Paradise reconsidered

Rob Levitt

September 11, 1992|By Rob Leavitt

RAIN forests are hot.

Hardly a day goes by at my office without the mail bringing new resources for rain forest education and the telephone ringing with requests from teachers, students, museums and zoos.

But what is being taught?

Most often, tropical rain forests are pictured as Paradise Lost -- natural wonders being destroyed by humankind.

Teachers and their students receive extensive information about the diversity and interdependence of plant and animal species, the threat that deforestation poses to the global environment and actual and potential rain forest contributions to modern Western diets and health care.

If only humans would stay out of the forests, this line of reasoning goes, their future would be assured.

Yet not all humans are destructive. Indigenous people like the Kayapo in Brazil and the Penan in Malaysia have lived in the forests for centuries. Not only have they done so without destroying their environment, but in most cases they have modified and improved them for human purposes, through shifting agriculture, transplanting desirable plants and trees and enhancing hunting and fishing grounds.

Ignoring this millennia-old reality implies that human communities are incapable of conserving fragile natural resources, except perhaps by fencing off large tracts of "wilderness." This scenario makes prospects for rain forest conservation rather dim for countries with large and rapidly growing populations of real people.

Consider also the many suggestions for alternatives to destructive exploitation. For example, many schools have started raising money to buy forest land for protected reserves. This is a noble gesture, but a student could get the impression that only tree snakes inhabit the fenced-in rain forest reserves he or she is buying.

Some educational materials also suggest that Third World governments are mainly to blame. These governments are threatening the future of the planet by greedily cutting critical forests that happen to be located within their borders. The implication is that we -- that is, Western governments, scientists and environmental activists -- could better protect everyone's future by determining ourselves if and how the world's rain forests can be harvested.

Decisions about rain forest land are rarely presented as decisions for the indigenous people themselves to make, even though they stand to lose the most from the destruction. But they are as much a part of the forests as are the trees and animals, and they already know how to live there and use forest resources wisely.

We ignore at our peril the indigenous cultures and their efforts to protect their own lands.

Rob Leavitt is education director of Cultural Survival, a (x Cambridge, Mass.-based advocate for the human rights of indigenous people.

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