Ethnobotany: the study of people, plants, and culture.
(Forecasts and trends)
Ethnobotany (Social aspects)
Scientific development (Social aspects)
Morris, Steve E.
|Publication:||Name: Townsend Letter Publisher: The Townsend Letter Group Audience: General; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 The Townsend Letter Group ISSN: 1940-5464|
|Issue:||Date: Feb-March, 2009 Source Issue: 307-308|
|Topic:||Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks; 290 Public affairs Computer Subject: Market trend/market analysis|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
Welcome to our humble attempt to shed light on this ongoing study
of ethnobotany. We give honor and respect to our Elders who have come
before us, as shining examples of creativity, knowledge, and balance. To
Dr. Richard Evans Shultes, who initiated and sustained ethnobotany as a
biological science, inspiring his students and his students'
students for generations to come.
These columns will be a collaboration among my sons Shawn (graduate of the University of Washington in geography and pre-law) and Aaron (third-year ND candidate at Bastyr University), and me, Steve E. Morris, ND, AGH. This first column Shawn wrote upon our return from the Peruvian rainforest in June 2008 (see the Townsend Letter, November 2008).
Bridging Nations: The Inter-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian Soybeans, and Environmental Degradation in the Amazon Basin
The Inter-Amazonian Highway is a narrow dirt road winding through the Amazon basin, stretching all the way from the Peruvian forests into the agricultural fields of northwestern Brazil. On our way to the Los Amigos Biological Station, our group, a collection of naturopathic students from Bastyr University; pharmacy students from around the US; and I, a geographer trained in development theory, drove a stretch of the highway from the Inkaterra Butterfly House to Puerto Maldonado.
While driving we kept the bus windows latched shut, as the air was heavy with dust kicked up by all the traffic. Rattling over potholes and pebbles, we passed broad-leafed plants coated in thick red-gray dust, small houses of brightly painted cement, and small buildings advertising cheap gold, as we weaved among the coughing three-wheeled cabs, bicycles, tour buses, and semi trucks hauling loads of soybeans across the continent.
After half an hour we arrived in Puerto Maldonado, a small riverside town occupied by mining families from the Andean highlands who have come to capitalize on the gold in the Madre River. The riverbed contains small deposits of gold flecks--not enough to pique the interest of larger mining corporations--that are extracted by local entrepreneurs with heavy dredging machinery and large inputs of mercury. The miners' temporary shelters, each constructed of a blue tarp draped over a single beam, were perched along the eroding bluffs of the massive river; and gold shops selling the refined product to consumers and corporations--who then resell the gold for far greater profits--lined the dusty main drag of the small town.
While we waited for canoes in Puerto Maldonado to take us upriver to the Los Amigos Biological Station, Nigel, the head researcher and our host, talked with us about the social and environmental implications of the Inter-Amazonian Highway. Nigel Pitman is a tall, thin man with short blonde hair and an intelligent face. Standing near the entrance of a tourist shop that sold maps, cheap souvenirs, and knock-off goods (such as ten-dollar "jungle pants" resembling the more expensive pants you might buy at REI in the states), he told us about the controversy surrounding this expansive development project.
As is depicted in the film The Emerald Forest, the Inter-Amazonian Highway has entailed massive environmental degradation as well as the abuse of indigenous land rights since clearing first began in the early 1960s. Currently, the road is scheduled to be paved to make overland soybean transportation from Brazil to Peru more efficient. According to Nigel, once the road is paved, a semi truck transporting soybeans will pass by every twenty seconds on its way to Lima, where the beans are packaged and shipped to China for processing. Large infrastructure projects, such as the building of massive bridges over the many rivers of the Amazon basin, are also scheduled for construction in the coming years. This development will likely have a substantial impact on the small communities along the Madre River and in other regions, as greater accessibility brings in tourists and Peruvians from other regions, leading to increased deforestation as new lands are cleared for the incoming populations.
After our discussion, we boarded the motor-powered canoes and headed up the muddy river to Los Amigos--the most remote research station in the whole of the Amazon basin. The station was developed from housing originally built for miners in the mid-twentieth century, as well as a number of newly constructed cabins for visiting researchers. The center hosts a handful of highly technical laboratories where scientists analyze field specimens and other data, a large communal dining hall, a soccer field, and even a partly overgrown airstrip.
One evening, after spending the day touring the surrounding forests and the botanical gardens, I was invited by Nigel's wife, Renata, an ornithologist trained at Oxford University, to further discuss the highway and some of the issues that concern the researchers who work in the Amazon basin. Pouring us each a glass of red wine from a carton, she clicked on her laptop and brought up a series of maps and illustrations depicting a nearby ecological corridor that hosts a number of endangered species, such as the rare Andean cat.
Currently, there is a plan to construct a railway between Brazil and Peru for soybean transport that would sever this wildlife corridor and lead to massive deforestation. Working with another researcher at a neighboring station, Renata has been writing a children's book profiling the Andean cat to raise awareness among local communities about the importance of preserving this corridor. Renata also discussed the potential problems that might result from the paving of the highway, such as deforestation, massive development, and increased pollution.
Because of these impacts, researchers like Nigel and Renata now cite Brazilian soybean farming--an industry that has grown exponentially in recent years as demand for soy-based products and ethanol fuels has increased worldwide--as the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon, with cattle ranching ranking a distant second.
The root of the issue may be the industrial agriculture model itself, which promotes high-yield monocrop farming of a few key products, such as corn and soybeans, which can then be processed into a variety of consumer goods. As exemplified by the Inter-Amazonian Highway and the scheduled paving and railroad projects, this system requires large-scale development, with equally sizeable social and environmental repercussions.
Multinational agribusiness corporations, which own all the stages of production, manufacturing, and distribution for various goods, rely on highly industrialized and fossil fuel- and chemical-dependent agriculture. This extensive ownership is known as vertical integration, a practice encouraged by free-trade policies that release cheap land, labor, and raw materials into the global marketplace for multinational investment: a process of "accumulation by dispossession" seen by David Harvey--a geographer who studies neoliberal market reform in Latin America--as pivotal to the free market. As it is in first world countries, this system is further supported by the removal of both state protections for local farmers and import tariffs, resulting in the decline of small farmers as massive imports flood domestic markets with cheap, subsidized foodstuffs produced by agribusinesses.
As the production of corn has risen in the US, other regions--such as Brazil--have been increasingly pressured to compensate by growing soybeans, which are essential to the production of biofuels. Since the 1990s, Brazil has doubled the amount of cultivated soybeans to meet global demand for biofuels and other soy-based goods. The lands cleared for soybean production are bought at deflated prices by multinational agribusiness corporations using both private and public funds. In some cases, land originally cleared for cattle ranching to meet the global demand for cheap beef is now being converted to soybean farms.
Although deforestation is accelerating rapidly, the future is not all dark. There are a number of organizations that protest the impact of the industrial agriculture system on small farmers and the environment in Latin America. One of these is La Via Campesina, an international movement comprising 146 organizations in 56 countries, which advocates for greater protection of small farmers and a move away from development projects associated with industrial agriculture. La Via Campesina, whose members include peasants, small farmers, landless poor, indigenous people, and rural youth, is working to develop a local, "peasant-based" alternative to the global agriculture system. With the continued efforts of organizations such as La Via Campesina and individuals such as Renada and Nigel, some of the devastating impacts of large-scale development projects will hopefully be avoided in the Amazon region.
Steve E. Morris, ND, AHG
315 Lincoln Ave, Suite D
Mukilteo, Washington 98275
Only when the last tree has died And the last river has been poisoned And the last fish has been caught We will realize we cannot eat money. --based on a Cree saying
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