Monday, September 2, 2013

Deep Jungle by Fred Pearce: beautiful science writing about a big issue of our time

This book manages to be both a beautiful coffee-table book and an insightful, well-written exploration of the rainforest, taking a machete to the simplistic diagnoses we find in the popular press. Fred Pearce, environment correspondent for New Scientist, has done some proper science writing here. 

So the book is full of surprises. 
1. Wind back the clock a thousand years, and jungles were the home of sophisticated civilisations. This is not just true of modern-day tourist honeypots like Ankor Wat or the Mayans. Nigeria's jungles hosted cities and empires; so did the Amazon. Fred Pearce cites linguistic studies, the beginnings of jungle archeology, and the nature of the soil and the  trees planted, to show that people were working this land, despite the Western world not knowing about them. 

2. These civilisations  collapsed, perhaps because of the encounter with Europeans and their diseases. Remnants went off into the forest. So the standard Western model of the jungle -- 'pristine' rainforest and 'stone-age tribes untouched since the dawn of civilisation' -- is wrong. People have gardened, or farmed, or still better, stewarded, the jungle for centuries, and with rather more success than we managed in the 20th century.

3. Much of what is going on today thanks to the chain-saw and the hunt for ever-more-scarce bush-meat is economically rational for the people doing it.

4. Many of the suggested solutions to deforestation haven't worked. Selling traditional remedies to drug corporations is good, even vital for the future of humanity, but has tended not to benefit indigenous people, or stop rainforest destruction. National parks are hard to enforce. Even when jungle products are found that can only be produced on site, they have been victims to sudden boom and bust: everyone starts growing them, the price drops, everyone loses. 

5. Fred Pearce does find some case studies that encourage optimism. He reports on Cameroonian cocoa farmers who plant their trees in the jungle, rather than clearing it. They also plant other fruit trees. In another model, a Central African government, I forget which, supports agriculture on the edges of a national park, to relieve the economic pressures. He even suggests that under some circumstances, drilling for oil in the rainforest can save the rainforest by improving the economy for everyone. 

All these case studies point to a somewhat heretical conclusion, which Pearce doesn't quite enforce in the book. One way of saying it is that you have to consider people as well as chainsaws or bushmeat. Concentrate on a single issue, bushmeat for example, and you're doomed, as many well-meaning charities have discovered.  The other way of saying it is this: rainforests need people to manage them. Remember the old joke of the vicar talking to a gardener: 'What a wonderful thing you and God have created,' says the vicar. The gardener thinks for a moment and then replies, 'Yes, and you should see what a mess it was when God had it to himself.' Humans are destroying the rainforest, bad people and good people together, but in the end we are also its only hope. 

This book is slightly dated, published 2006, and a little too affected by the economic crash in Indonesia in the early 2000s: you wonder what has happened since. It's also repetitious in places; you will be often told there are only 15,000 Orang Utangs in the wild, living in Borneo and Sumatra. But you can pick it up for a penny on Amazon and it will adorn any naked coffee-tables you have about the place and help us all think through this major issue of our times. Super book.

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