Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 253 | Agosto 2002


Latin America

The New Ecology: Exploiting Forests to Preserve Them

Traditional ecology dominates current thinking and has a powerful influence on the laws, policies and decisions made in the North to preserve forests in the South. But the new cological trends that are defying the myths of traditional ecology could prove decisive for Latin America.

René Mendoza Vidaurre

In less than forty years peasant families have gone from being heroes to being villains by clearing forest land to sow maize and beans, cultivate coffee and raise livestock. Cattle rearing was originally promoted by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to satisfy the demand for abundant supplies of beef for the US hamburger market, but now the mere act of burning land to prepare it for sowing is penalized. There have been many changes, but the inherent injustice is the same. Peasant and indigenous families are still losing their lands. The only thing that has really changed is the discourse, translated into laws and policies. While in the past such families were pushed off their land because they stood in the way of progress, they are now losing it to conservationists.

The explanations and solutions offered over the same forty-year period have only thrown up new questions. Why declare large areas as natural reserves in Latin America if there are no large animals in those habitats? Why state that forests are disappearing at the same rate as the population growth? And why have certain phrases—"the more forestland, the greater the biodiversity," "protected areas are the best way devised by humans to save the forests" or "the lack of human intervention guarantees virgin nature"—become a kind of divine law? Where have such beliefs come from?
Mainly indigenous families inhabit the forestland, and it is in such areas—the agricultural frontiers of Nicaragua, Chapare in Bolivia, Chiapas in Mexico, areas of Paraguay and Ecuador and the Amazonian zones of Brazil—where a clash of cultures and disputes over the forests are breeding profound social violence. The dominant vision of ecology only serves to aggravate the conflicts. We need a new approach that enables us to observe and assess what we have, what we are and what we hope to create. The new form of ecology currently emerging could prove vital for Latin America.

Before and even after Darwin:
Equilibrium and linearity

The emergence and development of ecology as a new science coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the flourishing of intellectual thought, an atmosphere that also gave birth to anthropology. One of the most influential notions before the emergence of ecology assumed that the ecosystem progressed in an ongoing evolutionary process and in a series of stages, one after the other, until achieving a mature state of relatively permanent equilibrium. A forest in a state of "equilibrium" consists of various species and trees of different ages, the oldest of which dominate the area and are replaced when they die by the younger ones. Many other notions from this initial stage talk of balance, homogeneity of species, self-correction of ecosystems and a self-regulated nature that takes care of itself. The notion of "change" is only understood from within and in a linear direction without requiring external intervention. Human beings play a minor role in such a scenario, a role that is "natural" and not interventionist. One example is their role in controlling fires. It is assumed that human actions are destructive when applied to a nature that is ordered, harmonious, constant and stable, unperturbed and self-regulated. Given all of these characteristics, nature is a predictable phenomenon.

Many ecological concepts have developed over the centuries based on these presuppositions. The brilliant naturalist Charles Darwin strongly influenced the thinkers that came after him with his discoveries of competition as an inescapable law of nature and evolution to achieve natural selection as the guiding principle that explains all of nature. Darwin saw nature as a network of complex relations in which species and individual members of those species survive, and the economy of nature as a system of places in which each species fights for its space, a fight from which nature as a whole benefits. Although Darwin undermined the old ecology principles with these and other revolutionary ideas, replacing creation with evolution as a key for understanding that forced people to look in a non-linear direction, evolution continued to be conceived even after him as advancing in a gradual linear sense, stage by stage, without taking into account the need for external intervention.

The three traditional metaphors for nature

The dominant paradigms of traditional ecology have been represented using three metaphors for nature: as a divine being, as an organism and as a machine. Until very recently people, including philosophers and theologians, conceived of nature as God’s creation, an expression of divine order. In this "order," all species have a place in the world, including predators, which keep the populations stable and constant. Such order is revealed in the Bible, although even before the Christian era Cicero, Plato and Aristotle also thought in terms of an ordered and beautiful nature aimed at satisfying human needs. This was the dominant paradigm even well into the 19th century: nature was divinely ordered and human beings had been placed there to subordinate it, benefit from it and maintain it.

Although 20th century science tried to learn "what" and how" rather than the "why" of ancient metaphysics and religion, and the studies revealed the complexity of the universe, some scientists continued to conclude that this design, so perfectly measured for the development of life, responded to some "divine" purpose. The idea of a universe perfectly structured for life—very close to the previous idea of a divinely ordered universe—thus persisted just below the surface and still has a veiled influence on our interpretations of the environment and human beings’ role within it.

