Time for some dwelling truths about deforestation | Deforestation
T.To prevent future pandemics, we must stop deforestation and end the illegal wildlife trade. Do you agree? Of course you do, because what not to like? The money stays with the evil other. The question is, does these things solve the problem? And the answer probably isn’t. They will help, but there is another, possibly bigger problem closer to home: the global North’s use of natural resources, especially its dependence on livestock.
The story that epidemics are punishment for disrupting the natural order of things is not new. But it is a particularly modern, post-colonial twist to imagine that the source of this disruption lies somewhere far from most of us – those parts of the world that until recently were forested and conveniently coincide with the poorer parts. And it turns out that this narrative could interfere with our attempts to protect ourselves from novel diseases, as well as efforts to combat climate change and the erosion of biodiversity.
As French environmental historian Guillaume Blanc argues in a new book that has not yet been translated into English, L’invention duonialisme vert (The Invention of Green Colonialism), the idea that Africa was once covered by a vast primary forest is a myth of Colonialists invented it in the early 20th century. Over a period of millions of years, the continent’s tree cover grew and shrank as the climate warmed and cooled. After the people came, they cleared some trees and planted others, so Denys Finch Hatton took Karen Blixen for a spin in his Gipsy Moth – a scene immortalized in Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa – the Kenyan landscapes over which they hovered were thoroughly sculpted by humans.
Beginning in the 1930s, colonialists created national parks to protect the forests from the locals who allegedly destroyed them as their population grew. But the hypocrisy is twofold, because until then it was the colonialists who were responsible for the large-scale destruction. Between 1850 and 1920, Europeans and their descendants in Africa and Asia felled 95 million hectares of forest to make way for their farms – between four and five times more destroyed than in the previous century.
The myth of the vanished forest remains. As the American environmental historian James McCann has shown, former US Vice President Al Gore’s praiseworthy and Nobel Prize-winning struggle to make the world aware of climate change – in part through his 1992 book Earth in the Balance – borrowed false statistics The forest area of Ethiopia shrank from 40% in the 1950s to 1% in the 1990s (Ethiopia was never colonized). The figure of 40% is based on breezy estimates made by Europeans in the 1960s. A systematic survey of the forests of this country has never been carried out. In much of West Africa, British anthropologists Melissa Leach and James Fairhead have shown that forest cover has indeed increased over the course of the 20th century. In Asia, too, research has questioned the presumed connection between local population growth and deforestation.
The myth is so powerful that we simply accept the inconsistencies that result from it. The fact that, for example, the carbon footprint of a tourist from the global north who visits an African or Asian national park dwarfs that of a local farmer who walks and does not use electricity. Although there is no evidence of major man-made destruction of the flora and fauna of Africa by the time the colonialists arrived, we have internalized their distinction between “good” and “bad” hunters. When Thomas Cholmondeley, scion of a prominent white settler family in Kenya, was convicted of manslaughter by Robert Njoya in 2006, many journalists found that the British colonial past was on trial with him, but few questioned his description of himself sports hunters and conservationists while Njoya, a black man, was a “poacher”.
The conservation and overexploitation of the world’s resources was born at the same time and in the same place, argues Blanc – Europe during the industrial revolution – and has advanced in parallel since then. Both stem from the Europeans’ search for Eden after destroying it at home. And the myth of that other Eden has returned with a vengeance now that we are in the midst of a pandemic.
We know that greater intensity of human-animal contact accelerates the emergence of new human diseases of animal origin, some of which have pandemic potential, and we know that in many cases – including coronaviruses – the virus has got us from a wild bat or bat Rodent reaches (the natural reservoir) via a farm animal (the intermediate host). We blame the wildlife trade – the bad hunters – and deforestation for the increasing encounters between humans and natural reservoirs, but we say nothing about the bridge. The elephant – or rather the cow, the camel or the civet in the room – is cattle.
This is where self-deception turns into cynicism because industrial-scale farms, many of which are located in the global north, are very well aware of the risk they pose – so they monitor their flocks and herds for new pathogens. So far, they are doing better in the US and Europe than in China. But all over the world, these companies are pushing their smaller counterparts closer to the forest. Sometimes they even drive the smallholders out of business and into the wildlife trade.
Deforestation is real in some places, but where it takes place the capital city and the mindset that drives it can often be traced back to the global north – like a century ago. The problem is our predatory consumption – and that also applies to climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The global south is aware of this. For this reason, it was 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that an international organization was founded to deal with the problem of biodiversity. North and South argued over whose values should dominate the conservation agenda. It is also why there is an ongoing battle for ownership of the world’s genetic resources.
Sometimes, as Blanc notes, the south lets the hypocrisy of the north sink in, as in the case of African governments who treat national parks as money cows. But nobody can be fooled. From aid to preservation, the South knows that it is careful with the white savior complex because of the ugly truths it hides.
It will be devilishly difficult to find solutions to our real problems, but the process must begin with the realization that nature is one great interconnected strand that we are part of in the global north, and that we are the ones on whom we just pull it out of shape. We are not all white – and we can argue about where the global north begins and ends – but when a northerner writes this and quotes another northerner, appropriately named Monsieur Blanc, it is because our myth is making the world sick – and we should break it