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Written by Silvio Marchini Thursday, 24 March 2011 00:41
Photo: Survival International
Brazil is a country of forests. With five million square kilometers of forest coverage concentrated in the Atlantic Forest and especially in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil owns the greatest extension of tropical forests to be found on the planet. Aside from their vastness, our forests hold an exceptional biodiversity. In a single hectare of Atlantic Forest, one can find more than 450 species of trees; a world record. Quite naturally Brazil is acknowledged as the only country in the world whose name derives from a tree: the pau-brasil (a reddish kind of wood). But this is not the same as saying that Brazilians are therefore unconditional lovers of trees and their forests. Brazil is also a country of deforestation. The Atlantic Forest has been reduced to 8% of its original grandeur, and today it is one of the most threatened forests in the world. In the Amazon, a forest area equivalent to three times the size of the State of São Paulo has already been converted into pasture land or for plantation in the last 40 years.
Changes in the climate, major infrastructure construction works and a bill that alters the forest code threaten to produce a new thrust towards the further destruction of forests. As heirs to some of the greatest and most varied tropical jungles on the planet, many Brazilians still look on with indifference to the disappearance of their most valuable natural heritage. While efforts to hold back deforestation are concentrated within legal and economic measures, the human element – the individual – and the reasons behind his behavior to fell the forest, protect it or look on indifferently while it is being destroyed, is an aspect that has been ignored in the conservation and development policies discussed.
The manner in which Brazilians relate to their forests began to become a concern within the country and abroad since 1988, after satellite images revealed for the first time the magnitude of the deforestation occurring in the Amazon. In the same year, the news of the death of the notorious rubber tapper Chico Mendes contributed to once more place the Amazon Rainforest – and its villain, Brazilians themselves – in the spotlight of attention from the environmentalist community. Brazilian authorities reacted creating protected areas. Since 1992, more than 80 conservation units were created in the Amazon. The government, companies and civil society also sought to develop economic mechanisms to protect the forest. From incentives towards extractivism, forest handling and ecotourism to the payment for ecologic services up to the great current bet on REDD, the logic behind these financial and market mechanisms is to add a monetary value to the forest for it to be more valuable standing than felled.
However, the vision that the root of the environmental problems lies in the end within human behavior and the growing evidence that this human behavior isn’t determined solely by contextual factors such as laws and money, but also by individual factors, suggests that the protection of forests must also take into account the human dimension of the relationship between man and forest. We must understand what Brazilians really think and feel with regard to forests if you want to change in an enduring manner their behavior towards them. Human behavior, however, is a complex phenomenon, and must be examined on different levels.
How to understand this relationship
In its more fundamental and universal level, our behavioral response to the environment was shaped by evolution. Each species of animal has its preferred environment, where its adaptations allow it to prosper. According to the Savannah Hypothesis, our ancestors that lived on the plains of Africa would have developed an innate preference for open landscapes with few trees, where it would be easier to gather vegetables as well as keep an eye on and follow the herds of heavy ungulates which they preyed upon. This preference would still be
present in modern man and the evidence for this theory ranges from the prevalence of this type of scenario in classical paintings and urban parks up to the results from tests performed on people from several parts of the world to choose the most attractive landscape among photographs of savannahs with trees, open fields and closed forests. According to this vision, we are savannah animals.
We are not a forest species. Naturally, some of the people of the past established themselves in forest environments, however, using the forest mainly as a source of food and other resources, preferring to build their dwellings, have their meals and perform their rituals under an open sky, as do many of the Brazilian indigenous peoples. Few are the peoples who live permanently under a closed canopy of forest, and, as Jared Diamond shows us in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the gatherer-hunter lifestyle of the legitimate forest dwellers condemns them to a poor diet in terms of energy and, finally, to live in small groups incapable of technological development (the forest is incompatible with two of the inventions that led to the creation of civilization: agriculture and the breeding of domestic animals). Therefore, there would be a biological reason for this human behavior of avoiding forests, and this ancient impulse could be the basis of our own predatory relationship towards them..
On the other hand, the Biophilia Hypothesis proposes that evolution would have selected in the human being an innate feeling of affinity with the living world. This feeling would have stimulated our ancestors to understand risks and opportunities in their environment and, in this manner, contributed towards their survival. The quintessence of diversity and sophistication in the living world is found in the tropical forest and, therefore, this type of environment would exert on us a special instinctive attraction.
Most researchers agree, however, that the largest part of the variation with regard to human behavior is a result of what we learn. It is our knowledge and beliefs that determine our actions in a more direct manner. Indigenous people and traditional populations accumulated throughout the ages a deep understanding about the natural resources of the forests in which they live, and that allows them to extract their sustenance without felling them. They have been the main focus of anthropological studies about the man-forest relationship. However, the actors who are most directly related to deforestation in Brazil have been migrants from the agricultural borders of the Amazon. They are in their majority rural producers derived from regions where forests have ceased to exist long ago. They require an income, but still have little knowledge about how to use the resources the forest has to offer. They believe that the only way they can earn a living is by breeding cattle.