Since ancient times, nature has also been seen as a place of dangers and risks, of fear-inspiring evil. This line of thought has also been represented in biblical texts and the works of ancient philosophers. The evidence of the fight for food and the fierce competition among species for territory and resources helped Darwin mold his theory, which was destined to revolutionize everything. Many people took Darwin’s ideas and applied them to the human species. Such people, who would now fall into the category of "social scientists" such as the British philosopher and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, considered that human society formed a "social organism" in which only the fittest survived. They felt there was no need to intervene in this process, as harmony would be established once the competition had resolved itself. The paradigm of the "organism" represented a change of direction from the previous version, with nature—the perfect work of a perfect creator—involving a fight to the death. Amid such convulsions, nature is expressed as a living organism that reflects the power of God.

The third paradigm is that of nature as machine. In the 17th and 18th centuries of the industrial revolution and the emergence of machines, Newton and Kepler contributed new ideas and demonstrated that the solar system, including the Earth, operated with a clock-like synchronization. For some, this transition from an organic to a mechanical point of view represented the "death of the Earth." According to Daniel Botkin, the development of the modern sciences, starting with physics, brought about a change in metaphors, but, more profoundly, it led to a change in explanation. We thus went from believing the Earth to be an organism created by the Great Artist to believing it to be a magnificent machine invented by the Great Engineer. But this shift still implied a theological vision: if the universe was a clock, it had been designed and built by a clockmaker.

In this mechanical explanation, nature is like a good and well-oiled machine that has the capacity both to maintain itself in a stationary stage in which it maintains a balance and to be redesigned by human beings. And given that a damaged machine can be repaired, nature’s future can be predicted. This leads to the idea that science and technology rather than only God or nature itself can reorganize nature, thus surmounting its inefficiencies or neutralizing its anarchic competition. The biological world is thus reduced to a mechanical system.

These three images of nature have consistently dominated humanity’s thinking and have translated into different concepts. Viewed through all three "lenses," nature appears fixed through time and predictable and, even if it is subject to evolution, this is always linear. These three powerful metaphors have a common point of view: the equilibrium of nature without human intervention.

Pitfalls and gaps in the
"deforestation discourse"

The concepts of traditional ecology have had a sizable influence on the countries of the South, including Nicaragua, where the failure of the forests can also be explained by two myths. The first, derived from the traditional ecology perspectives, is that large areas of protected forestland need to be created and maintained. The second is that forests can best subsist without anyone touching them. The logic of Nicaragua’s current forestry law is based on both myths, which explains its desire for control and its "think big" targets.

Driven by the concepts of traditional ecology, a "deforestation discourse" has been spreading throughout the world based on data presented by international organizations such as the FAO, the World Resource Institute and the World Conservation Monitoring Center. Maps were drawn up based on statistics from the Geographical Information Systems, which explain how the forests have been reduced over time and how deforestation has extended over the planet like a dangerous oil slick. These reports always point to human intervention such as population growth, migrations and agricultural and cattle-rearing activities as the culprit behind this "tragedy." But the maps only show big forestland areas or areas with no forest, as if there were nothing else. They do not take into account small woodland areas, groups of trees on farms, agro-forestry or combined woodland and pastureland. All of these areas are simply considered deforested.

The international laws and agreements have been drawn up in the same spirit, generated by a static vision of nature. The research and data produced under these umbrellas also replicate that spirit. The international agreements tend only to recognize large and compact areas of trees as "forests" and pressure the South’s governments to protect such areas from human intervention. In Nicaragua, forestry policies penalize activities such as cutting down trees, burning areas to be sown and obtaining firewood, even stopping peasant families from exploiting the trees on their own farms.

Public policies are aimed at achieving an ecological "natural climax." Two types of policies are widely proposed. Inspired by the natural reserve model of the United States, the governments of the South establish "protected areas" in their remaining forests, rivers and mangrove swamps. These "protected areas" are then divided into a central zone and a buffer zone, often following the Community Based Resource Management approach that considers it the mission of human beings to restore the degradation of natural resources by making "contracts with nature." Such policies are usually based on criteria such as the greater and more isolated the area and more homogenous the environment, the better for biodiversity; and the less human intervention the greater the stability. It is thus felt that the greater the isolation and poverty of the populations living within the forest, the better for conserving the forest. There is currently abundant evidence to refute these criteria, which have such a great weight in laws, agreements and policies and deep down maintain a static perspective of nature.

