FEBRUARY 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 1
Species Vanish as Profits Soar
In 1978 the snail darter, a tiny fish inhabiting the Little Tennessee River, gained prominence throughout the UnitedStates when the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the construction of a dam that threatened the creature's survival.
The plight of the snail darter illustrates one of the least publicized but most critical environmental issues of our time: the problem of disappearing species. Scientists estimate that every day one more of the earth's five to ten million species of plants and animals becomes extinct. Current patterns of forestry and agriculture could precipitate the disappearance of one million species over the next 25 years-an average of 40,000 annually. By 1985 mankind may witness the loss of one specie per hour.
In his new book The Sinking Ark, Dr. Norman Meyers analyzes both the causes and implications of this pattern of rampant extinction. Meyers examines the problem of threatened species "within the framework of relationships between the developed world and the developing world," giving careful attention to the role of multinationals. He presents a chilling catalogue of evidence illustrating mankind's disregard for wild plants and animals and the potentially devastating consequences of this shortsightedness.
Wild species have proven vital in the development of new kinds of food, livestock breeds and medicines. According to Meyers, "the planetary spectrum of species can be considered among society's most valuable raw materials." Consider these few examples:
Throughout the world, exploitation of the environment is contributing to the disappearance of species. But Meyers is particularly alarmed by the destruction of tropical forests, the most species-rich regions on earth.
Tropical forests, covering only 7 percent of the earth's land surface, contain two-fifths to one-half of all species on the planet, Meyers estimates. These regions are also the earth's most threatened. Settlement schemes, collection of firewood, timber exports, mining and livestockrearing have all contributed to the decimation of these forests. Once occupying an estimated 16 million square kilometers, moist forests now cover only 9.35 million.
Meyers persuasively argues that increased demand for beef in industrialized countries has led to the destruction of tropical forests. In Costa Rica, entire forests have been cleared to raise cattle for export to the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. In 1950, one-eighth of Costa Rica was covered by pastureland; by 1978, that proportion had climbed to one third. And while the country's cattle population increased from 900,000 to two million, consumption of beef by Costa Ricans declined by 26 percent.
The book identifies the multinationals-particularly giant timber companies-as playing a primary role in deforestation of the tropics. According to Meyers, the high costs of initial investments in a logging operation lead multinationals to adopt the least costly and often most irresponsible methods of subsequent exploitation. And extensive foreign investment in the timber industry translates irresponsibility into devastations of forests. The scope of these operations is immense. In Latin America, 50 U.S. corporations are involved in nearly 100 different projects. In Indonesia-where tropical forests cover two-thirds of the country-Japanese firms hold concessions totaling 100,000 square kilometers. The Djajanto Group, a consortium of Japanese companies, controls an area the size of Massachusetts.
Meyers perceptively examines the implications of corporate and governmental policies that treat species as a "free good." In fulfilling short-term demand for beef and tropical hardwoods, corporations and governments are destroying plants and animals that could contribute to advances in medicine, agriculture and industry.
But the significance of The Sinking Ark extends far beyond its immediate concerns. Meyers' book is another example of the growing alliance between natural scientists and social scientists. Anthropologists, biologists and health experts are tending to reject traditional academic limitations on their work, to increasingly address fundamental economic and political questions. The Sinking Ark, by effectively combining a call for the preservation of endangered species with an analysis of international economics and the role of multinational corporations, will no doubt promote this trend.
- Williarn Taylor
This important book by a Brown University sociologist examines the interaction of multinational corporations, local entrepreneurs, and the military government in Brazil; a country characterized by the large-scale penetration of foreign capital.
Overflowing with facts and statistics, the work analyzes the relationship between these three interests through case studies of specific industries including pharmaceuticals, textiles and petrochemicals. According to Evans, while the interests of these groups often diverge, their alliance is sustained by a consensus on the need for capital accumulation.
The vast majority of the Brazilian people, Evans emphasizes, neither participate in, nor benefit from, this triple alliance. Brazil's unique form of "dependent development" has failed to meet the needs of the country's peasants and workers.
Evans' book is valuable both as an introduction to theories of development and underdevelopment and as a detailed case study of the political and economic power of multinationals.
This technical study examines Arab government policy towards foreign investment in the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Its early chapters analyze the historical role of foreign capital in the region, focusing on both oil and non-oil investments.
Ajami's most significant work involves his discussion of the attitudes of Kuwaiti and Iraqi "elites" towards multinational corporations. In a series of interviews with 66 leaders from industry, government and the academic community, Ajami characterizes the "investment climate" in the two countries. Questions ranged from the purely political (is it contrary to the interests of your people to permit the concentration of capital in the hands of large firms?) to the more technical (do you believe that the capacity of your country to interpret information that affects its negotiating position to be relatively greater than it was through the 1960s?).
Although short on analysis, the book provides useful insights into the views of Arab leaders on the future of foreign corporate activity in this oil-rich region.