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Slicing up the rain forest on your breakfast cereal.

Here you can experience that special feeling that inspires poets and explorers--from the myriad vegetative forms so evident even on first glance to the misty mornings that invoke mysterious feelings and bucolic images of paradise lost. The rain forest here, as elsewhere, is a collective human construct that some times serves as our mystical Garden of Eden, but it is also a material collection of fabulous plants and animals, a natural construct of the high temperature and heavy rainfall of equatorial climates. The trade winds rise as they encounter the eastern seaboard and with their ascent they cool, condensing the water vapor they borrowed during their voyage across the Caribbean. The consequent rains collect in several basins and come together roughly at the town of Puerto Viejo, continuing northward to empty into the San Juan River, the border with Nicaragua. This is the region known as the Sarapiqui (sah-rah-pick-ee, with an accent on the ee), site of several of the world's most famous rain forest conservation areas.

Streaming into the area to partake of the breathtaking beauty of the natural world in this region are biologists, ecologists, and ecotourists, spending their grant money or retirement savings to visit the "heritage of humanity" It is hardly necessary to repeat the cliches any longer: tropical rain forests cover only 7 percent of the earth's surface yet harbor at least 50 percent of the world's plant and animal species (the earth's biodiversity); they are the lungs of the world, eating away at the excessive carbon dioxide we have excreted from our incus trial metabolism; they are the source of foods and pharmaceuticals, bananas and Brazil nuts, chocolate, cashews, coffee and cocaine, cortisone and quinine. They are also beautiful! The aesthetics of these forested lands cannot be overestimated, and the sense of wonder one experiences walking through this cradle of biodiversity cannot be expressed in words.

But as anyone visiting the Sarapiqui can readily see, all is not well in this Garden of Eden. Certainly, it remains beautiful inside of the conservation areas. The problem is outside those areas. And the problem is the same one Costa Rica has had ever since Minor C. Keith built his famous railroad and helped found the United Fruit Company in 1898. The problem is the banana. Currently, at least five major banana companies are converting vast acreage in the area to banana plantations, thus threatening both directly and indirectly the rain forests we so revere. Those same biologists, ecologists, and ecotourists who love the rain forest when they're in Costa Rica also love to slice bananas onto their cereal in the morning. And with our penchant for viewing the world in isolated little disconnected fragments, it is apparently difficult for us all to see the connection between the knife that slices the banana in our cereal bowl and the chainsaw that slices tree trunks onto the rain forest floor.

Not so long ago, environmental activists in the developed world became aware of the so called hamburger connection. Central American rain forests were being cut down at an alarming rate to make way for the production of low quality beef to supply the fast food industry in the First World. Stop eating fast food hamburgers, the argument went, and you would reduce the demand to cut down more forest. The banana expansion currently underway in Central America has been likened to this hamburger connection. But the whole argument surrounding the hamburger connection was flawed, and an at tempt to construct the same argument for bananas would simply repeat that flaw. In fact, the expansion of bananas, like the expansion of pasture for beef production, is a tangled web of subtle connections. Tweak the web at one point and it reverberates all over, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The transformation currently underway in the Sarapiqui is neither unprecedented nor unique, which makes it a useful example. Similar patterns occur throughout the tropics. Some times the pattern involves bananas, sometimes cattle, maybe citrus, African oil palm, or rubber trees--a variety of commodifies, similar politically if quite distinct biologically. The pattern is a six stage process. First, visionary capitalists identify an economic opportunity for the market expansion of an agricultural product. In this case, the opportunity is the opening up of markets in Eastern Europe and the unification of Western Europe, and the product is bananas. Second, they purchase (or steal or bribe the government into conceding) some land, including land that may contain rain forest, which is promptly cut down. Third, they import workers to produce the product (in this case, workers come from all over Costa Rica and even from Nicaragua). Fourth, after a period of boom, the product goes bust on the world market, which means sealing back production which, in turn, means releasing a significant fraction of the workforce. Fifth, the newly unemployed workers seek and fail to find employment elsewhere and must seek land to grow subsistence crops to tide themselves over until other work can be found. Sixth and finally, the only place the now unemployed workers can find land they will not be kicked off of is in the forest, which means yet more of the rain forest is converted to agriculture.

