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This diary is about the Cancun summit, saving the rainforests, the climate crisis, and Jane Goodall. I love Jane Goodall, but right now, she's full of shit. If you're one of the world's leading conservationists and you find yourself agreeing with the head of Wal-mart and the head of the World Bank on something, you need to ask yourself why whatever you're for is probably something you oughta be against. And that's where Jane Goodall finds herself right now.

Now, she's not the only one to point a finger at. There are an awful lot of total sleezebags who are all for the same thing. She's the one in the group who shouldn't be there. She's the one who oughta know better.

I'm a newbie when it comes to learning about saving the rainforests and the rights of indigenous people's in the Global South. I've only just visited the Amazon for the very first time, this year. But it doesn't take a lot of time there to learn to recognize bullshit when you see it.

Let's go back to the beginning. This diary is about REDD - which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. And I wish it were a good idea. The powers of the world are on board with it, and my god, if it were going to be our silver bullet out of the climate crisis mess, I would be so happy.

REDD came into my vocabulary a few days ago, when a group I ally with - La Via Campesina - came out vocally against it. And if La Via Campesina is against it, then odds are, I would find reason to be against it too. But today Jane Goodall stood with group of powerful people like the head of the World Bank and the head of Wal-Mart to support REDD.

The general idea of REDD is simple: major polluters in rich countries pay to preserve large swaths of forests in poor countries and then continue with business as usual. Thus, we save the rainforests, the poor countries get money, global warming doesn't happen, and everybody wins. Which is a nice idea, really, if it were an accurate representation of the facts.

But as a middle class American suburbanite treehugger who has deeply hoped to "save the rainforests" since I was in junior high, I now have a new understanding of what saving the rainforests means. And I also know how a very well-meaning American might misunderstand the news we're getting from Cancun.

Here in the U.S., we all know what it means to save the wilderness. You take a big area of virgin land, cordon it off, and keep all the people out, save for forest rangers and backpackers and such. And then, of course, unless someone does something stupid like set the forest on fire with a smoldering cigarette or something, the forest is preserved.

That is NOT how it works in the rainforest. Let me explain...

In the beginning...
Going way, way back to pre-Columbian times (i.e. before Europe started its massive conquest of the Americas, Africa, and Asia) the indigenous people in the Americas lived in the forests and the prairies and pretty much all over. They were not separate from their environment. They were a part of it.

That is not to say that there is some innate mystical sense that the indigenous people have that Europeans lacked that allowed them to live in harmony with Mother Earth. They used trial and error. History contains examples of errors that resulted in the extinction of entire civilizations, such as on Easter Island, or the mound builders who lived at Cahokia, IL.

But the civilizations that figured out how to live in harmony with their environment survived and prospered. And, in fact, they shaped their environments. What we view as "wilderness" is often very much shaped by humans, and that includes the Amazon rainforest.

Slash and Burn Agriculture
I've written a few diaries about slash and burn agriculture if you want a longer explanation with pictures. Here's the quick and dirty on it:

Tropical soils are often lousy. Believe it or not, the soil that grows the amazing biodiversity that we call "rainforest" is often (although not always) absolute crap. It's not like Iowa, where you can grow corn crop after corn crop, year after year, and always get a harvest. The fertility comes from the plants themselves. Some plants die and decay, and the living plants use the nutrients from the decaying plants to grow.

Indigenous people came up with an ingenious way of harnessing the fertility (what little there was) of the tropical forests to grow food. They use "slash and burn" agriculture, also called shifting cultivation. You slash an area of the jungle, and you let it dry. Then you burn it. The ash provides fertility for the crops you will grow. You plant crops there for one or two years, harvest them, and walk away. Next year, you do the same thing in another patch of jungle. You don't return to the first patch for a long period of time, maybe up to 25 years.

Is this a bad thing? Wow, everyone freak out, people are burning down the rainforests!!! Not quite. When done properly, slash and burn CAN be a good thing. Ecologically, it works. The weeds that come up in any area that has been burnt and planted with crops are overpowering. It would take hours and hours to weed them by hand. If you burn the same area again and again, it won't continue to produce a crop. It will lack the fertility. That's why you move on to a different area each time.

When this is done properly, it's carbon neutral. Indigenous peoples are VERY smart about knowing exactly what their soil is and isn't capable of. They know that if they attempt to grow their crops in an area without waiting long enough, they will be wasting their time because they won't get much of a harvest anyway.

Indigenous people are also incredible in their knowledge of the plants and animals around them. In the Amazon, I was able to recognize a handful of familiar fruit trees. The people who live there possess an INCREDIBLE familiarity not just with which plants are edible, but which species were the best to build houses, thatch roofs, make an axe handle, use for a bow and arrow, make a sugarcane press, etc etc.

I just had a recent experience in the jungles of Chiapas. I was with an indigenous family and we were given machetes and told to go cut away the forest growth around an area that had been planted in neem trees. I could not do this. I gave my machete to someone else. It wasn't just that I was clumsy with a machete. Looking at a big patch of jungle, I could hardly tell which trees we were supposed to keep and which ones should be cut down.

The indigenous man we were with was another story. He just hacked his way through there quickly, somehow - miraculously - always cutting the right things and never damaging the neem trees. His little brothers (ages 7, 10, and 11) followed along behind, helping us identify neem trees so that we could apply a ring of packaging tape and a layer of some sticky stuff we hoped would stop the leafcutter ants from destroying the neem trees. These little boys, as young as 7, were way faster than I at locating the neem trees, even after the forest growth was cut away.

Centuries of Oppression
If things were the way they were when Columbus and his goon squad first showed up, we'd be fine. The indigenous people have no desire to destroy the rainforests. Why would anyone want to destroy their land, their home? This land is not just of emotional or even religious value to them. It is their source of food and shelter.