Meanwhile, natural resource degradation is advancing throughout the world, probably accelerated by the traditional vision. The traditional concepts and suppositions are based on simple but powerful beliefs produced using science itself and used to construct the "deforestation discourse."
We should now pause along the way and ask ourselves the following question: if science created a fetish, how can we prioritize observations of reality to produce a new knowledge based on scientific methods?

Which nature is the most natural:
Today’s or the centuries-old one?

Zimmerer, Botkin, Scoones and McIntosh proposed the "new ecology" approach, the central element of which is a nature molded by human beings and characterized by uncertainty, complexity and variability. It is constantly disturbed and continuously changing through time and space.

This approach leads to another kind of management: exploiting nature to preserve it. Instead of promoting large areas and suppressing fires, patches of woodland are interconnected and forest fires are controlled. The minimum rather than maximum population is aimed for in order to prevent the extinction of species. In short, direct and responsible human intervention is promoted, rather than imposing a passive hands-off or laissez-faire policy.

When an area is legally declared a reserve it is assumed that the "nature" it contains is a natural product that it is in its climax stage or is reaching that stage. But this is actually not the case. The new ecology proposes that nature is not the same now as it was even fifty or a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand years ago.

Which nature to protect and defend?

Continuous changes take place in nature over both long and short time periods. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the state of Minnesota in the United States represents a classic and highly studied case of long-term change. Around nine thousand years ago this area was dominated by forests of fir trees, which a little later were replaced by jack pines and red pines. A thousand years after that, paper birch dominated and the alder immigrated into the forest. Yet another thousand years on, white pine arrived in some part of the forest and started to dominate. The kind of nature differed in each period. If this has been the case in this and so many other areas, then which nature is the most "natural"? Which do we really want to protect? Which deserves to be preserved? Which should we give the chance to survive?
The African savanna, where humanity was born, has known many different kinds of "nature" with various dominant species and ecosystems. The landscape has been constantly changing. Which nature should we now defend, that of 1980, that of 1920 or that of the 19th century? All of these landscapes were different, so whose interests should we defend? Donors and visitors may define their goal as a savanna of pastureland sprinkled with certain trees common twenty years ago. That would be fine, but it would be a nature designed according to the expectations of those particular visitors and donors.

Advised by Sweden and inspired by the Chilean model, the Nicaraguan government sought to plant pine forests in the country’s Caribbean Coast in the mid-eighties, when such pines only needed a little help from a fire to burst the hard shells of their seeds and thus start them growing. The current fashion, however, is to penalize fire, even if this implies that there will be no pine forests in some areas, which in turn means that certain birds will be condemned to extinction as they cannot nest and that another kind of vegetation will be privileged.

When a state declares a wild area as a reserve to be protected, if all of the species happen to be concentrated in that area then they run the risk of disappearing altogether in the event of disasters such as a hurricane. All of this demonstrates the incredible complexity of the matter. What should be protected? Which trees and animals represent nature? According to the traditional ecology, we would have to respond that nature must be left to its own devices. But this is not a valid answer either, as leaving it to its own devices is also a way of deciding which species will survive and which will dominate the others. Suppressing fire means that certain species of trees will not grow any more and that others will overpopulate the territory. The same is true of timber activities, with certain species disappearing and pastureland growing where there are no trees.

From this point of view, the key question is deciding which nature and which natural resources are going to be protected, why and for whom. To do this we need to understand what is more appropriate for a given country, municipality or certain groups of people. And then new questions arise. While a species of tree with great value could be preferred according to economic criteria, its multiple effects on the survival of other birds and animals should also be taken into account. The decision to protect specific natural resources also leads us to decide on the quantity. This means that these resources needed to be exploited to prevent the risk of extinction, a logic in direct opposition to the perspective born of static ecology.

Human beings have molded nature

Once the purpose of preserving a certain form of nature has been defined, the next problem is how to do it. In order to respond, we first need to understand the fundamental theoretical basis of the new ecology. The first element is established when we understand that nature has been and is molded by all living beings, including human beings. Since primordial times when blue-green alga started to fill with oxygen an atmosphere previously lacking this element now vital for our existence, living beings have been continually transforming nature.