In this way, Costa Rica, one of the world's showcases of conservation, is currently promoting a policy that actually encourages rain forest destruction. That is interesting by itself, but this specific example is not as important as the general idea it highlights. The crop in this instance happens to be bananas, but the general pattern is all too common.


An afternoon in Puerto Viejo, the little town located near the confluence of the rivers draining the Barva volcano, reveals what might surprise a European or North American tourist. Despite the fact that Costa Ricans love to hate bananas (under standably, given their history), it is difficult to find anyone in town who does not fully support the massive banana expansion currently underway. Furthermore, the government, both local and national, is encouraging the expansion with a vigor normally associated with a depressed northern U.S. city courting a big assembly plant. (You want no unions? You got it! You want tax breaks? Just say how much. You want license to pollute? Smoke your heart out. But please, just locate here.) Costa Rica is as debt laden as the rest of Latin America and needs all the money it can get just to service its debt. The expansion of bananas is one way to make money. Thus, despite the recognition that social and environmental problems will inevitably come along with the bananas, the vast majority of Costa Ricans, both in the Sarapiqui and elsewhere, welcome the current expansion. A small group of Costa Rican environmentalists are protesting, but they are overwhelmed by more powerful interests.

Of the approximately quarter of a million hectares in the Sarapiqui valley, some 50,000 are devoted to biological preserves. Another 100,000 hectares are in the legal hands of small peasant farming communities. The rest (approximately 100,000 hectares) is a mosaic of small farms, most without title to the land; secondary and old growth forest; cattle pasture; and an occasional sizable ornamental plant or fruit plantation.

In the periphery of the valley lies an extensive banana plantation owned by the Standard Fruit Company, a major employer in the region for the past quarter century. The history of Standard Fruit provides an example of what might be expected on a larger scale in the near future. Tales are common of pesticide abuse, waste dumping into local waterways, deforestation, and the massive social problems normally associated with a frontier area. Best documented is the celebrated case in which Standard Fruit was accused of negligence in its use of DBCP (dibromochloropropane), a popular fungicide. During the early 1970s, more than 2,000 banana workers were rendered sterile by this poison. They are currently suing Standard Fruit in a United States court. This and other past records indicate that historically the banana companies have not accepted responsibility for the health and safety of their workers, the community, or the environment. With the current massive banana expansion, there is no reason to assume that these adverse environmental, social, and health effects will not be repeated on an even larger scale.

History is perhaps even more ominous when we examine another long term pattern evidenced by the Standard Fruit operation in the area. Standard Fruit employs workers who migrate to the Sarapiqui from other parts of Costa Rica. These workers are retained as long as the market for bananas is sufficiently robust but are let go when sales slacken. The laid off workers are mainly rural people--former peasants drawn into rural wage labor. In past decades, the ebb and flow of the banana business has created critical periods in which many workers were laid off and forced to fend for themselves. These layoffs were a natural product of the world economic system, due both to fluctuating banana prices and to the very existence of a two part economy--export bananas on the one hand and worker/farmer on the other. There is little employment opportunity in the area other than the banana companies, so when workers are laid off they must either migrate to the city, adding to the growing shanty towns, or they must turn to farming. In order to farm, they have to find a homestead. Sometimes that small piece of land is in a rain forest. Other times, it is a small corner of some large absentee landlord's cattle ranch, in which case, depending on complicated criteria, either the homesteading family is eventually forcibly evicted or the state agrarian reform institute adjudicates a "fair" purchase for the peasant family.

The past thirty or forty years have seen this arrangement persist, with rain forest cover in the region plummeting from almost 90 percent in 1950 to approximately 25 percent today. Only a small portion of the remaining 25 percent is not part of one of the four large biological reserves.