But there have now been some 500 years of messy history. I can speak best about Bolivia, which is where I visited, but my hunch is that other areas were more or less the same. For years, indigenous people who lived on the land were sold with the land. If you bought the land, the indigenous people who lived there were your slaves, to do with as you wished.

I have heard stories of indigenous peoples - entire cultures - being more or less murdered and wiped out. In other cases, they were simply worked to death. Those who still survive are desperately poor. They also have very little reason to trust "us" (i.e. the industrialized world), or even their own governments, given what they've been through.

Corruption is a problem. So is racism (against the indigenous). Governments don't mind selling off the forests without asking the people who live there if they mind. And the indigenous people who were there first - first by thousands of years - do not have land titles. It's very easy to issue a land title to someone who wants to pay for it, and to kick the indigenous off the land because they lack a title.

I've seen four distinct things happen that make the indigenous less likely to simply farm sustainably if they are given land in the jungle:

  1. White people have previously come down there to tell the brown people how to farm. Oh, brown people, you don't want to do slash and burn. You want a nice monoculture. Here's this great invention we have called DDT, and here's another thing we made called fertilizer. Use these! (In Bolivia, in the 1950's, we've even helped them "import" some nice, smart white people to do the monoculture chemical farming because we didn't think the brown people were capable.)
  1. The "needs" of industrialized countries have dictated a number of economic booms in the Amazon over the years. Whatever the rich countries wanted, whether it was quinine, feathers, animal skins, or lumber, the indigenous would be paid little and kept in perpetual debt to do the incredibly hard work of gathering whatever it was from the forest. Where I visited, the current boom was lumber. Most of the people I met, who now work in eco-tourism, worked in illegal logging for about a decade before the eco-tourism operation started up. Eco-tourism is now possible because they live near an airport and some roads. In areas without easy access for tourists, logging is still the way to make money.
  1. Decreasing land holdings. As people practicing slash and burn agriculture are pushed into smaller and smaller areas, they are no longer able to leave land fallow for as long. An area that used to be left fallow for 15 years might now be cultivated after 7. When this happens, the forest loses some of its ability to recover. (You can see the difference between land that was left fallow for long enough, and land where someone tried to grow crops after too short a fallow. The vegetation is different.)
  1. Cattle ranching. Unfortunately, economics dictate that cattle ranching is a more secure way to make money than growing crops. Why? Because cattle don't rot. If there's no market for your cow, you just don't kill it. The cow functions like a bank account on four legs. But if, instead, you grow bananas, if you don't have a good market for the bananas, they rot. Because of this, the prices one can get for cows tends to be better than what they can get for fruits and veggies. The buyer is well aware that if they aren't willing to pay a good price, the seller won't sell the cow. But the person selling the bananas can either sell the bananas before they rot for whatever price they can get, or let the bananas rot and get nothing.

The areas of the Amazon that have been destroyed have largely been destroyed for either cattle ranching or growing soybeans. There are also areas destroyed by the building of dams, which flood large areas of the forest and kill it, and by development (when the forest is cut down to build houses, resorts, or cities). But if you give a piece of land to an indigenous group, they won't build a hydroelectric dam on it. So that's not really an issue with this whole REDD thing.

Which Brings Us Up To Today...
So now that you know a little more about the dynamics of the Amazon - and likely parts of Central America too - you can imagine what's going on here. (Re: Central America... I just visited Chiapas, which is the Mexican state that borders Guatemala. The jungle had been cut down nearly everywhere you looked, and it appeared that it was all turned into cattle pasture. There's actually a term, in Spanish, for this phenomenon: ganaderizacion, taken from the word for cattle, ganado.)

The idea of preserving the forests under REDD involves kicking all of the people out of them. People who have been oppressed, enslaved, and even murdered for five centuries, who have nothing to their name but their land, which is vital to them for food production.

If you allow people in the protected forests, what are they odds that they will practice slash and burn agriculture sustainably? Who the heck knows. It doesn't seem to be working very well right now. Illegal logging (or whatever boom is going on) and/or cattle ranching might be too attractive to pass up for someone who is living in desperate poverty. And, depending on whether the people in question have been practicing sustainable slash and burn agriculture up until now, they might have lost the traditional knowledge required in order to do it.

There's one last piece to this puzzle that I find relevant. In Bolivia, and likely elsewhere, there's still a clear memory of the old days under the hacienda system, in which wealthy people owned acres upon acres of land but did not use it to produce food. To the landless (or people on marginal or small parcels of land) nearby, this was an outrage. Why should someone own all of that land only to do nothing with it, while others sit by next door and starve? And yet, that's exactly what REDD is proposing.

But Would REDD Work?
I hope it is now more clear why REDD would sound outrageous to an indigenous person in the Global South. But would it work? Is it worth attempting anyway? I would bet no.

First of all, I've heard of examples where someone buys up one patch of rainforest for carbon credits (and then uses those credits to pollute), and the loggers (legal or otherwise) then bypass that preserved patch of rainforest, and go on to the next patch of rainforest and continue logging.

Second, there are now landless movements in Brazil and Bolivia, in which landless people take over land that is not in use. My guess is that any area protected under REDD would need people there, on the ground, around the perimeters of the area, keeping people from moving in. And this would make it a much more expensive system, if paying to protect the forest also involved truly paying to protect the forest. Will they actually do this? I don't know, but I doubt it.

Even if it would work, by ousting the indigenous from their homelands, we are thus asking the poorest, most oppressed people in the world to pay for the right of the rich to pollute. And there's NOTHING right about that.

Originally posted to Jill Richardson on Thu Dec 09, 2010 at 06:56 PM PST.

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