There are innumerable examples. Forest fires have been one of the most frequent and important means of human intervention in nature. Indigenous populations of all cultures have used fire since time immemorial to clear woodland and facilitate hunting and the setting up of new villages, as well as to create spaces for their religious practices. Fire affects certain species and favors others in different areas. The impact of fire varies according to environmental conditions such as wind, the kind of forest and the kind, age and heterogeneity of species. The aims of the human beings who unleash the fire also have an influence here.

The introduction of pathogenic agents—viruses, bacteria, fungi—and diseases, along with wars and colonization systems, have also had consequences not only for humans but also for animals and plants. The introduction of the rinderpest, an exotic pathogen, in Africa at the end of the 19th century triggered a devastating loss of cattle, which affected pastureland and benefited the emergence of trees on the grasslands. The reduction of the population in the Americas by the introduction of European diseases with the conquest and colonization of the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries led, among other things, to the reduction of forest fires, which produced important changes in large areas of the continent.

The introduction of different European species of trees and cattle into Latin America and Africa had important effects on the redefinition of a multitude of landscapes. The changes in vegetation produced changes in species, as vegetation provides a habitat for many species. Some became extinct, others migrated and yet others struggled for domination over the new habitat, in a constant population movement of species. Everything changed, although at the same time it is obvious that the nature that the Europeans found in Africa was already a "human product."
Timber extraction has been taking place in what is now the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in northern Nicaragua for over a century. The mining company in the municipality of Bonanza systematically needed wood from 1880 onwards and constructed roads exclusively designed for transporting timber in zones that are currently protected. Hundreds of indigenous people and mestizos extracted the gum used as the basis of chewing gum from millions of trees during the forties and fifties in areas now belonging to the Bosawás Nucleus Zone. In other words, the reserve was not actually in a "pure" state when it was declared, having already been transformed by continuous human intervention for a very long time.

Agricultural, ranching and timber activities have various different impacts. Crops such as soy, sesame, cotton and sugar cane normally require open areas to achieve high productivity levels, while coffee, cacao and fruit and citrus trees can be grown productively combined with different crops and even mixed with timber-yielding trees. Not all forms of livestock rearing are the same. Goats feed off any plant they come across, while cows only eat grass and certain other specific kinds of plants. The different effects of one crop or another or one form of livestock or another in transforming nature are clearly diverse, not to mention the different effects caused by combinations of plants and animals, the technologies employed and the forms of social organization that sustain those crops and technologies.

The interaction between nature and humans has been so continuous and profound that it is logical to conclude that nature is both a natural and a social product. There are obviously different kinds of human intervention, which include non-intentional and intentional intervention (suppressing given policies, exploiting natural resources without considering their conservation, etc.). It is thus not so much a question of whether or not to intervene, but rather of how to do so most appropriately.

Nature is continually subject
to disturbances and chaos

Another basis of modern ecology is established on our understanding that nature is not a single equilibrium, but rather the combination of various different ones, and that constancy and stability are not characteristics of nature, while disturbance and chaos are, generating great variations in time and space. Paradoxically, nature can find its "balance" through imbalance.

Disturbance is defined as "any event relatively discrete in time that bursts into the ecosystem, the community, the population structure, the resources of change, the availability of the substratum or the physical environment." The action of the disturbance implies an interruption and stops us from conceiving progress as linear. Many factors create disturbances: fire, whether caused by humans or lightning; events such as hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and floods; diseases caused by blights, plagues or insects that affect trees, animals and human beings; and direct human intervention through productive or timber extraction activities.

The scope of such disturbances is calculated in both time and space. When a certain disturbance covers extensive areas, its effects can last a decade or even a whole century. The outbreak of smallpox in the Americas notably and permanently reduced the autochthonous populations. The effects of the Nicaraguan forest fires of 1998 resulting from the El Niño phenomenon that affected large areas of forestland are still being felt today. A few months later, Hurricane Mitch altered several points of the Central American geography, collapsing hillsides, washing away topsoil and diverting river channels. The degree of heterogeneity of the landscapes can increase or reduce the effects of the disturbances, the calculation of which must consider the characteristics of the species—their history, age and variety. Climatic variability favors or prejudices specific ecosystems through the emergence or disappearance of certain species.

