Paradiso and Inferno
I begin this hymn to the regeneration of life in night vigil amid relentless tropical lightning, reclining in a hammock on the Conquista, a river boat to Manaus on a pilgrimage to the greatest forest-jungle and hot-spot of biological diversity on planet Earth, the veritable living Garden of Eden, domain of the giant water serpent the great anaconda. I have come to witness at first-hand the impact of human development on our great tropical paradises and to make a plea for the tree of life of diversity while there is still time.
It is written in consummation of a tortuous series of journeys along many rivers from the very source of the Amazon in sedge swamps on the high altiplano, along the alpine Urubamba, past the precipitous peaks surrounding Machu Picchu, over the high snowy Andean pass to Qillabamba meeting the Urubamba again rolling out of the cloud forest, navigating white-water rapids in a dug-out canoe down her, culminating in the Pongo de Manique, the manic gorge forming the last wild portal of the Andes. On, past remote villages and missions to the frontier oil town of Sepaua and then by planing outboard canoe down that anaconda, the muddy, log-strewn Ucayali, to sleepy Atalaya. Then in a hot noisy banana boat strewn with bales of dried catfish winding its way relentlessly north for many days, to Pucallpa. Then by river freighter to the junction of the Maranon, where we wandered amid the lagoons and meanders of the Pachaya and Samiria, and on to that decaying gem of the rubber boom, Iquitos a city of 100,000 accessible only by river. On to Leticia at the Columbian, Peruvian, Brazilian triangle and down the Brazilian Solimões now ever-larger, sweeping steadily under the hull as it cuts its way towards Manaus and the final confluence with the clearer, darker Rio Negro, where the mighty Amazon will finally and unambiguously wind it's way unchallenged to the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course all the tributaries, from the Madeira to the Madre de Dios, Mother of God, from the Negro to the Napo, are Amazonas in the integral whole, just as la selva, the forest and its ecological diversity of plants, fungi and animals is also the verdant Amazonas - the largest tropical forest on Earth, literally the lungs of our living planet, fashioned from over 250 million years ago, as the Andes began to push upward, reversing the westward river flow of the original continental valley that had from time immemorial flowed to the Pacific, now forming the world's hugest river basin, as the giant shallow lake spanning almost the whole of the South American continent finally broke through to the Atlantic in the East.
Yet the Amazon is unique neither in its diversity nor in the destruction taking place. Diversity is threatened todo mundo - the world over - by a mass extinction which will haunt human civilization throughout the rest of our fragile history, unless we can take the steps now to plant the seeds of renewal. Hence this hymn to life.
The rivers we traverse form an endlessly flowing highway, bordered by thatched villages with their attendant gardens and small plantations, mingling natural harmony with forest destruction, sometimes living closely in cooperation with the natural world, but nevertheless on a vast scale taming and forever changing the face of the forest along every river bank, because of the mass movement of population into the jungle, diminishing or eliminating many keystone species, from the seed-eating fish such as the great paiche to the the tall hardwoods, such as the stately mahogany, and with them the many other dimensions of climax forest diversity, as the secondary growth of a few dominant species lays claim to areas cleared of virgin forest too extensive to regenerate in full diversity.
Many indigenous peoples have learned how to live in close proximity
with nature over countless centuries, without causing massive
wholesale destruction, although it is true that the first waves
of migration of 'primitive' humankind did cause the demise of
many of the America's great land animals. Many village societies
today do demonstrate how it is possible to live in cooperation
with natural diversity and reap, through nurturing it, the benefits
of abundant food, diverse medicines and many natural products
which enhance the quality of life, both at home and in far-flung
urban societies. It is from such village culture that a more compassionate
relationship with the natural world already made by many indigenous
peoples can be engaged and celebrated by an enlightened eco-society.
It is also possible to have a productive world with genuine abundance
for all without wholesale destruction of the world's great wilderness
areas, given a fairness of distribution of resources to those
in genuine need. Currently, there is up to 50% more food produced
world-wide than required to feed every man woman and child, so
the real problem is fair distribution, clouded by ownership and
property rights and who pays the distribution costs, not lack
of arable area.
However, unrestrained developmental forces are encroaching upon the landscape from all directions with an ever accelerating pace of wholesale devastation, which could see the great forest resources of living diversity reduced to a few national parks, comprising only a tenth of their former area, before the end of next century.
If this happens, as current rates of felling and burning indicate,
two thirds of the living diversity of planet Earth could become
extinct by 2100. Much of this drive for extinction is abetted
by international financial pressures, but it is also comes from
a deep misunderstanding of humanity's relationship with nature,
fuelled by personal greed. Climatic change and rising oceans may
make this situation profoundly worse.
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
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 centre 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 indispensable. ... After all men have managed to live in space for a year without trees".
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.
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 livestock, or drug income, 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. These are followed by smaller scale colonists, miners, poachers and millers who tend to follow the destructive pattern set up 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.
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.
A veritable Garden of Eden cut by the flaming sword, the fires levelling in an instant this diversity to a few lonely birds crying as they fly across the blackness of a 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. 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 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 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.