (to enable them to purchase the products 
produced in the factory). This has long been recognized 
as one of the classic contradictions of a modern 

The situation in much of the Third World appears 
superficially similar. For the most part we are dealing 
with agrarian economies in which there are two obvious 
social classes, those who produce crops for export like 
cotton, coffee, tea, rubber, bananas, chocolate, beef, 
and sugar; and those who produce food for their own 
consumption on their own small farms and, when 
necessary, provide the labor for export crop producers. 
The typical arrangement in the Developed World is an 
articulated economy, while that in the Third World is 
disarticulated, in that the two main sectors of the 
economy are not articulated or connected with one 
another. The banana company does not really care whether 
its workers make enough money to buy bananas; that is 
not its market. The banana company cares that the 
workers of the Developed World have purchasing power, 
because those are the people expected to buy most of the 

This disarticulation, or dualism, helps to explain the 
differences between analogous classes in the First and 
Third Worlds. Flower producers in Colombia do not 
concern themselves much over the fact that their workers 
cannot buy their products. On the other hand, the 
factory owners in the U.S., whether they be private 
factories or government owned and/or subsidized 
industries, care quite a lot that the working class has 
purchasing power. General Motors "cares" that the 
general population in the U.S. can afford to buy cars. 
Naturally they aim to pay their own workers as little as 
possible, but that goal is balanced by their wish for 
the workers in general to be good consumers. 

Seeing this structure at the national level in an 
underdeveloped country causes one to realize that one of 
the main, sometimes only, sources of capital to create a 
civil society is from agricultural exports. Because of 
the disarticulated nature of the economy the dream of 
development based on internally derived consumer demand 
is pie in the sky, and any realist must acknowledge that 
the only conceivable source of capital to invest in 
growth must come from exports. And most frequently 
agricultural exports are the only possibility. Herein 
derives the need for Third World governments to continue 
expanding this export agriculture. This need is an 
inevitable consequence of the underlying structure of 
the general world system. Thus to blame local 
governments for initiating policies that are ultimately 
damaging to rain forests may be technically correct in 
that those policies frequently do just what the critics 
say they do -destroy rain forests. But taking a larger 
view we see that local governments are effectively 
constrained to do exactly that. Indeed, we predict that 
most of today's critics would wind up promoting the very 
same programs the local governments are currently 
promoting, if they were suddenly pushed into the same 
position the local governments currently find 

Myth Five: 

Decisions made by international agencies cause rain 
forest destruction. 

As before, there is some truth to this position. As well 
documented, although not yet "retrospected" by Mr. 
McNamara, the World Bank has left a trail of rain forest 
destruction in the wake of its many socially and 
economically destructive programs in the Third World.(9)  

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