Requiem for Nature

Requiem for Nature

by John Terborgh



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559635875
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/01/1999
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Terborgh is James B. Duke Professor of Environmental Sciences and Codirector of the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University. He has devoted much of the past 35 years to issues concerning the ecology and conservation of neotropical systems. 

Read an Excerpt

Requiem for Nature

By John Terborgh


Copyright © 1999 John Terborgh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-882-0



WHEN I FIRST laid eyes on Perú's Apurímac valley, I declared it to be the most beautiful place I had ever seen. The sinuous Apurímac River sparkled in the bright sunshine, radiating an intense blue color as it coursed swiftly over beds of sand and gravel between towering walls of virgin forest. At close range, the passing river emitted an audible hiss, the sound of roiling gravel being swept along the bottom by a powerful current.

Soaring ranges of the Andes frame both sides of the fertile valley through which the Apurímac flows. Tier upon tier of forest-clad ridges mount into the cloud-shrouded distance, creating extravagant vistas of wild inaccessibility that I found irresistibly alluring. For me, a tropical biologist at the beginning of my career, to be in the heart of such a wholly pristine scene was both sublime and exhilarating.

More than thirty years have passed since I began a career of studying tropical forests in the Apurímac valley. The valley then had few inhabitants, but those few had already irrevocably altered the status quo. These self-proclaimed pioneers had claimed the best sites in the valley. The indigenous Campa Indians, once sovereign over the whole region, had been displaced from the fertile valley floor and had retreated into the foothills.

To the Campas, the pioneers were alien invaders and usurpers. To the pioneers, Indians didn't count. By the criteria of the pioneers, the forest was unclaimed wilderness because it had not been cleared. Ownership could be claimed only of cleared land on which someone had obviously toiled. Everything else was up for grabs.

To be sure, the first pioneers were intrepid souls, for reaching the valley in those days entailed a grueling seven-day trek over the Andes with a train of pack animals. These first settlers to breach the wilderness were driven not by a love of solitude and nature but by the lure of fertile land and what it promised for the future. These were ambitious people, determined to create wealth out of virgin nature.

The completion of a road into the valley brought the wilderness idyll to an abrupt and jolting end. Financed by the Alliance for Progress (Alianza para el Progreso), President John F. Kennedy's much ballyhooed international economic development program, the road opened the floodgates to a second wave of invaders. These were not the scions of wealthy landowning families, as the first pioneers had been, but landless and illiterate peasants from the Andean highlands. In the vanguard of a demographic explosion that continues to drive people into rain forests the world over, these colonos (settlers) veritably poured into the valley. Every arriving truck carried several families perched atop the load. With little more than their clothing, an ax, and a machete, they set off into the forest in search of a dream, land they could call their own. Many of them had never seen a tropical forest before.

With the weekly arrival of scores of families encouraged by a government-sponsored land distribution program, the frontier melted away in what was, in retrospect, no more than the blink of an eye. An impromptu shantytown sprang up where the road ended on the riverbank. The once proud but now demoralized Campas retreated into the distance, always one jump ahead of the colonos.

By 1972, the year I last saw the Apurímac valley, the population of colonos had swollen to more than a hundred thousand and was still growing steadily. By then, hardly a tree remained of the magnificent forest that had so recently filled the valley bottom. Plantations of coffee, cacao, and coca and slash-and-burn patches had replaced the forest and were appearing on the lower slopes of the mountains, a sign that the fertile valley floor had all been claimed.

When I decided to leave the valley, I knew I would not return. I left because the wild nature that had drawn me there had been extinguished in just seven years. What has happened to the Apurímac valley in the years since my last visit concentrates in one small region all the passions and violence that frontier zones inspire. The soils and climate of the valley are ideally suited to the cultivation of coca. Coca was widely grown there during my time, but it was treated as any other agricultural commodity and sold in the legitimate market. To be sure, there were traders who smuggled bales of coca leaf out of the valley on the backs of mules, but only to avoid the government tax. Coca leaves have been chewed in the Andes for centuries; they are appreciated by workers for their ability to assuage hunger and to numb the pain of hard labor. Peru has always condoned a legitimate market for coca leaf, but not for refined cocaine. Cocaine is a vice of the modern world.

By the mid-1970s, the dark clouds of the drug boom had begun to gather, and one by one the friends I had made in the Apurímac were forced to flee for their lives. The entire valley was gripped in terror as innocent citizens became inextricably caught up in the struggle between government forces and increasingly powerful bands of narcotraficantes. It was impossible to remain neutral in this struggle. Government forces routinely threatened people at gunpoint, demanding that they serve as informers. Anyone called in for questioning by government investigators was suspected of having divulged information and risked reprisals from the other side. Anyone involved in producing, processing, or transporting pichicata (cocaine) viewed anyone who was not as a threat. If you weren't with them, you had to be against them. There was no in-between. Bodies lying beside the road or floating down the river served as frequent reminders that like it or not, everyone was involved.