Disturbances represent the rule rather than the exception in nature. Fires, pests, hurricanes, storms and animal overpopulation in one place or another all date back to the most ancient times. Disturbances are also a necessity, in line with certain characteristics of some ecosystems. For example, some species need open woodland, cleared by fires, in order to develop. A well-selected break in the trees can reduce the effects of a storm, and while annual forest fires can create problems, they can also prove necessary for breathing life into certain species if they take place every decade. When disturbances are understood as the rule rather than the exception, chaos can be considered the normal state of nature; a guarantee of its preservation.

The existence of and need for disturbances and chaos means that nature constantly varies in time and space. The variations in time are obvious and there are many examples. The variability in space is expressed through different factors. Just as all vegetable species compete for sunlight, water and the soil’s minerals, they also compete for space. Certain species of trees compete more successfully than others, leading to a constant variation in the landscapes. Meanwhile, all territories harbor different species of trees that have emigrated there. New seeds arrive from other regions with floods. Certain lighter seeds travel on the wind, while birds bring heavier varieties. Humans introduce other seeds. This seed flow is one of the ways in which landscapes continue to vary, to change. Timber activities also contribute to the variability of the landscape and some species disappear because such activities do not leave seedlings. Erosion and the extinction of species can also generate changes, an example of the latter being that certain species that grow under larger trees die out when these are cut down. Producers allow certain species of trees instead of others, chop down some areas and not others and mix certain species in their agricultural and cattle rearing activities. All of this makes nature highly variable, as it is not only subject to changes but also requires them.

Because nature is complex,
it is unpredictable and uncontrollable

If disturbances and chaos are the rule, making nature highly variable, the nature that emerges from such a process is thus unpredictable and perhaps uncontrollable. Complexity, uncertainty and a permanent challenge based on risk and opportunity appear to be inherent in the evolution of nature.

To what extent does the environment influence tree and animal species and how do they in turn influence the environment? In many ways. Open woodland eases life for certain birds but not others. Dense woodland protects certain mammals. Tree species more resistant to fires dominate woodland after forest fires, which increases the number of animals and birds that use them as their habitat. When there are no fires, other birds, trees and animals prevail. If all of the cedar saplings are left without mature trees alongside them, their form and quality will be negatively affected due to the lack of competition. Cedars also die when there are only saplings in the plantation because they attract the spread of blights. Meanwhile, some species of trees cannot resist floods and others benefit from the nutrients and minerals brought along by the floodwater. We can better appreciate the complexity here if we bear in mind the interdependence of a given group of species competing with another group of interdependent species.

Competition between species generates winners and losers in the forest, and there are all kinds of victories and defeats. Some species die off while others dominate; some grow quickly and migrate rapidly, while others grow slowly or barely survive; others spread their seeds and still others "decide" to grow protected by their predecessors. All of the trees try to adapt their strategies to the new conditions and even learn to "cooperate" with other species or individuals of the same species, obtaining allies and friends that enable them to adapt to the environmental changes and thus create new living niches. This set of relations established in forest areas according to the size, age and vigor of the species is highly complex. Trees affect and even transform environmental factors such as light intensity, temperature and the nutrients in the soil and the dominant vegetable population conditions the predominance of certain animal species. Trees also provide a real "public service" through their ability to fix carbon.

To what extent does the diversity of interests among human beings affect nature? Here the complexity of the issue is overwhelming. Each human population has very different interests and the prevalence of certain ones has a greater effect on nature. Treeless areas predominate on the big farms and the large landed estates that emphasize monoculture in the form of extensive pastureland, or sesame, sugar cane, soy or cotton production. On the other hand, small farms favor diversified areas with patches of woodland. There are other even greater clashes of interest, such as occur, for example, when certain sectors from the North insist on preserving the South’s forests, while others from the North demand the South’s precious woods for consumer objects.

Uncertainty: A natural companion

If nature is so variable and so complex, is it possible to predict? Prediction was a given in traditional ecology, which assumed that nature was stable, constant and evolving toward a "climax stage." There thus existed a sense of certainty that made nature not only predictable but also controllable. According to Botkin, the classical and mechanical age of nature was infallible, predictable and comfortable, although not exciting. Each thing had its place and each future event was precisely calculable. Challenging these certainties led to the emergence of uncertainty and nature revealed itself to be hard to predict, reminding us of the old adage that nothing is certain except death and taxes.

