Our attachment to the tropical rain forest has grown over the past hundred years from a minority colonial pursuit to mainstream environmental obsession. The tropical rain forest has variously been assumed to be the world's most important repository of biological diversity and 'the lungs of the planet'. As Philip Stott shows in this magnificent monograph, neither claim has any basis in fact.
The Northern environmentalist conception of the tropical rain forest is far removed from the ecological realities of the places it purports to denote. Most of the 'million year old forest' to which environmentalists sentimentally refer turns out to have existed for less than 20,000 years. During the last ice age the tropics were colder and drier than today and probably more closely resembled the savanna grasslands of East Africa. Most of the abundant plants and insects of the so-called tropical rain forest are equally novel, having co-evolved with the trees.
Claims regarding the fragility of the ecosystems in tropical areas are similarly awry. Recent research suggests that a clear-cut area will return to forest with a similar level of biological diversity to the original within twenty years. Ironically, the mythical 'climax rain forest' would be a barren place: no new species would evolve because there would be no new environmental niches to be filled.
The myth of the tropical rain forest suits the purposes of Northern environmentalists, who are able to justify demands for restrictions on the conversion of 'virgin forest' to other uses. Yet the history of the world has been one of evolutionary change. If we attempt to maintain stasis, we risk limiting our ability to adapt to change when it inevitably comes. Calls for the tropical rain forest to be preserved are founded on the implied presumption that the people living in tropical regions are merely there to protect a western construct. This denigrates their rights and dehumanises them.
If people in developing countries are to escape from the mire of poverty in which so many continue to live, it is essential that they have secure rights of tenure and are free to do with their land what they will. Some may make mistakes, some may fail in their attempts to manage the land, but many will be successful and those successes will be emulated. Through a process of experimentation -- trial, error and emulation -- people will come to learn how best to manage the land. The environment will then be managed in ways that are best for humanity as a whole, not according to the whims of a minority of eco-imperialists. Giving rights to people, not to the environment, is not only best for the people, but is also best for the environment.
Philip Stott, Professor of Biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, provides an eloquent deconstruction of the ideas that have led to the mythical western idea of the tropical rain forest, which has constrained our ability to understand the environments of developing countries and has enabled the eco-imperialist vision to flourish.
1999, Studies in the Environment No. 15, ISBN 978 0 255 36485 0, PB