With the rise of the Sendero Luminoso revolutionary movement in the early 1980s, the alignment of forces in the valley shifted, but the struggle continued. The revolutionaries found natural bedfellows in the narcotraficantes. The Senderistas cared about ideology but not about drugs, whereas the narcos cared about drugs but not about ideology. Complementarity of interests led to an unholy alliance in which the guerrillas tied down the police and military, confining them to heavily fortified positions at night and leaving the narcos free to pursue their business unhindered. In return, the narcos shared their profits with the Senderistas, who used the funds to finance their movement. Throughout the entire period from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, when the government of Alberto Fujimori finally restored security to Peru, the Apurímac valley, a peaceful wilderness only a short time before, was too dangerous a place for the likes of me—or, for that matter, any outsider.

Being witness to the explosive destruction of rain forest carried out in the name of development, the blatant disregard of indigenous rights, the corrupting influence of drug traffic, and the abject fear that gripped Peru during the heyday of the Sendero Luminoso has profoundly influenced my thinking about conservation. These experiences, and many others I shall relate, have convinced me of the extreme challenges ahead in the effort to conserve some bits of tropical nature for posterity. Poverty, corruption, abuse of power, political instability, and a frenzied scramble for quick riches are common denominators of the social condition of developing countries around the world. It is in this vastly different social context, contrasting in nearly every respect with the comfortable conditions we enjoy in the United States, that tropical nature must be conserved if it is to be conserved at all.

Tropical forests have been a consuming passion for me throughout my career as an academic scientist. I have spent nearly a third of my adult life in the forest, living in makeshift bush camps or at a rustic research station in Perú's Manu National Park, which I discovered in 1973 after fleeing the Apurímac valley. Located in a distant corner of the upper Amazon basin, the Manu is relatively inaccessible and so represents tropical nature largely as it existed before humans intruded into the scene.

Beyond my experiences in the Manu, I have had occasion to visit tropical forests all over the world and to view the problems of tropical conservation at first hand. These experiences have given me a global perspective on biological preservation that few people are privileged to have. What I have seen convinces me that the conventional wisdom now being applied to the conservation of tropical nature is misguided and doomed to failure.

As a tropical biologist, I have been invited to serve on the boards of directors of a number of international conservation organizations. Such organizations typically appoint a token scientist or two to provide a point of view that would otherwise be lacking. Serving on these boards has been an eye-opening experience for an ivory-tower academic who is most at home in the rain forest and the classroom. As a naive outsider ushered into the company of some of the titans of society—politicians, bankers, chief executive officers, heads of foundations, the fabulously wealthy—at first I felt out of my depth. But after sitting through a few meetings, I realized that some of the organizations were rudderless ships, lacking both vision and knowledge. Many of my fellow board members had barely stepped into the developing world, and then only to visit game parks or to dine with presidents and government ministers. Few, if any, of them had seen how a developing country looks from the bottom. Moreover, none of them, including me, was a conservation professional. Most of them specialized in financial management and the bottom line.

Board meetings were largely devoted to lengthy discussions of the financial state of the organization: what was being done to raise money; whether budget goals could be achieved; what the president's compensation should be; which public relations firm should be hired for the next campaign; whether to rent more office space or construct a new building; and endless matters of this sort. Where were the deep discussions of conservation policy and strategy? They simply were not on the agenda.

It is said that some corporate executives can't see beyond the next quarterly report, an attitude that prevails to an unfortunate degree on the boards of conservation organizations. Boards want to see results. Goals therefore cannot be too distant, and above all, they should be concrete or, better yet, quantifiable. Approaches and directions are often fad or crisis driven, reflecting the public's short attention span and the organizations' unending need to attract new members.

The world suffers no shortage of conservation crises. Elephants, rhinoceroses, and tigers are under relentless assault for their highly valued body parts. Around the world, it is easy to raise the alarm for a disappearing parrot here, a rare crane there, a vanishing tortoise somewhere else. Conservation emergencies such as these are the stuff of fund-raising campaigns, but they don't add up to a coherent plan for saving nature.

To be fair, the officers of conservation organizations are obliged to walk a tightrope between the shifting whims of a fickle public on one side and the narrow agendas of major donors, such as the billion-dollar foundations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank, on the other. The freedom from financial concerns needed to enable them to sit down, chart a course, and then stick to it simply does not exist. Conservation organizations thus become prisoners of the bottom line, much as corporations are.

Faced with constantly shifting fads in conservation policy, a desire to impress directors with short-term results, an unending need to respond to crises, and an almost obsessive preoccupation with the demands of fund-raising, officers of conservation organizations are distracted from thinking deeply about ways in which conservation can be achieved over the long term. Yet no other institutions capable of crafting a global conservation strategy exist.

