A Global Problem
When our children are adults there will be no more Siberian tigers, African elephants, or cheetahs left in the wild. The major sources of diversity and evolution on this planet, the tropical rain forests, are falling at the rate of 100 acres a minute. At the rate we are going today, there will be no wilderness left on the planet within 30 years. The only remnants will be tiny islands which we set aside as parks and reserves — but when you have an island of wilderness, extinction within that island goes on. We are the last generation that will have any decision to make about wilderness because within our lifetimes it’s all going to be gone. Around the world the skin of life is being torn apart by the deadliest predator ever known in the history of life on earth.
The predator Suzuki is referring to is of course humankind, and the most potent symbol of human destructiveness is the Brazilian rain forest. Rock stars have taken up the cause of «saving the rain forest», as have countless scientists, activists, and politicians. When Vice President Albert Gore, author of the best-selling Earth in the Balance, visited the region in 1989, he was horrified by what he saw. He lamented that «the devastation is unbelievable. It’s one of the great tragedies of all history». The sheer vastness of the Amazon basin, which covers an area of some 2.7 million square miles, is hard to imagine. Nearly the size of the United States (excluding Alaska), the rain forest is a delicate web of interconnected life, containing an estimated one million plant and animal species. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that a typical four-square-mile patch contains 750 species of trees, 125 kinds of mammals, 400 types of birds, 100 varieties of reptiles, 60 kinds of amphibians, and more than 400 insect species. In 1988, 34 square miles of Brazilian rain forest went up in smoke each day, victim to hungry farmers, global beef producers, and logging companies. It was as if a country the size of Belgium — approximately 12,000 square miles — had been burned to the ground that year, Satellite photographs revealed tens of thousands of fires spread out over an area nearly equal in size to the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Brazil is typical of tropical countries where deforestation is occurring at an accelerating rate. From the jungles of Central America to Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, the world’s forests are being cut, logged, and burned at an alarming rate. Scientists fear that such destruction will result in catastrophic damage to the entire planet. For one thing, a major part of the planet’s genetic biological diversity is threatened. Apart from the value of preserving plant and animal life for their own sake, this represents the loss of countless potential food sources for an increasingly hungry planet, as well as biochemicals that may disclose the genetic secrets for curing a wide range of human illnesses. As expressed by Thomas Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institute, «the Amazon is a library
for life sciences, the world’s greatest pharmaceutical laboratory and a flywheel of climate. It’s a matter of global destiny».
The Amazon illustrates not only the interconnectedness of plant and animal life, but of economics and politics as well. The government of Brazil, with money from world lending organizations, has sought to develop the region as a solution to the country’s economic problems. Billions of dollars have been spent on the construction of roads and settlements in an effort to promote mining, ranching, family farming, and agribusiness — much as the American West was opened to pioneers a century ago. Population growth and a stagnant economy have resulted in massive urban joblessness and poverty in Brazil, as they have throughout much of the world.
Three quarters of Brazil’s 121 million people now live in urban areas, including hundreds of thousands who reside in squalid squatter settlements found in every major city. Giant metropolitan areas continue to grow, swollen by people in search of work. Brazil’s largest metropolitan area, Sao Paolo, has an estimated 18 million residents; its second city, Rio de Janeiro, has 12 million. The Brazilian government simply lacks the money to deal effectively with the country’s massive problems of unemployment and urban poverty. It is no wonder that many urban Brazilians join their impoverished counterparts from rural areas to seek their fortune through logging and farming in the jungle, or that the government has actively promoted rain-forest exploitation by constructing highways deep into its heart. As a result, the country is caught in a vicious cycle of economic poverty, public indebtedness, and ecological destruction.
Although the Brazilian example may seem dramatic, it is typical of the problems faced in a world where huge population increases have contributed to the growth of enormous cities filled with millions of impoverished people. As nations seek to develop their economies with the hope of providing jobs for their citizens, the planet’s already fragile environment will be increasingly threatened.