The Cristo Rey Communicado: Part 2
Rio Madiera, Amazonas October 1999

Chris King

  1. 1. Paradiso and Inferno
  2. 2. Mass Extinction and the Tree of Life
  3. 3. Pronouncing the Logos
  4. 4. Revival in Tierra de Vera Cruz

Map of species diversity and mass-extinctions: Left long-term in evolutionary epochs, right the next century.
We risk a mass extinction more severe than the dinosaur extinction and nearly as severe as the Permian. This will take millions of years to restore with new diversity.

There has always been fire and storm, along with small-scale slash and burn and other forms of forest destruction, forming a fractal matrix for subsequent regeneration, but what is different about the current holocaust is its awesomely massive scale and rapidity, combined with climate change, which itself renders species inviable by taking seed out of their climatic germination zone. The development onrush threatens to leave no quarter at all for diversity in the scramble to mount ill-conceived comic-strip development.

Major development organizations such as the World Bank have sponsored extremely destructive practices, including opening access routes which bring in a rash of further destruction and frank financing of short-term exploitative projects in their haste to retrieve foreign debt by wholesale extraction of utilizable resources, or by promoting short-term agribusiness development with little or no regard for the long-term future of the land, or the wider ecological impact.

National and local governments have also shown themselves capable of corrupt exploitation of massive resources and displayed a cavalier disregard for their own living resources in their rush to urban and technological progress. Gilberto Mestrinho, as mayor of Manaus in 1994 declared "Man is the centrre of the environment and I will be the governor of men, not of animals and the forest. ... There are hardly any healthy trees in Amazonia and they should all be used before the woodworm gets to them. I like trees and plants, but they are not indispensible. ... After all men have managed to live in space for a year without trees".

When mahogany had already become commercially extinct in Bolivia and there were only about 160 trees left in a national park north of La Paz, officials found that 66 of the remaining mature trees had been illegally felled in a smuggling operation. When attempts were made to hold those to account this was frustrated because they were well associated with friends of the Bolivian president in high places.

One of two articulated logging trucks sheltering in convoy in the evening at Vila Tunari Bolivia, waiting to take their load through the road blocks by night. We saw species including red mahogany, which is supposed to be banned from logging, on such trucks, coming from the direction of a national park. The large log on the trailer oozed dark red sap characteristic of Virola species which are endangered and subject to CITES.

Developmental forces are in turn fuelled by trans-national corporations, competing in the short term for rapidly diminishing resources such as tropical hardwoods with no interest in or responsibility for the regions they are setting out to exploit for financial gain. Many of these corporations have atrocious track records, such as the Asian logging companies, which have all but destroyed South East Asia's tropical forests in a few years and are now vying for strategic rights to do the same to the Amazon.

Buldozers are used both to drag logs and to forcibly clear areas of vegetation.

These influences are in turn compounded by rich land owners, often absentees living in cities like La Paz, who have received title through concessions based on their existing assets in land or livestock and who seek, often with international financing, to make the most capital as quickly as possible from any form of business development, however ill-conceived or destructive.

The effects of small scale settlers can also be devastating as they follow on a smaller scale the destructive practices of the larger hacienda ownersand development projects. Here the devastation surrounding one settlers house was grotesque yet even as we arrived to shoot they were in the midst of chainsawing down the one remaining tree of any stature in the centre.

These are followed by smaller scale colonists, miners, poachers and millers who tend to follow the destructive pattern of change already set up as a model by the development process.

Deeply rooted in the human psyche is a more insidious malaise, the combination of mechanism and religious abhorrence of nature that has characterized the Western tradition from the Fall of Biblical Genesis to the Newtonian universe. While the dominant religious theme of Christianity is dominion over an unruly abhorrent, sinful, slimy and sexually mortal natural world, a world to be feared and conquered by man in the name of God, the scientific world view stemming from Newtonian mechanism is one in which nature is merely a machina de vida, admittedly complex, but in essence a machine having no intrinsic moral or ethical value in a universe of mechanism essentially devoid of any meaning to existence, except perhaps for the rule of the selfish gene. This opens the door to frank selfish greed in the name of capitalism, and intellectual and other property rights. It is in the combination of these two perspectives, religious and mechanistic, that the most devastating destructive impacts of humanity upon nature and our prospects for a living future are perpetrated in the name of business, the free market, and short-term economic progress.

Fires on the savannah and tropical forest islands San Borja, Bolivia September 1999.

The evening thunder still echoes with reverberations of the inferno of the burning season we have just witnessed in Bolivia, devastating in one swoop thousands of kilometers of unique tropical forest in a holocaust of some seventeen hundred separate uncontrolled fires, intentionally lit, often by hacienda owners to clear the land for rapid agribusiness development, spanning vast tropical forest areas, a vista negro of several days journey, through many distinct endemic regions, culminating outside Trinidad, Trinity echoing the first nuclear blast, in a ring of fire racing towards us from all directions, scorching its way through a living jewel - a verdant ocean of emerald savannas, punctuated by small jungle islands dotted with violet and yellow flowering trees, strewn with small lakes and wetlands, teeming with the diversity of innumerable species of wading birds, capybaras, cayman, monkeys and butterflies, or mariposas as they are known in Espaniol.

The savannah and wetlands of the San Borja region with islands of tropical forest interspersed through them form a garden of Eden like vista teeming with diverse wildlife of a similar richness to the Pantanal.

A veritable Garden of Eden cut by the flaming sword, the fires levelling in an instant all this diversity to a few lonely birds crying as they fly across the blackness of the new parched darkened wasteland - echoing the two destinies of humanity, life and death, the two vistas light and dark, the two worlds good and bad, expressed precisely in the two Spanish words paradiso and inferno - paradise and hell. For it is the inferno of natural diversity which is the instantaneous transformation from living paradise to muerto diablo, death by hell fire. For the Arbol de Vida - the Tree of Life - is in biological fact, as in spirit, the ancient tree of immortality, uninterrupted by the mortal coil - to "die like one of the princes" - to which the individual organism is naturally bound from the monarch butterfly to the king. An immortality manifest in and sustained through evolutionary diversity, spanning over three thousand million years, a full third of cosmic time, leading in a web of procreation, sometimes called the germ-line, a web unbroken throughout history, to each and every one of us - the ultimate bearer of immortality in the continuity of life.

To transform the life tree to instant death in the name of progress carries with it with it an ever-darkening smoke cloud - cumulative long-term depletion of the economic health and viability of human civilization and with it the the hopes and security of life's continuity for our offspring, their offsprings' offspring and the offspring of all life forms for millions of years to come, unless this living hell, the inferno of biological and genetic diversity is arrested and a renewal of life, and with it the robustness against natural disaster, which life's diversity, by its very existence, manifests and protects, is effected in time to save as much as is conceivably possible.