The Multinational Monitor

MAY 15, 1985 - VOLUME 6 - NUMBER 5

S T R A T E G I E S   F O R   T H E   S O U T H

Rainforests: Going, Going, Gone...

In the Rainforest: Report from a
Strange, Beautiful, Imperiled World

BV Catherine Canfield
304 pp. $16.95; Alfred Knopf
Reviewed by Stephen Schwartzman

There is good news and bad news in Catherine Caufield's In the Rainforest. The good news is that the day after the last tree in the last rainforest has fallen, you won't wake up with no air to breathe. The notion that rainforests are the world's "green lungs" is false, since forests consume as much oxygen as they produce. The bad news is that if you live in New York City, oxygen will do you little good since by then the whole area could be under 16 feet of water. One possible result of massive deforestation, the "greenhouse effect" from increased C02 in the atmosphere, could raise temperatures and change climate worldwide.

Caufield's book could lift the haze of exoticism that has surrounded rainforests- "jungles" in much of the Northern hemisphere and put what is happening in the world's rainforests on the agenda of human rights and environmental organizations.

In a cogent and well written book, Caufield shows the vast biological diversity that is being lost in the destruction of rainforests and evaluates some of the costs and benefits of the process. Government officials and corporate beneficiaries of development are fond of putting the situation as a kind of Faustian bargain- rainforests, and the peoples indigenous to them must be sacrificed on behalf of the poor and landless. Can field suggests that very often the devil does not pay, even in the short term. She says, "the effect of most rainforest exploitation is to redistribute wealth upward. The permanent, widely distributed benefits of the intact forests the protection of wildlife, water catchments, and the soil, and the provision of food, medicines, and building materials-are turned into immediate, short-term profits for a small group of investors and consumers. Some of this upward redistribution is blatant. Jant, for example, a subsidiary of Honshu Paper company, will have finished cutting a 330-square mile piece of rainforest in Papua New Guinea by 1990, to ship 20,000 tons of wood a month back to the mill in Japan. Jant sells the wood to its parent company cheap, so it never makes a profit and consequently pays no dividends or taxes in Papua New Guinea. This "transfer pricing" costs New Guinea $11 million a year. Multinationals and local companies in Brazil get walloping tax incentives to invest in the Amazon; tax rebates on investmenys of up to 50 percent, ten-year holidays, exemptions from import duties and sales tax.

Exporting raw materials, such as timber, often ends up benefiting multinationals more than the exporting countries, when these countries buy back the finished products of their exports, such as paper and plywood.

Rainforests grow on some of the poorest soil on earth, but hold an astounding share of the biological diversity of the planet. Perhaps five million species of plants and animals and insects, 40 to 50 percent of the species that exist, live in the 2 percent of the earth's surface covered by rainforest, many unknown to all but the local peoples. In South America, there may be 2,000 species of fish alone still scientifically unnamed.

Caufield has done an admirable job of describing both the adaptation of indigenous peoples to their environments and the myriad and often devastating pressures on them.

Caufield does not neglect local complexities-the difficulties, for example, logging companies have encountered in trying reforestation, or the opportunity that forest colonization holds out for poor Indonesians in the massive "transmigration project," or the drastically unequal land tenure relations that send South America's landless into the Amazon. But from the global scrapbook of rainforest development she has assembled, a big picture emerges. From schemes to turn a tributary of the Amazon river into a 1,200 mile long chain of lakes (only the first stage of a larger project), to a factory turning Highland New Guinea forests into 40 million pairs of chopsticks a month, to the leveling of Central American rainforests for pasture to teed future fast food burgers, there is a familiar sameness to the short-term profit motivations in play.

The problems are complicated, but Caufield's research is well done. The book raises the central questions of how these resources are to be used, in whose benefit, and who is going to decide, in a thorough and compelling manner.

Stephen Schwartzman is a freelancer who has conducted anthropological research among the Krenakore Indians of the Brazilian Amazon.

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