Where is nature heading? There is no room in the new ecology for the dualism that only defines between forested and deforested areas. In the new ecology, nature is constantly transforming itself, expressing itself in different landscapes and forests. What kind of woodland will the Hutchinson Memorial Forest have in a hundred years time? What kind of savanna will prevail in Africa in two decades? What forestry areas will we have in Nicaragua in the middle of this new century? Will the numbers of animals and birds in the current natural reserve areas remain fixed? The most approximate answer would appear to be the following: the landscapes will be different from the ones we currently see and the animal populations will be different than the ones that currently exist. It should also be pointed out that the level of unpredictability is being significantly reduced today by advances and improvements in scientific methodologies. Predictions of climate change, for example, are increasingly approximated, allowing precautionary measures to be taken. The challenge of constant change, however, will always be there and we will always be accompanied by uncertainty.

Risks can be turned
into opportunities

Among the risks that nature presents us with are the extremes of death and extinction. The opportunities emerge with the ascendancy of new species. In the new ecology, the biosphere is neither a machine nor a space devoid of life. It is a life system that both supports and contains organic qualities. Risks and opportunities are constantly occurring, caused by a great variety of factors. In the world we live in, however, where money is such a powerful master and commercial interests dominate, the opportunities may be great but so are the risks. This should lead us to an appropriate, correct, prudent and well-administered institutionality and social organization.

The relation between socioeconomic interests and natural interests could imply either an opportunity or a risk. Risks could turn into opportunities and opportunities into risks. In the scenario of climatic change that has been predicted and is currently underway, certain species of trees will replace others and there will be pressure to modify commercial and industrial activities. Softwoods and the economic activities based on them will be at greater risk, while there will be increased opportunities for hardwood species and their related activities.

A risky situation could remain if the static perspective of traditional ecology influences the prevailing institutional framework. A non-intervention policy could cause the death of certain trees without making any use of them, which will affect other trees. In the same way, economic activities organized with a purely financial logic, such as dominates in the transnational timber corporations, could cause ecological devastation. But the risks could be turned into opportunities, for both nature and human beings. Transforming our conception of ecology increases the possibilities for this vital exchange, as of course does the existence of the basic conditions for establishing a suitable and effective institutional framework.

Nicaraguan peasants
can’t obey the law

Nicaragua’s forestry law contains serious mistakes. Controlling laws were applied to valuable timber-yielding trees found on farmland, which discourages producers from planting and letting trees grow on their farms. Juan Pablo de Fátima, from Masatepe, is desperate: "If I followed the law, each time a cedar sprouted on my farm, I’d yank it out. Otherwise I’d be letting the state confiscate my land bit by bit." Juan Pablo knows that the cedar trees on his farm "belong to the state" and that he must waste days begging the forestry authorities to let him exploit one of them. The only alternative is to follow the risky example of other neighbors by cutting his tree down in the middle of the night and selling it off on the cheap.

Those who formulate the laws find it hard to recognize that most of Nicaragua is made up of farms with trees, even though this is evident as soon as you leave Managua. Thus different farms include agro-forestry systems, such as coffee bushes grown in the shade of guanacaste, cedar and laurel trees; forestry-pasture systems, in which pastureland is dotted with genizaro and jicaro trees; natural regeneration mixed with planted trees in peasants’ backyards; or live fencing. The authorities also fail to notice that the firewood used in the cities is mainly produced on the farms, or that furniture from Masaya is produced with laurel, guanacaste and cedar trees that grow among the coffee bushes on coffee farms.

The Nicaraguan forestry law:
Myths that need to be revised

It would appear that the obvious is difficult to see. It is cheaper to stimulate forestry repopulation through natural regeneration than through reforestation projects. Francisco from the community of Tadazna in Siuna, knows this as well as anyone: "I tell my farmhand that I’ll pay him 50 centavos [a few US cents] for every tree he spares with his machete. So at the end of the day the boy earns double: for the work he was hired for and for the saplings. This agreement leaves my plot of land blooming! I don’t know why the state doesn’t promote this kind of thing, rather than throwing its money into little bags [for sprouting seedlings]." Francisco’s method is cheaper. The peasants already know about caring for trees, a knowledge that could be exploited and supported to produce good-quality wood that would have additional value on the market.