This pattern, so readily observable today, is set in a rich ecological history beginning well before the current crisis. Early in the century, extensive river systems were used to transport both logs and bananas. Logging was a rather small scale operation by modern standards but had the effect of drawing workers to the area and creating pathways into the forest. Since only a handful of the many species of trees in the rain forest were actually valuable, it was necessary to scout out and then cut a path to the valuable trees and, after cutting them down, to haul them out with teams of oxen or horses. By the 1930s, the land along almost all the rivers was deforested and planted with bananas, while the surrounding forest was riddled with trails made for dragging logs. The logging process intensified in the late 1940s and 1950s when machinery was brought into the area, and a complex network of logging roads crisscrossed what forests remained after the inroads already made by the banana plantations. People who originally came to the area to work in the logging industry used these roads to gain access to logged areas and frequently established homesteads. Former banana workers did the same thing.

In the late 1940s, everything changed in the Sarapiqui, as it did throughout the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Devastating fungal diseases routed the banana industry. The extensive plantations of the United Fruit Company and a variety of independent producers were decimated by this disease. No cure could be found, and the company moved its entire operation to the other side of the mountains, where the disease had not been established. It was not until the mid-1950s that a genetic variety of banana that was resistant to the disease was developed, thus enabling the Standard Fruit Company to establish its plantations in the area in the late 1950s.


Now the plot is thickening. In anticipation of an expected surge in the demand for bananas (the anticipated result of opening markets in Eastern Europe and the economic unification of Western Europe), five or six major banana companies have been purchasing large expanses of land and expanding banana production accordingly. The area planted with banana rose from 20,000 hectares in 1985 to 32,000 hectares in 1991, and visits to the area in 1991 and 1992 revealed intense activity in setting up new banana plantations throughout the valley. As much as 45,000 hectares are expected to be in bananas by the end of 1995. As had happened in the past, workers were drawn from all over the country. But breaking with past traditions, this time there apparently were not enough Costa Rican workers to do the necessary work, and workers were also attracted from Nicaragua, Panama, and even Honduras. It ap pears likely that within two years most, if not all, of the arable land not currently in either biological preserve or organized peasant agricultural communities will become banana plantations.

A variety of factors make Costa Rica, and particularly the Sarapiqui basin, an especially attractive target of the banana companies. Notably, the infamous Solidarista movement has destroyed all union activity in the area. Some ten years ago, this church based, U.S. supported, anti union movement systematically moved into the Sarapiqui valley to replace all banana labor unions with a new concept for worker organization. Solidarista dogma outlaws strikes, does not recognize the right of workers to collectively bargain, and seeks to attract workers with frivolous benefits such as clubhouses and soccer fields. With massive funding from the Association for Free Labor Development, the international wing of the AFL-CIO long suspected to have CIA ties, democratic labor unions were systematically attacked through out Costa Rica. The campaign was especially effective in the Sarapiqui, where union membership now stands at zero and company officials proudly proclaim that no union people are able to find jobs. A local political official told us in 1991 that the planned banana expansion would have been impossible without the existence of the Solidarista organizations.

A second important factor is the willingness of the Costa Rican government and its partner, the United States of America, to create infrastructural conditions which favor the banana companies. Roads are being constructed, bridges are being built, hospitals and schools are planned--all for the purpose of creating an attractive infrastructure for the banana companies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was enlisted in this effort. In a 1992 program called Bridges for Peace, Army Corps engineers built roads and bridges in the Sarapiqui. A cynical U.S. serviceman told us the program has been unofficially dubbed "Bridges for Bananas,' as the construction so obviously focuses on improving infrastructure for the export of bananas. U.S. Army engineers built many of the roads and bridges that today carry the logs of the cut rain forest, and tomorrow will carry the harvest of the international banana companies. Indeed, with the infrastructure provided by U.S. taxpayers at the request of the Costa Rican government, from roads and bridges to the Solidaristas, from the "converted" rain forest to new social infrastructure, investment opportunities look good--that is, if you are a banana company.

