One step forward?

It’s always exciting when something is published in the popular press on my research interests, and even better (academically, at least) when it is sufficiently off the mark to make me think that people really need to know about what I’m discovering.

I’m fairly sure everyone in elementary school hears about how the rainforest is being cleared at a rate of 1½ acres per second or a bazillion football fields a day or some similarly disturbing statistic.  As it turns out, though, in places like Brazil and Indonesia, the deforestation rates are slowing.  Reports the New York Times:

Signs are growing that international efforts to clamp down on illegal logging and strengthen timber harvesting regulations are succeeding in slowing the destruction of these forests.

Good news, right?  Sure.  But what is the cause?  Has Brazil’s much vaunted development succeeded in lifting Amazonian farmers out of poverty to the extent that they no longer need to resort to slash-and-burn agriculture?  Have developing world governments succeeded in convincing their populaces that the natural environment is worth protecting?  Or, perhaps, have wealthy countries created some mechanism to compensate erstwhile loggers for protecting these natural resources?

Apparently not.  According to the article, the slow in deforestation rates is almost entirely due to legal enforcement and police action.  It’s roughly analogous to a strategy that has “worked” to protect endangered species in many African National Parks: shoot poachers and relocate local populations to god-knows-where.  Unfortunately, this conservation seems to leave at least one species hanging.  One scientist reports from Brazil:

“You had tens of thousands of loggers who were out of work — people were not happy,” Mr. Walker said in an interview. “A lot of the sawmills went broke. I was amazed to see it.”

It’s moments like these where I get extremely excited about Yasuní-ITT.  However flawed, the proposal at the very least represents a sincere search for a mechanism of “sustainable development” that protects the environment while simultaneously providing something more substantive for affected populations than a handful of jobs guarding parks or guiding tourists.  Genuine conservation happens when people start to attach intrinsic value to the natural environment, not when we teach them to resent it by making conservation the cause of unemployment and poverty.

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