Official policy does not recognize the importance of trees as a form of savings and investment. A good example of this can be found on the coffee farms currently in crisis due to plummeting coffee prices. Many coffee growers could cope with the crisis better by selling their cedars at a good price. In fact, they already are selling them, but at low prices, in secret and feeling as though they are committing a crime. Why? If your trees save you during a crisis, isn’t it reasonable to assume that you will let more cedars grow on your farm to help should another crisis hit? But those governing—who live and breathe urban culture—respond to another kind of logic that dictates that the law has to be made more repressive to stop people cutting down all the trees on the coffee farms!
These are just some expressions of the inherent weaknesses in our forestry law, with the serious consequences that they imply for the country. The only alternative is to revise our own myths to see what our eyes are still blind to and decide creatively on new options. In addition to trees on farms, interconnected woodland patches managed by the local populations under rules that surmount the ecology-economy dualism could prove the best answer for conserving biodiversity and reducing poverty. In Nicaragua, such patches are actually more promising than the large state-administered areas of forestland.

Time for a new ecological paradigm

Since the beginning of the era of computerized technology and globalization in the 1970s, a new perspective has been emerging that sees nature as being in continual interaction with human society. It is based on new concepts such as variability, uncertainty, complexity, constant transformation and an abundance of risks and opportunities.

We can use this new perspective to re-read the natural and social sciences, social movements and existing policies. Up to now different disciplines—sociology, political ecology, cultural ecology, human ecology, anthropological ecology, environmental economics—have continued to be profoundly influenced by the static and archaic perspective of equilibrium. Different schools of thought, such as liberation theology, eco-feminism, the "new left" and even radical ecological movements share the same spirit of traditional ecology and very progressive people can and do have very conservative ecological ideas. Among the worst consequences of the great and continuing influence of static ecology are the failure of many policies and the loss of opportunities regarding both conservation and human welfare.

This idea of the non-equilibrium of nature could help bridge the gap among the sciences and provide greater realism to social movements, as many disciplines are increasingly concerned about new perspectives that assume variability, complexity, uncertainty, non-linearity and surprise. All of these are notions with which the new ecology is also working. The interaction between nature and society could be better understood from the perspective of nature as the result of social conflict and society influenced by all the biophysical components of nature. Employing this new approach requires a revision of our notion of "forests," "conservation" and "sustainability." Understanding the forest as a large and compact area of trees is inappropriate in certain countries. In addition, many current studies show that there is greater biodiversity in smaller areas, such as those interconnected woodland patches. These new findings indicate a need to revise the whole basis of traditional ecology.

Nature is not natural

We have to ask ourselves many questions. Who really benefits from protected areas? Why the tendency to keep indigenous families impoverished and isolated in the protected areas, prohibiting them from exploiting the timber, based on the belief that all indigenous people are born conservationists and all timber merchants are cruel exploiters?
The state of the forests, the reality of the indigenous populations and the violence in extensive areas of the Latin American agricultural frontier can be better understood using the new approach to ecology. The Mayangna indigenous people in the municipality of Bonanza in Nicaragua have historically used the forests they live in for shelter, food and clothing, dressing in material fashioned from the bark of the tuno, or sapodilla tree. In the forties and the fifties they also exploited millions of these trees, working for gum extracting companies. They still live by hunting wild pigs and other forest animals. The Mayangnas have exploited natural resources while at the same time preserving them. So why are the fashionable ideas being promoted by international cooperation agencies now proposing that the Mayangnas conserve the natural resources "without touching them"?
Conserving and exploiting are two imported concepts that have contributed to greater tensions and conflicts with the mestizos in the zone, while the Mayangnas’ traditional ancestral practice, like that of many peasant families, has been based on exploiting to conserve. And that is what they want to continue doing. If Nicaragua’s forestry policies took this ancestral practice into account, they would perhaps help avoid the dramatic prediction of prestigious scientist Eduardo Baumeister: "As soon as 20 years from now, we in Nicaragua will witness the end of the agricultural frontier and see the forests turned into farms."
Nature is not natural. The essence of this truth, far from justifying the destruction of the forests, provides us with an essential element for understanding nature, for understanding how it has worked for billions of years. Human beings fit into this perspective as part of nature, capable of directly intervening in it with greater rationality born from the prodigious neuronal interconnections of our brains, one of nature’s greatest works of art.

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América Latina
The New Ecology: Exploiting Forests to Preserve Them

Trading Away the Future

We Were Sold (and Bought) A Health System That Doesn’t Work
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