9 Jan 2009, 4:12pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Eden and El Dorado

Fifteen years ago (my how time flies) Dr. Susanna B. Hecht, Ph.D. of UCLA delivered the Horace Marden Albright Lecture in Conservation at the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources.

Her talk, Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation, is now posted in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here].

The thesis of Hecht’s lecture is that landscapes, and in particular Amazonia, are often viewed through two (apparently) contradictory lenses. One view is that prior to European conquest western landscapes were edenic wildernesses, untouched and untrammeled by human hands.

Lost Eden traces its American origins to John Muir as well as the American Transcendentalist movements. But its roots are much deeper and easily trace back to the French descriptions of Brazil by de Lery in the 16th century, and to the widely known works of de La Condamine, Condorcet and Rousseau-to the enlightenment roots of European romanticism. In this view, nature is a wilderness, an object of religious or scientific contemplation, an area of spiritual renewal, a primal area, an Eden. Spared the noxious hand of modem man and the corrupt state, nature’s true glory, as well as man’s innate nobility, is revealed. …

The other view is that western landscapes are El Dorado’s, containing treasures of gold, oil, timber, and other commodities ripe for exploitation, for the good of the conquerors of course, and possibly the conquered too, according to compassionate liberals, but ripe nonetheless.

These two lenses are not necessarily diametrical opposites, but more importantly both deny the reality of human occupation by societies over thousands of years. The land is neither Eden nor El Dorado. It is and has long been home.

As he gazed upon the majesty of Yosemite, as an employee of the local logging company, Muir conceived of the mountain areas around him as an untrammeled wilderness. His lost Eden however beautiful and wild as he saw it, was a nature that in fact had been shaped and molded by human agency. He was contemplating the former territory of the Miwok Indians, whose population was the largest one north of the Aztec empire. The people who had fashioned this landscape had been devastated by the gold rush, been dispossessed by agricultural settlers and ravaged by disease. In their profound absence, he assumed that they had never been. What he took as a wilderness was to other eyes an agricultural landscape formed of trees and tubers which his own conception of agriculture, and his own conception of nature, could not comprehend. This area, so majestic in its beauty and its vegetation, had been both human artifact and habitat.

The latest findings by a raft of researchers explore the ancient human connections.

Historical botanical studies have also served to recast the debate. Denevan’s magisterial efforts on ridged field agriculture throughout Latin America provided the intellectual and philosophical guidance for deeply recasting the debates on population through the optic of production, and bringing into to resolute focus human impacts on tropical landscapes. These helped stimulate general analyses of regional vegetation patterns such as those of Balee, who deemed the region to be characterized by “cultural forests” and posits that roughly 12% of Amazonian forests are decidedly anthropogenic.

Thus large scale regional forest patterning reflects human intervention. Other studies have reviewed human impacts on succession in tropical zones, arguing that diversity patterns can in fact be enhanced by human modification. … Posey (1989, and others) have reported that the Kayapo regularly move plants from one watershed to another and plant along forest trails thus affecting the broader regional distribution of species and subspecies.

The rediscovery ancient human connections should color modern land use approaches, argues Hecht. Modern political ecology must take into account traditional human influences and learn from untold centuries of experience, not only regarding natural systems but with respect to and for socio-economic systems as well.

Human intervention has not always been “bad”, although modern interventions, such as massive deforestation and conversion to absentee-owned cattle ranches and/or set asides for dehumanized “wilderness” are not viable solution sets to either social or environmental problems.

Hecht offers few solutions. Her analysis is historically perceptive but not future advisory. She does wish for a political ecology that takes history into account. Beyond that the modern problems seem largely intractable. And indeed over the last fifteen years little of visionary consequence has occurred.

Her analysis is worthwhile nonetheless, and an enjoyable read if you like large vocabularies and even larger thinking. Susanna Hecht is one of our leading philosophers regarding land use and the human-nature connection. Her synthesis of anthropology, ecology, and social science is a model for cutting-edge approaches to contemporary environmental stewardship.

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