Contrary to what takes place with traditional populations, this agricultural frontier produce in the Amazon is connected to the market. The demand for soy, beef and wood drives the destruction of the forest. On the
receiving end, consumers are those who are actually driving the borders of deforestation ahead. Brazilian consumers know little about the Amazon Rainforest and its social and environmental problems. Most Brazilians live in cities outside the Amazon and are completely unaware of the origins of the products they consume, believing that the Amazon is just a distant place over which he or she has no impact or responsibility.
Our actions are not guided only by rationality from knowledge or beliefs. We are also driven by emotion. Fear, anger and love are examples of feelings that influence our relation with the natural world. Fear of snakes, spiders and other forest animals explains in part the scarcity of trees close to human habitations. On the other hand, it is because we love animals, plants and natural landscapes that we conserve our forests. National Parks that form the greatest extensions of protected forests in the Amazon are created taking into account, among other criteria, the beauty of the scenery and an aesthetic appreciation as a phenomenon of affection. The lack of emotion in turn results in indifference.
Andrew Balmford says that “the most depressing conservation problem is not the destruction of the habitat or predatory extraction activities, but the human indifference in the face of these problems”. Without an emotional connection with the forest, the average Brazilian is unconcerned that hydroelectric powerplants and the paving of highways can once again drive deforestation in the Amazon, or that the wood he or she buys isn’t of a certified origin, or that carbon emissions, even if occurring at a distance, can contribute towards a sequence of events that can culminate in a savannah-like effect of part of the Amazon Rainforest.
Lastly, our behavior also depends on the social and cultural context in which we are inserted. We tend to do that which we believe “others” are doing, especially if among these others are influent and respected community members. The rural producer concludes that “if everyone is felling trees, then deforestation is right and I should do the same”. Besides, we also do that which we think is socially desirable and we avoid doing that which seems to us to be socially reproachable. Rural property owners of Costa Rica that reserved part of their land as protected areas informed that their main motivation to protect the forest wasn’t a legal or economic one, but a social reason: they believed that the politically correct initiative would bring them prestige! As Brazilian society becomes more environmentally aware, the acknowledgement of those that take part in an organized effort to preserve the biological resources that are threatened grows considerably, especially when we are dealing with a world-known place such as the Amazon.
The modernization of our society is also accompanied by changes in values with regard to nature – from values predominantly of an utilitarian kind to one of mutual interest – so that forests gain importance as a resource for tourism or simply for its intrinsic value. Forests seen derisively as “bush” gain an image as an important and
attractive place that deserves to be visited and cared for. In the post-industrial society, the ethical horizon is expanded and moral considerations are increasingly applicable towards the way in which we behave with regard to our forests too: to exploit them in an unsustainable manner becomes immoral.
How to improve this relationship
Summing up all this, human behavior in relation to forests is influenced by genetic, personal, social and cultural factors. Although this influence may be eventually weak and not always decisive, it should not be ignored nor eclipsed by the power of legal and economic impositions. Due to the difficulty of enforcing laws in the more remote regions of the country and the limitation of economic approaches to make the forest more profitable standing than felled, strategies for forest conservation in Brazil should still include the human dimension of the relationship between Brazilians and their forests.
We must examine in which cases it is possible and applicable to influence personal, social and cultural factors, and mobilize them in a manner to complement and amplify the effects of legal and material factors. Personal factors such as knowledge, beliefs, feelings and skills – which shape the manner in which we treat forests, can be influenced by educational and communicational interventions. The social context that encourages Brazilian citizens – farmers, businessmen or politicians – to destroy the forest of protect it can be changed accordingly by means of social marketing tools; employing ‘role models’ (influent members of the community that offer a good example to be emulated); through communications conducted through respected local institutions and informal social networks so that conservationist messages are spread “horizontally” and not from top to bottom; through social rewards, including prizes (a positive encouragement instead of a negative one); and through community involvement with planning and participative management.
The sustainable future of forests will demand, however, the adoption of a new cultural paradigm, in which motivations for conservation are not just legal, economic and ecological, but also of affection, aesthetics, cultural, spiritual and ethical. This new paradigm will still have to be properly developed and applied, and therefore will also depend on the disposition of future generations to change the manner in which people relate to the forest. We need to include children and young Brazilians in this effort, and develop effective approaches to transform them into citizens that nurture a responsible relationship towards forests. Initiatives with this goal already exist.
An example would be the School of the Amazon, that has been kindling in schools of Alta Floresta, on the border of deforestation now for 8 years, the theme of forest conservation, employing two exceptionally charismatic species of the region - the white-fronted spider monkey and the jaguar – to grab the attention and curiosity of
students and educators alike, creating and strengthening a connection of affection of children towards the forest, awakening in young people an interest for economic alternatives which are more sustainable than livestock breeding and touring young people from major urban centers to meet the region’s reality up close. Laws and money alone cannot bring about immediate benefits for the forests, but on the long term, the perspectives are better if approaches focused on the individual, including young people and children, are also added to the equation. In this manner, we will stand a better change that Brazil will continue to be, for a very long time, the country of forests.
Silvio Marchini is a Doctor in Conservation of Wildlife and founder of the School of the Amazon. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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