But the banana companies, mindful that their operations might attract outside attention, were prepared to pay "expert" scientists to mollify the public. The Corporacion Bananera Nacional (CORBANA) was formed in 1990. Some 20 years earlier, a smaller national effort, Asociacion Bananera Nacional (ASBANA), had been formed by the Costa Rican government for the purpose of developing technical assistance for small producers of bananas in the country. Operating on a tiny budget, this small research operation persisted until two years ago, when the rush to privatization caught up with it and ASBANA changed to CORBANA and began to receive money directly from the banana companies. For every box of bananas exported, each company pays a fee to support the research efforts of CORBANA. Theoretically, CORBANA conducts research aimed at making banana production more environmentally friendly. This research was to include proposed projects on using biotechnology to develop strains of bananas resistant to pests, development of organic fertilizers, and extensive surveys of fauna in the banana plantations (ostensibly to monitor the effects of the plantation on wildlife). However, in a visit to the CORBANA facility we observed very impressive projects on soils, plant diseases, parasites, and drainage but none of the celebrated studies to promote environmental friendliness.

But we repeat and emphasize that the expansion of bananas is viewed as a positive event by nearly everyone in the Sarapiqui and by most observers in the entire country. Local workers and peasants see jobs being created, local merchants see a potential surge in business, and local politicians see an increase in their power base. The Costa Rican government itself pro motes the expansion since it sees the increased tax revenues as helping to pay debt service on its tremendous international debt. The accepted fact that almost all profit from banana farming will leave the country seems of little local concern. This is perhaps understandable given the state of the local and national economy. But less comprehensible is that segments of the international "conservation" community have come on board and either retain a calculated obliviousness to what is going on or actively pursue a neutral position. Significant (yet weak) opposition is coming from a small, loosely structured local conservation movement composed of Costa Ricans and organized without the help of the international conservation community They are fighting what appear to be insurmount, able odds.


It is not difficult to predict what is likely to happen next. Unless history has significantly reversed free market laws, banana prices will fluctuate on the world market, just as they always have. Furthermore, we can expect banana company executives to do what they are supposed to as good managers: reduce the cost of labor, which they will do at points of economic downturn by laying off workers, just as they always have in the past. But this time, where will those former workers go? In the past there was always that mosaic of small farms, large cattle pastures, and second growth and primary forest between the organized agricultural settlements and the biological preserves. Such areas were normally considered externalities, sopping up the overflow of humanity that could not be accommodated in times of crisis. Now, however, that area will be taken up by banana plantations, and the only remaining area not already devoted to some form of agriculture (and therefore "available") will be within the four biological preserves in the area. It would take enormous naivete to suppose that, when their survival is at stake, these landless peasants will not begin cutting forest in the biological preserves.

This example illustrates the dynamics that occur (with different details, of course) throughout Central America and much of the rest of the world. Because of the nature of the world economic system, Costa Rica really has no choice but to promote the expansion of bananas. Costa Rica's international debt, accumulated because of its position in the world economy and its need for the expansion of international capital, require that it seek tax revenues however it can. The banana companies themselves (at least one of which is Costa Rican) continue to play their historical role as international accumulators of capital and temporary employers of peasants, thus maintaining the dysfunctional two part economy. Peasants continue to arrive from other parts of the country--and now even from Nica ragua--seeking jobs and the "good life" and willing to accept minimal conditions; but since the Solidarista movement destroyed the unions, they are without significant political representation. The stage was initially set by the loggers with their systems of logging roads, and by the first wave of banana plantations with their periodic layoffs that forced peasants into the forests. If the process continues with this basic overall structure, which we see no reason to doubt, there is little hope in the long run even for those rain forests under protected status.

Current rumors in the area indicate that the long running Standard Fruit Company operation in Rio Frio will soon abandon all of their plantations near the Sarapiqui. Despite what some promoters claim, banana plantations do not last forever. A variety of ecological forces eventually catch up with such intensive production, and the plantations must be abandoned. Will the legacy of bananas leave the area with much degraded conditions of production, as has happened repeatedly in the past? Who will bear the costs of restoring conditions to their original state, if that will even be possible? And who will share concern with the thousands of rural people, deprived of their land and their livelihood with no place to go? Who will tell them that the rain forest is more important than feeding their families?


In the midst of these dramatic events, an internationally recognized ecologist gave a public lecture at a local ecotourism center in the Sarapiqui, claiming that recent deforestation in the area was due to the inevitable march of Malthusian reality. He claimed that overpopulation was causing the destruction of the forest. In a sense, of course, such an observation is trivially true. There undoubtedly is an overpopulation of banana companies, an overpopulation of former banana workers looking for land, an overpopulation of adventurers seeking their fortunes in a new frontier zone, an overpopulation of greedy people and institutions, and even an overpopulation of ecotourists from Europe and the United States.

But when this expert ecologist declared that a Malthusian crunch was the root of the problem, he was actually implying something rather different: that the pressure of having too many children--the birth rate of the population--is the real problem. This point of view implies that the main solution to the problem is birth control. It further implies that this is a sufficient solution, that it is useless to do anything other than promote birth control, and that, as long as population densities remain as they are, the pattern of deforestation will continue.

An alternative viewpoint, expressed to us by a local con servationist, is that avaricious banana companies are cutting down rain forests because they are hungry for profits. They will stop at nothing to satisfy their need to accumulate ever greater quantities of capital, and so the forests will continue to disappear as long as banana companies are allowed to continue their greedy operations. This also is a distinct point of view. It implies that the only solution to the problem is to eliminate the capitalist. It further implies that this is a sufficient solution, that it is useless to do anything other than "smash capitalism," and that, as long as the need to accumulate capital remains, the pattern of deforestation will continue.

These points of view are prisms through which the facts of the matter may be interpreted. They both encourage a single focus for the solution: stop population growth or smash capitalism. We believe that both are right in a very limited sense, but we also believe that they are both wrong in a broader and more practical sense. Ultimately, each of these prisms focuses on a single thread in a fabric of causality. Eliminating one thread will not eliminate the problem. The problem is the fabric itself. The proper means of understanding the situation, then, is to look at the complicated way that various forces are interdependent, especially focusing on the way countervailing tendencies ate resolved.

In our book Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Truth About Rain Forest Destruction, we assert that food insecurity is the root cause of deforestation. It is a critical thread in the fabric of causality. We take this approach for two reasons. First, we wish to provide an antidote to the simplistic views that either over population or avaricious capitalism causes deforestation. Second, we argue that, given the ultimate goal of reworking the entire fabric of causality, the place to begin that process is with food security. We do not argue that providing peasants with food security will stop deforestation per se but, rather, that beginning the political process of reorganizing socio economic ecological systems by examining questions of food security will force both analysis and practice into the realms ultimately necessary for the resolution of this issue. When neo Malthusians suggest there are too many people for the land base, the food security position reveals several important particulars: that peasants seek land to feed their families, not because there are too many of them or too little land (at least right now) but because available land is occupied by other activities. Our orientation will also reveal that the techniques for sustainable agriculture in that zone have been re placed with destructive, chemically based ones and, further, that the legal status of most peasants is "landless" even when they clearly occupy a piece of land. When radicals purport that avaricious capitalism causes deforestation, the food security position shows that the evolution of modern agriculture has created international structures that force even progressive governments like Cuba to invite those greedy capitalists into their economies. The international order, which causes food insecurity in the developing world, is implicated in a chain of events that ultimately leads to the transformation from workers to peasants who must seek out rain forest land to farm in order to provide food for their families.

We do not wish to leave the impression, however, that food insecurity is just another mechanistic cause to which the problem of rain forest destruction may be reduced. It is clearly not. But as a mode of analysis, examining food insecurity will cause us to deal with the entire complex web of ecological, socio logical, economic, and political issues on which the poisonous spider of rain forest destruction crouches.


Current events in the Sarapiqui region are, alas, not unique. Tropical rain forest areas around the globe are experiencing similar complex socioeconomic forces which threaten to continue or even accelerate the destruction of this most diverse of all ecosystems. In all of these areas, there has been some reaction from local and international concerns. Unfortunately, much of this response is misdirected because it is based on a distorted image of the facts and on an implicit ideology--what we call the "mainstream environmental movement approach"--which allows only a narrow range of possible courses. We feel there is an alternative philosophical approach--the "political ecology strategy"--which emphasizes basic issues of security: security of land ownership and the consequent ability to produce food for local consumption.

