The news is full of the Glasgow climate talks these days, and one of the focal points has been deforestation. It’s a challenge for many of us to put cynicism aside and embrace the breaking news that politicians made a bunch of promises. But the moment calls for us to be better than this.
If you weren’t paying attention, basically what happened was countries, and private companies, pledged $20 billion to “protect forests.” The focus was the tropics, where rainforests are being razed and turned into palm plantations or soy or cattle farms. The Amazon is being cut so heavily that the forest has turned from a carbon sink into a carbon source.
As the media opined about this, one of the themes was hypocrisy and doubt: the west got rich on razing its forests, so is it really realistic, or fair, to expect that $20 billion in aid is going to facilitate/convince a hemisphere to do things differently?
A more positive line of opinion involved the $1.7 billion that is earmarked for Indigenous People and local communities, because there’s good evidence that people who have a vested interest in a place are more apt to manage their forests sustainably.
There’s something to see and consider here. The problem is that when these are the only two lines of thought, it simplifies forest management into us versus them. Wealthy northern hemisphere versus poor southern hemisphere. Pure indigenous cultures versus corrupt and fallen us. But of course, things are much more complicated than that. In this New York Times story, there’s an odd feeling of discovery in the line: “Indigenous communities and others . . . have kept room for animals, plants and their habitats, not by fencing off nature, but by making a small living from it. The key to their success, research shows, is not extracting too much.” The authors point to the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a 2-million-hectare territory in Guatemala, where local communities manage their forests, selling timber and running tourism agencies. “The forest became a source of livelihood” quotes one observer. “Our goal is to sustain ourselves with a small amount and always take care of the forest,” said one of the natives.
What’s being described here is essentially forest management as it’s practiced in Vermont. The contexts are radically different, for sure. And I don’t want to take anything away from the heroic reality of natives risking their lives to defend a forest from illegal logging – we’re in a privileged position to know nothing of that. The point is simply that the small farmer or woodlot owner in Vermont has more in common with the small farmer and woodlot owner in Guatemala than they do with a terminal harvest in Brazil or even an aggressive clearcut in Quebec. What’s in opposition, where it comes to the health of the planet, is large-scale, industrial, global, profit-driven exploitation versus small-scale, local, conservation-minded, forest management.
This distinction is important because one of the ways we can all do better by the planet is to recognize that we do forestry well in Vermont and support the industry here. Because in a lot of places in the world, they don’t do it well. You know this. There is an opportunity though – and will be again anytime the news cycle is full of stories on forests and climate – to make these points to the masses, because they’re not obvious. The unfortunate take home for many in the wake of this coverage will be that cutting trees in bad, period.