Seeing all this from an insider's point of view has filled me with apprehension. What can be done to ensure that nature survives the twenty-first century? That is the central question of this book, to which each chapter provides a partial answer. But from this one question come others. Is conservation being successfully implemented in the areas where most of the earth's biological wealth resides? If not, what will be required to ensure success, when success is defined as preserving the earth's wealth of wild species for the next 100 years, just to start? Can science provide adequate guidance? What types of institutions should champion the cause? How many obstacles lie in the way of our creating institutions that can sustain nature through the twenty-first century? Can the obstacles be diminished or removed? Having spent much of my adult life in tropical South America, I am perhaps more keenly aware than most people of what the challenges are. But no one, including me, has a magic wand that will make the challenges disappear. I can only offer some suggestions and hope that conservation organizations and governments will respond by designing programs robust enough to endure a century of unprecedented social and technological change.



MY EYES GAZE across a pea green lake ruffled by the midday breeze under a cloud-dappled tropical sky. Shattering the quiet are the shrieks and whistles of a family of giant otters fishing somewhere up the lake. Two baby otters bleat insistently as they beg for a fish just caught by one of the adults. Across the narrow ribbon of water rises a continuous wall of virgin forest. Extending into the water, like little feet at the bases of the trees, are spring green mats of grass from which emerge the trills and cackles of foraging rails and gallinules. A cormorant suns its wings on an emergent branch, having just swallowed a carachama, a type of armored catfish that abounds in Amazonian lakes. To my left, a towering forest looms over my lakeside office, its edge a tapestry of vines and branches that offer thoroughfare to throngs of monkeys. Long accustomed to the benign presence of humans in their midst, they parade before my view, hardly more than an arm's reach away on the other side of the screening.

To reach this inner sanctum of nature, one must travel for three days in a motorized dugout canoe. The nearest permanent settlement is 200 kilometers away. On one side, the forest extends unbroken for 60 kilometers to the Andes; on the other, to the Brazilian border and beyond. Between these bounds lies some of the most pristine wilderness left on earth. The isolation and intimate contact with nature I enjoy here have become extreme rarities in today's overcrowded world.

For twenty-five years, I have come here to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru's Manu National Park to study tropical nature. Within the park stand groves of giant mahogany trees that astonish visiting Peruvians, to whom mahoganies are a storied relict of the past, as bison and chestnuts are to North Americans. Visiting scientists experience the rare privilege of conducting research on an intact flora and fauna. No species is known to have gone extinct here in modern times, and the forest is free of exotic (non-native) plants and animals, with only one exception: the Africanized honeybee. Honeybees are an Old World import into the Americas, and until 1978 they had not spread across this part of the Amazon. Now their presence reminds us that no place is too remote to escape the consequences of human activity.

Here, nature seems secure in a 1.5 million–hectare national park, protected from external threats by a corps of thirty guards. If any tropical preserve has a chance of remaining intact and undisturbed, surely it is the Manu. But are the park and its prodigious biological diversity really secure, or do the trappings of security merely create the illusion? A distinction must be made between the park as a physical entity and the park as a human institution. The park was intended to exist forever, or so it is decreed in the formal documents of establishment, but no human institution endures forever.

Already there are signs of weakness, cracks in the dam that foretell dangers ahead. If tropical nature cannot be made secure in this far corner of the Amazon, where can it be? I cannot say, but I do know that trouble lies ahead because of a fatal disjunction in values and capacity. The well-organized societies of the industrialized world are the ones most concerned about biological diversity and most capable of providing the stable, long-term institutional support needed to preserve it. But much of the earth's biological wealth is confined to the Tropics, especially tropical forests, nearly all of which are located in developing countries where appreciation of wild nature is minimal and public institutions are notoriously frail. For many residents of the Tropics, nature has only utilitarian value, as an immediate source of wealth or a livelihood. The thought that there might be more exalted reasons for nature to exist has not entered the consciousness of many people who live in and around tropical forests.


Excerpted from Requiem for Nature by John Terborgh. Copyright © 1999 John Terborgh. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Editionix
Chapter 1The Making of a Dissident3
Chapter 2Assessing the Present10
Chapter 3Paradise Fading23
Chapter 4The Danger Within40
Chapter 5Parks: The Last Bastions of Nature59
Chapter 6Protecting Biodiversity93
Chapter 7Preserving Biodiversity for Posterity102
Chapter 8Tropical Forests: Worth More Dead Than Alive121
Chapter 9From Wildlands to Wasteland: Land Use and the Mirage of Sustainable Development141
Chapter 10Why Conservation in the Tropics Is Failing: The Need for a New Paradigm161
Chapter 11Hard Choices in the Twenty-First Century171
Chapter 12Nature, a Global Commons187

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews