They're Our Rain Forests Too

Look carefully and you'll find a bit of jungle in the foods you eat, in the medicines on your shelf, in a thousand products from shampoo to guitars

  • Diane Jukofsky and Chris Wille
  • Apr 01, 1993
As the bold equatorial sun pushes the morning mist off the Aguarico River, men paddle dugout canoes up stream to fish or slip into the forest to hunt. Women bend over cooking fires. Children gather palm fronds to repair a thatch roof. These are the Quichua people of Ecuador's Amazon, members of one of hundreds of indigenous tribes that depend on the tropical rain forest for their very survival. As one boatman says, "You cannot separate us from the forest."

At first glance, that bond may seem exotic to a North American whose morning routine involves a kitchen, beverages from cartons, cereal, a coffee maker. But take a second look. The kitchen cabinets may be made of mahogany, waxed with tropical plant resins. The chairs may be made of rattan. Much of the breakfast (juice, cornflakes, banana, coffee, sugar) is from plants that originated in tropical forests. Even the warblers giving the dawn serenade outside spend winter in the tropics.

The evidence is clear: North Americans depend on rain forests too. Look carefully, and you'll find a bit of jungle in your foods, the medicines on your shelf, a thousand products from shampoo to guitars, your myths and metaphors, the stock market, the weather, the daily news and your daydreams.

Now consider the ongoing destruction of the world's rain forests, about 100 acres a minute. If consumers have a stake in halting the ruin-so they can continue to benefit from tropical biodiversity-might they also have leverage for doing so? That's the question being asked by a growing number of scientists, conservationists, businesspeople and inhabitants of the tropics all working at strengthening the north-south bond in ecologically sound ways.

Who are these people? Among them are the ornithologist, lawyer, tourism director, forester and ethnobotanist profiled on the following pages. Then there are, of course, indigenous peoples. That Quichua boatman on the Aguarico, for one, is not fishing with his cohorts. He is ferrying visitors through the region's splendor in an effort to fend off oil development with a strong tourism industry.

Rain forests have awed their visitors ever since outsiders first ventured into the jungle, eliciting hyperbole from explorers and scientists alike. The normally staid British naturalist Charles Darwin called the rain forests "one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself."

That hothouse forms a skimpy green sash around the Earth's midsection. Not all tropical forests are rain forests. Some are dry, even deciduous. To ecologists, true tropical rain forests grow where the average temperature is at least 75 degrees, no frosts occur and rain falls all year, totaling at least 80 inches. But the term "rain forest" popularly applies to all tropical forests, even cloud forests, montane forests, premontane forests, flooded forests and semi-dry forests.

Rain forests also grow in temperate zones, such as the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. But these bear little resemblance to the steamy tropical versions, which consist of broad-leafed evergreen trees with tops forming a canopy so dense a monkey troop can scramble aloft for miles.

Most of the natural action in a tropical rain forest is up in the canopy. The terrain below is deeply shadowed, open and quieter than above. There are a thousand shades of green, punctuated by spots of sunlight and high flowers. Vines stretch from ground to treetop, and plants such as bromeliads, orchids and mosses festoon every surface of the big trees in vigorous competition for sunlight. The plants even grow upon each other, forming hanging gardens.

The variety can be overwhelming to a visitor accustomed to, say, the United States' national parks. Rain forests now grace only 5 percent of the Earth's land surface, yet they contain at least half of its plant and animal species. About 400 tree species grow in all of temperate North America; as many as 200 flourish in a single acre of rain forest. One park in Ecuador hosts more bird species than exist in all of North America. A single square mile of the Amazon may be home to 1,500 kinds of butterflies; only about 750 flit through the United States and Canada.

Some 900 species of fig trees grow in tropical forests, each pollinated by its own kind of wasp. Ecuador has more species of plants than Europe, which has a surface area 31 times greater. Harvard biologist .E.O. Wilson once found 43 species of ants on a single tree in Peru-about equal, he says, to the ant fauna of the British Isles.

During the past 30 years, about one-third of the world's rain forests have disappeared, and the rate of destruction is increasing. About half of the remaining tropical rain forests are in Latin America; most of the others are divided between Africa and Southeast Asia.

Throughout the tropics, logging is feeding the largely Japanese and American appetites for tropical woods. Cattle ranchers and farmers raze forests for pasture and crops, encouraged by governments and international lending agencies. Millions of desperate farmers hack plots in the jungle, burning the vegetation to farm in the ashes (which act as fertilizer) for a few years before moving on to repeat the process. Then there is deliberate colonization: In some countries, such as Indonesia and Brazil, governments encourage people to leave crowded cities for the forest, where nutrient-poor soil often does not sustain cultivation. And an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide use dwindling forests for firewood, often the only' source of fuel.

As tropical forests vanish, the planet leaks species like air from a punctured tire. According to British ecologist Norman Myers, this accelerating loss "may result in the greatest single setback to life's abundance and diversity since the first flickerings of life almost 4 billion years ago."

Perhaps. But scientists and conservationists do find some reason for hope. Biosphere reserves, binational parks, and biological corridors now link countries that were warring just years ago. Brazil, which hosts one-quarter of the world's remaining rain forests, has taken steps to control deliberate forest fires, demarcate reserves for indigenous peoples and reduce subsidies for cattle ranchers. Some countries, including Nicaragua, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, have stopped exporting their logs.

Then there are the links between North America and the rain forest, which offer countless opportunities for scientific study and business ventures alike. Perhaps most important are medicines. Some of our most essential ,drugs already come from rain-forest plants, and less than 1 percent of the tens of thousands of tropical plant species have been tested for medicinal value. Rodrigo GAmez, director of Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute, says unexamined species are "like books that have never been opened or read. We don't even know what language they're in."

Among the foods with jungle origins are avocados, bananas, cashews, chocolate, cinnamon, coconuts, coffee, grapefruits, lemons, paprika and vanilla. Then there are additives: oils from bay, palm and rosewood trees used in perfumes, soaps and shampoos; resins from the copa tree common in paints and varnishes; latex from the rubber tree, used in products from tires to sneakers; and carnauba wax, used in plastics, carbon paper and coatings of pain relievers. Fibers from tropical forests include the bamboo of furniture and the jute and raffia of rope.

The list of bounty linking north and south could fill these pages. If the people profiled below have their way, those bonds will play an important role in the salvation of the rain forest.

Russell Greenberg
Studying songbirds in order to save them

In the lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico, ornithologist Russell Greenberg observes a magnolia warbler scouting a line of trees for food. Before the bird can land, a yellow warbler streaks out of the treetops and drives the newcomer away. For Greenberg, this momentary interaction is an important new piece of scientific data.

Director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., Greenberg travels to this region every year. His mission: to learn everything he can that might help save the dwindling natural pageant of massive songbird migrations between the wintering grounds in tropical forests and nesting sites in North America's backyards.

The migrants follow flyways across North America into Mexico, some Caribbean islands and the narrow isthmus of Central America. A few navigate all the way to South America. As they funnel into the much smaller land mass (all of Central America is smaller than Oregon and California combined), the birds tend to pack into remnant forests. There, as in the north, many are losing the competition for resources.

About 250 species of birds live part of the year in the tropics, winging north to nest during the bug-rich temperate spring. The deteriorating habitats at both ends of their routes threaten whole groups of migrants, including shorebirds, waterfowl and raptors. Populations of warblers and other forest-nesting birds are in particularly alarming decline. In one park in Washington, D.C., spring numbers of red-eyed vireos are down by 86 percent, ovenbirds by 90 percent; black and white, hooded and Kentucky warblers are gone.

"Songbirds could decline so much," worries Greenberg, "that, like the buffalo, we still have the species but we lose the spectacle of migration, the rivers of birds overhead." Already, birds he took for granted as a boy growing up in California's Bay Area in the 1950s, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow-breasted chat and blue grosbeak, have disappeared from the area.

Under Greenberg's direction, a six-person team of Venezuelan, Mexican and North American biologists is studying what birds do when they find pasture where they expected trees. Some birds are likely to cope better than others. The yellow warbler, for one, which seems more able to switch to new food sources, may do better than the golden-cheeked warbler, which apparently depends on the disappearing forests of the Guatemalan highlands.

That sort of understanding is only the beginning of Greenberg's work. Next comes conservation of essential pieces of forest, marsh, grassland and mangrove. Too tall an order? Greenberg takes heart from the blackpoll warbler, which, he says, "flies nonstop from Canada to South America." He calculates that this exploit is the equivalent of a human running 4-minute miles for 80 straight hours. In that notion he finds the inspiration to work "to save the forest homes of the birds that each spring sing to us of our connections to the rain forest."

Roxana Salazar
Reforming banana plantations using consumer power

Growing up in Costa Rica, Roxana Salazar paid little attention to bananas unless they were dessert. Then, as a young lawyer in the early 1980s, she couldn't help but notice the case of the affectados (the "affected ones"): About 1,500 Costa Rican banana workers claimed in a headline-making lawsuit that pesticides had made them infertile.

But not until Salazar went to graduate school at Cornell in the mid-1980s did she focus her attention on the most popular fruit in the world. That's when she found the case of the affectados (still unresolved, though there was a partial settlement) written up as a textbook example of an environmental legal dilemma. She wrote a thesis on pesticide management and returned home determined to bring reform to the banana plantations.

Her new ambition has expanded beyond controlling pesticides. She wants nothing less than to halt rapid rain-forest clearing for new plantations that, says Salazar, replace the rich ecosystem with "green desert"; to stop the mishandling of agrochemicals; and to reduce the massive piling up of fruit discarded for cosmetic imperfections (as much as 15 percent of the crop).

So, as a founding member of Fundacion Ambio, a conservation group directed by lawyers, Salazar has helped with the launching of a project called Banano Amigo that plans to award special seals to bananas grown and harvested in environmentally sound ways. Growers must reforest along rivers on their property, collect and manage wastes such as discarded fruit and plastic and give training and protective gear to pesticide workers. The project is cosponsored by the U.S.-based Rainforest Alliance, also a conservation group. And it has the support of Mario Boza, vice-minister of Costa Rica's natural resources agency.

Bananas are a mainstay in the economies of many tropical countries, including Honduras, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia and the Philippines. Costa Rica produces one out of every five bananas on the global market, and half of the country's production goes to the United States. North Americans eat an average of 24.5 pounds per year, per person.

Like many developing countries, Costa Rica is awash in agrochemicals, including some banned elsewhere-and banana producers are heavy users. Each year in Costa Rica, about 500 people are hospitalized, and about 100 die, for pesticide-related illnesses. One problem specific to bananas: Bunches are wrapped in pesticide-impregnated plastic bags, which protect the fruit without contaminating it. Millions of the used and discarded plastic bags end up in rivers and the sea, carried by floodwaters.

So far, Banana Amigo has organized teams of conservationists, government officials and farmers to negotiate environmental standards for growers. Says Donald S. Murray, vice president of PPI-Del Monte Tropical Fruit Company in Costa Rica, "We know it's time to face up to our environmental problems." The first fruit sporting the seal should be in some stores in the next few months-where shoppers will determine the success of the program.

Marco Vinicio Garcia
Promoting tourism in place of development

At daybreak on the Aguarico, a wide and muddy river winding through Ecuador's 1.5-million acre Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, noisy parrots turn the sky into a busy highway of primary colors. Scores of blue-and-yellow macaws land in a riotous rush in the forest canopy. Squirrel monkeys jump from overhanging boughs. A troop of Saki monkeys stares silently, their silky fur giving them a look of elegance. Ahead, rare pink dolphins reveal rose-tinted backs.

Witnessing these riches, from a floating hotel and canoes, are the clients of an ecotourism company called Metropolitan Touring. More than mere sightseers, these dollar-wielding outsiders are weapons in the fight to save Ecuador's rain forests from logging, oil drilling and colonization.

At least that's how Marco Vinicio Garcia, director of ecotourism for Metropolitan, sees his customers, two-thirds of whom are from the United States. "We have to convince the government," he says, "to protect Cuyabeno." The company is doing so not only by bringing tourist revenue to Ecuador, but by helping fund a nonprofit conservation group called FECODES, headed by Garcia.

Metropolitan began bringing tourists into the Ecuadorian Amazon, called El Oriente, in 1975. The company's floating hotel lazed down El Oriente's Napo River until 1991, when oil development and the resulting colonization chased away the array of tropical birds, monkeys and sloths that Metropolitan's clients came to see. Now they cruise the Aguarico-and the move came just in time: Last July, more than 5,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Napo, leaving a slick that fouled 60 miles of river.

Though a wildlife reserve, the new site is not protected against oil drilling. And tourism must grow if it is truly to compete. So far, oil is netting the debt-ridden country nearly eight times more profits than tourism. In the past 20 years, Ecuadorian and international oil drillers, including several U.S. companies, have pumped nearly 1.5 billion barrels from El Oriente-and have accidentally polluted the ground and rivers with more than 450,000 barrels. Oil pipelines outline clearings in the jungle, and leaking pits of toxic soups surround more than 400 drill sites, threatening underground aquifers.

But there is still hope. FECODES has contributed $85,000 toward a Cuyabeno management plan. Already, lobbying by FECODES and Metropolitan helped push the government into adding nearly one million acres to the reserve in 1991. "That's the way it should be," says Juan Black, coordinator of parks management and ecotourism for a multi-group conservation project called Proyecto SUBIR. "All three 0 working together for conservation."

Richard Donovan
Judging logging methods for potential wood buyers

As the director of the two-year-old Smart Wood program for the Rainforest Alliance, a U.S. conservation group, Richard Donovan explores logging operations in rain forests all over the world. What he sees confirms the findings of logging surveys by the World Resources Institute and other organizations: Very few timber companies in the tropics plan much beyond the next truckload of logs. "Too many operators are just mining the rain forest," says Donovan.

To offer companies an incentive to manage the forest, Smart Wood aims to give consumers a way to choose wood harvested with environmentally sound methods. Any logging company that believes it can pass the Alliance's strict social and ecological tests can apply for a Smart Wood seal. Donovan then sends a team of foresters, conservationists and, if appropriate, human-rights advocates to investigate the logging site. The company pays for the investigation, which costs anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If the company can't afford the inspection, the Rainforest Alliance may help out.

Timber companies are applying for certification faster than Donovan can process them. Dealers in Mozambique, Chile, Papua New Guinea, Belize, Brazil and Myanmar (Burma) are waiting to show their green side to inspection teams. Eighteen logging companies and importers have been certified. So far, that's a tiny percent of the U.S. wood market. Still, says Donovan, "We're beginning to penetrate the industry."

The most visible rain-forest woods are the polished hardwoods used in furniture, musical instruments, crafts and trim. But most rain-forest wood brought into the United States comes in products like plywood, pencils, cabinets, veneers and packing crates. Donovan hopes consumers will start asking hard questions. "Consumer concern reverberates through the system all the way to the foreman on the logging site," he says.

Patricia Shantey
Helping farmers identify forest products

For six years, the people of Brazil's Rio Capim, in the eastern Amazonia state of Path, have watched a team of U.S. scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts study the ecological effects of burning and clearing the rain forest. Called caboclos, the Rio Capim residents are long-time colonists of. mixed European, indigenous and African descent. For decades, they have cleared forest to plant manioc and bananas among the stumps and ashes.

Others have been cutting forest as well: In the past 30 years, more than 2,500 square miles of Para forest have been cleared, mostly by ranchers and loggers. Now the 200 families along some 20,000 acres of the Rio Capim are living on impoverished soils that provide them with barely enough to eat, let alone to sell.

So two years ago, Oscar Luz, president of the Rural Workers Union of Paragominas, approached one of the Woods Hole researchers. Before clearing yet more forest, the farmer explained, he and his neighbors wanted to know if the scientists could help them identify the valuable plants in the remaining forest.

Enter ethnobotanist Patricia Shanley, who then joined the Woods Hole team. She began by learning from the local people. "Their daily routines demand that they know the properties and characteristics of forest plants," she says. "They need to know what kind of wood is water resistant, which is flexible enough to make a bow, what fruit is edible and which poisonous, and which leaves.or roots can lower a fever." But as the forest has dwindled, so has the caboclos' knowledge.

"People are very aware of forest loss here, because it affects them so directly," says Shanley. "Now they have to walk 2 kilometers to find the vines they need to construct their homes. They can't make the baskets they need because there are so few fibers left. There is less game to hunt."

Shanley has identified about 400 different plant and tree species in the primary and secondary forests near the river, and a wealth of potential products and fruits that farmers can sell at the nearest market, about two hours away by boat. Four farmers have created forest reserves, which they pledge to leave untouched. "Our aim," she says, "is to slow deforestation by increasing the economic options available to forest residents."

Diane Jukofsky and Chris Wine live in San Jose, Costa Rica, where they direct the Latin American office of the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit U.S.-based conservation organization. They also direct the Conservation Media Center, a clearinghouse of information about environmental issues in Latin America.

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