The mainstream environmental movement has raised large sums of money to purchase and protect islands of rain forest with little concern for what happens between those islands, either to the natural world or to the social world of the people who live there. We doubt this strategy has much chance of succeeding. It is likely that, in the short term, the landscape will be converted into isolated islands of tropical rain forest, surrounded by a sea of pesticide drenched modern agriculture, underpaid rural workers, and masses of landless peasants looking for some way to support their families. The long term prospects, however, are worse, as the example of the Sarapiqui suggests.

Our alternative, the "political ecology strategy,' emphasizes the land and people between the islands of protected forest and has greater credibility because of its willingness to see some of the interconnections in this complicated system. This point of view has been variously known as ecological development, sustainable development, or eco development, though all of these terms have been cynically adopted by even the most environmentally destructive agencies. Whatever we call it, this approach properly views the situation as a landscape problem with forests, forestry, agroforestry, and agriculture as inter related land use systems, and seeks to develop those land use systems so that conditions of production according to the needs of the local population may be maintained. The "political ecology strategy" challenges nonsustainable development projects, such as modern banana plantations, and seeks to organize people to oppose ecologically and socially damaging development.

These two points of view lead to quite different projections of what the future rain forest areas of Central America might look like. If the mainstream position remains dominant, we expect to see, in the short term, a sea of devastation with islands of pristine rain forest-and in the long term, nothing but a sea of devastation. The political ecology point of view envisions a mosaic of land use patterns: some protected natural forest, some extractive reserve, some sustainable timber harvest, some agroforestry, some sustainable agriculture, and, of course, human settlements. This mosaic would be sustain able over time.

But is this a practical vision in the real world? The decision to promote bananas in the Sarapiqui can hardly be faulted on "modern" economic grounds. Sadly, however, if national and international commitment to the archaic economics of Adam Smith and the IMF persists, we fear continuing destruction of the rain forests and the deterioration of the lives of the people of Sarapiqui. The alternative requires a radical rethinking of what sorts of economic and political arrangements are to be tolerated-the sort of rethinking that can get you in trouble in Central America, the sort of rethinking that may even challenge the idea that it is our inalienable right to slice bananas onto our breakfast cereal.


The case study elaborated here is typical. Granted, there are cases in which rain forests are being cut with a profoundly different logic (several areas in southeast Asia and much of the Amazon, for example), but both historical and contemporary patterns the world over reflect the basic paradigms seen in this example. The details vary, but the underlying logic is remarkably consistent.

Costa Rica has been held up as one of the world's best examples of rain forest conservation. Its internationally recognized conservation ethic, its position of relative affluence, its democratic traditions, the remarkable importance of ecotourism to its national economy, its willingness to adopt virtually any and all programs of conservation promoted by Western experts make it the most likely place for the success of the traditional model of rain forest conservation. The fact that the model has been an utter failure in Costa Rica, where it had the greatest chance of success, calls the model itself into serious question.

This case study is intended as an outline of the general problem. Stopping individual logging companies and avaricious agroexporters can be only a small part of the solution. Basic questions of land and food security are the most central component of any potentially effective political strategy. Only by uniting with political forces that have similar fundamental goals can the future of the world's rain forests be brightened.

John Vandermeer is Alfred Thurneau Professor of Biology at the University of Michigan. He has been actively involved in research on the ecology of tropical rain forests for the past 25 years and has written or edited six books, including Agroecology and Biology As a Social Weapon.

Ivette Perfecto is associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Michigan. She has been involved in ecological research in rain forest areas for 10 years and is currently examining the ecological consequences of agricultural modernization in the tropics.

This article is adapted from the first chapter of their new book, Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Truth About Rain Forest Destruction (Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.)
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Humanist Association
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Perfecto, Ivette
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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