It was a stormy morning when Ayang maneuvered his little red mini-bus up the single track mud road towards his ancestral village. My stomach was riding shotgun on my Adams Apple as we dodged boulders, bloated goats and the occasional poisonous snake. It was one of those mornings when it feels like the whole of Creation is coming unraveled in one natural disturbance after another and all you can do is sit back and wait for the apocalypse.
First, my morning surf session was shut down by an earthquake, which according to local sources, ushered in either tidal waves, horrible sea monsters or some yet to be identified wrath of Allah. Then, just as Ayang arrived for our spear fishing date, a storm broke loose turning our relatively clear river into a swirling mass of dead livestock and freshly churned mud.
Ayang told me all about his wife and children as he steered the whimpering bus. I nodded to show that I was listening, but it’s tough to listen to even a good friend when you’re surrounded by the world’s largest chunk of unroaded rainforest. Huge ceiba trees mobbed up along the side of the road, cutting off sunlight and giving you the menacing sensation that if you say the wrong thing or even breathe too hard, the entire forest will engulf you forever more. My mind occupied itself with hopes of seeing white rhinos or orang-hutans while my faithful companion steered us up the precariously slippery road.
Then something funny happened. Just as Ace of Bass (the modern Abba) launched into “The Sign,” the jungle retreated from our port side and sunlight filled the van. I looked over the edge to find the biggest, gnarliest clearcut I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Ayang, please stop the van.”
“What friend? What do you see?” he asked as the brakes screeched us into stasis.
I got out of the van and looked over the edge of the steep ass, bowl shaped drainage. For a half mile on either side of the river, there wasn’t a single tree standing. All that was left was a small understory and the peculiar mangled stumps that can only come from machetes. “Ayang, what happened here?” I asked, seeing red (either from eco-rage or too many clove cigarettes, I wasn’t sure which). “Did some big company come here and cut these down?”
Ayang looked down thoughtfully. “No friend, the villagers did it. To plant coffee, see the red berries?”
Sure enough, in between the battered stumps, were the tell-tale red berries of coffee cultivation. “But Ayang, why would they do that?” I whined, feeling my inner Earth First!er squirming around my guts. “These forest are priceless.”
He looked at me ironically. “Because they had too. There’s no money up here. They can’t afford to educate their children. They usually don’t have enough food. They don’t even have enough money to leave the village, so kepala dasa, the village chief, gave permission for them to plant coffee like some of the other villages do. They spent months cutting down the trees and burning the land, then a year tending crops. But the sad thing is in the end, they only got about $50 American for almost two years of work for 30 men. The land here is too low for good coffee production, so now they are almost worse off than they were before.”
I stood silently and watched a series of ephemeral streams snaking off down the drainage, taking with them soil and allah knows how many other components that make up these amazing rainforests. But it wasn’t surprising. In all of my travels I’ve come to realize that hunger kills morality every time. Only a week earlier me and Bug went diving along coral reefs that local people, feeling the push of starvation, had blown apart with handgrenades to bring a few hundred little fish to the surface. And only a couple weeks earlier, we’d been through areas where families sell their little girls into sex slavery because if they don’t sacrifice one child to the brothels of Bangkok or Georgetown, the rest will starve to death.
In the privileged North, particularly behind the Green Curtain of the eco-defense movement, we tend to view the world like a big Star Wars film where people only act out of moral inclinations. There’s good people (almost always us) and bad people (anyone who does things we don’t find agreeable) and each is decided by virtue of some underlying moral quality. This is all well and good for people who are removed from Hobbesian struggles for survival, but isn’t exactly fair for those who are forced to scrape a living through any means necessary.
Take for example folks I met in El Salvador too many years ago. A lot of old revolutionaries, having forgone education in lieu of careers blowing up tanks and shooting at soldiers, were being forced to spend the glorious years of victory squatting non-ceded land claims in the hills. As a general rule, they’d move up to the first available patch of land, cut down all the trees, burn whatever was left, and then till a few beds for crops. However, as soon as the rainy season came, the topsoil would wash away and after a couple of years under cultivation, the land ceased producing. So the farmers would go higher into the hills and repeat the same cycle again and again. This happened on such a scale with so many people that within a few decades El Salvador became an international environmental disaster zone.
Now as much as it contradicts the stereotype of the ranting Western eco-warrior with green foam dripping from their gnashed teeth, I’m not into poverty, massive human die-offs or any of that other racist, misanthropic shit that has come to pass for theory in recent years. I don’t see any ideology that puts the burdens of poverty, disease, starvation and death on someone else as being at all desirable or remotely effective.
But being all warm and fuzzy about the Earth and all its inhabitants (including plants, animals and their micro brethren), leaves one with the interesting dilemma of trying to come up with solutions that not only make sense according to the latest Deep Ecology theory, but also are viable economically and ecologically.
Let’s face it. Environmental issues are not just about bad men cutting down trees ‘cuz they hate the earth. What’s going down in the forests and fields, be they in Asia, Africa or Oregon, is a series of effects from causes as diverse as immigration, public policy, war, global trade, weather, natural disasters, and long extinct actions of long dead rulers, that all bounce off one another in a massive global matrix even the most skilled mathematician would have difficulty mapping. And it all comes together to give us things like people so poor they’re forced to blow up coral reefs to eat or workers who compete each other into poverty to survive. And then of course, there’s the ecosystems, which always bear the brunt of human action and reaction.
So where do we start in all this? How do we start making change in a world that is changing so rapidly it’s difficult to even keep up? Well first and foremost I think we need to look at the lands we claim to be defending for tactical advice. Any ecosystem, be it marine or terrestrial, is a hugely diverse series of relationships, so vast in fact, that scientists are just coming to understand just how little we know about the most basic of processes which give us life. Just as massive old growth trees and mini-fungal strands are linked with global weather patterns in deciding what happens to a forest, so do we need to analyze and understand how economics, politics and the global society at large come together to affect what’s happening in a forest in Oregon or a reef in Indonesia or a savannah in Africa. Because everything is inextricably linked in a global web of cause and effect, we must necessarily take into account these factors before deciding on a course of action. No longer will it suffice to cower behind our moralistic green and black flags shouting slogans while ignoring economics, ecology or the most basic forms of human compassion. No longer should we feel ourselves superheroes or “eco-warriors” because we have the privilege to sit in a tree or rant in publications, or go on encouraging acts of war that do more for our egos than they do for the earth.
We are privileged enough not only to not have to practice slash and burn agriculture or explosive sustenance fishing, but also to be alive in a time when the world is shifting in increasingly unexpected directions. Twenty years ago if you asked a guy at the timber mill if they’d buy 6” diameter logs, they’d laugh you off as heartily as the economist would if you told them that India and China were the future of conspicuous consumption or the politician would if you told them that they had to pander to immigrant voters in 23 key states if they wanted to stay in office. Yet all of these highly improbable things have come to be.
For all the nasty shit going down in Iraq and DC right now, we live in a point in time where change is not only possible, but inevitable. Working for a just and sustainable future is just a matter of us making the right decisions and putting our energies in the right directions.