Rain forests, they come, they go

New research suggests indigenous populations in Central America were industriously destroying their rain forests, well before Europeans appeared on the scene.

Published March 1, 2007 7:16PM (EST)

MongaBay, Rhett Butler's one-man everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-tropical-ecology Web news service, summarizes today an article about indigenous rain-forest deforestation in Central America published last year in the delightfully named "Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden."

Dolores Piperno, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Science Institute who studies "prehistoric human adaptations in the lowland tropical regions of the world, together with the biogeographical and climatological history of the tropical biome," concludes from studying pollen, charcoal and phytolith records that the indigenous inhabitants of Central America practiced enough slash-and-burn agriculture to significantly modify the existing rain forest. If not for the arrival of Europeans, who devastated the vast majority of the indigenous population via conquest and disease, and consequently gave the rain forest breathing room to recover, the indigenous manhandling of the forests would have continued unchecked.


Taking heed of this history, and not over-romanticizing the relationship between indigenous populations and forests, is key to current conservation efforts, says Piperno.

"In order to better preserve and protect the remaining forests, we have to straightforwardly assess past and present human behavior, its proclivities, and its goals. At the very least, we should more carefully define what we mean by the word conservation when we describe modern indigenous resource use ... no matter how sustainable the resource usage appears to be."

Noting the vast body of research indicates the existence of large, dense, sedentary populations in the Amazon, Piperno implies that conservationists should come to terms with the fact that tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today, and then move forward with effective strategies for preserving what remains.

"As with the forces associated with 'development' today, these prehistoric advances probably came with negative consequences for the native flora and fauna. Profound human alteration of the tropical landscape with substantial loss of biodiversity is hardly new, but we are the first societies with the wherewithal to do something about it."

How the World Works has always looked askance at indigenous over-romanticizing, possibly because we've never quite forgiven Native Americans for their role in killing off all the cool megafauna in South and North America. So much for living in tune with nature! Thus we are totally unsurprised to learn that the indigenous populations of Central America were every bit as lethal to the rain forest as modern humans are, albeit perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale..

Overall, this is a story with a potential happy ending. Because just suppose we do end up completely wiping out the world's tropical rain forests in a desperate attempt to escape peak oil by mass production of biofuels? When global warming or bird flu or nanotechnological gray goo or nuclear war between the U.S. and China wipes out civilization as we know it and, temporarily at least, ends humanity's reign of terror upon the planet, you know what's going to happen?

The rain forests will grow back.

Sometimes, taking the long view can be very relaxing.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Latin America