Greed and Gluttony in the Forest Primeval : THE FATE OF THE FOREST: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon <i> by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn (Verso: $24.95; 254 pp., illustrated) </i>

<i> Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service</i>

For those of us--most, I think--who know little of South American history, Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn provide a comprehensive and scholarly, if not disinterested, political and economic history of tropical South America. “What is now called the environmental destruction of the Amazon is merely the latest surge in a long epic of annihilation,” writes Hecht, an agronomist in the UCLA Graduate School of Planning, and Cockburn, enfant terrible and left-wing British journalist.

The developed world confronts its own complicity in tropical devastation. Hecht and Cockburn argue that only a “socialist ecology” can save the Amazon. Whether that analysis is correct or not, they offer--at last--an overview of the situation, not as some idiosyncrasy of this fading century but in the context of a South American history few Norte Americanos , including conservationists, know anything about.

Nearly a century before Charles Goodyear discovered how rubber could be stabilized through vulcanization in 1842, the latex sap of Hevea brasiliensis and its relatives was already in world trade as waterproofing for a vast array of materials. By mid-19th Century, it was the focus of Brazil’s economy, and by the end of it, American business interests that would eventually include Henry Ford and Daniel Ludwig began their Brazilian adventures.

The boom in rubber, until its collapse when purloined seeds reached their maturity in other tropical regions, led not only to great fortunes but development far up the Amazon River into the eastern foothills of the Andes.

Despite astronomic surges and catastrophic plunges in the Brazilian economy, at the end of the World War II, the Amazonian forest was little different than it had been at the time of European discovery. But then began a geometric process that in 40 years would lead Amazonia to the brink of catastrophe.


To Cockburn and Hecht, this was no consequence of overpopulation, no failure of “inappropriate technology.” It was the product of foreign capital conspiring with Brazilian elites living outside Amazonia--neither of whom had any interest in its welfare--attempting to extract maximum wealth from the region and with virtually no interest in the consequences.

The Indians and the rubber-tappers--the seringueiros --of Amazonia, and for that matter the landless peasants who comprise most of the remainder of Brazil’s populations, never have had a real say in their country’s fate. Even the government’s grand scheme to build a Trans-Amazonian highway and other roads to provide access to the rain forest, even Brazil’s Homestead Act of the 1970s that granted land to peasants, were cynical projects designed to pacify both peasants and forest dwellers (the former could shoot the latter), while the real money was in the vast fazendas that cut and burned huge sections of forest to facilitate mining or grazing operations.

Without doubt, the trouble in Amazonia is not some simple product of Malthusian dynamics. As the authors note, most of the settlement programs of the region have failed. But clearly it does have something to do with Brazil’s autocratic and class-stratified society, and with the vast debts those autocrats have incurred with First World banks while sending their own capital abroad.

This is mostly about money and power, not ecological ignorance. Building walls around parts of the forest and declaring them ecological sanctuaries, or parks, or refuges will not work, has not worked anywhere in the Third World. The new civilian government of Jose Sarney has shown some interest in sharing power more broadly--including even those who actually make their homes in the forest. Hecht and Cockburn think this is the only answer: Those who live within and draw their lives from the forest can be enfranchised to be its best protectors, can be aided and encouraged to preserve its spectacular biotic treasure.

The tropical forests may or may not be the salvation of the Earth, but they are clearly extraordinary biological communities. Because their solar energy, moisture and climatic stability are ideal for life, these places support not only the highest biomass, but through biological competition the most diversity on the planet.

It is no accident that tropical rain forests are the primary source of new pharmaceuticals and other biochemicals, as well as genes for all manner of enterprises--these are all the consequence of fierce biological competition sustained over millions of years of natural selection. They are also a vast pool of carbon that, converted to gas, will cook the Earth while eliminating its capacity to recover.

“The Fate of the Forest” is in the hands of the developed world. Our insatiable consumption of raw resources--especially wood pulp and energy--is the principal engine driving tropical deforestation.


Hecht and Cockburn make a potent case that rock concerts and debt exchanges have little to do with saving Amazonia; they merely reflect our shallow understanding of global economics. We can trim our own resource gluttony and the extravagant standard of living that makes our protestations to the Third World ring hollow, and we can invest in conservative technologies that will not only reduce our own consumption, but which we can share with the tropics.