Is the protection of the little animals in the forests useful?
There are a lot of unison expressions of goodwill about preserving animals and plants, to the point that apparently few people view things contrarily. However, there are more than romantic, ethical or legal motivations for it: the progress of civilization itself might depend on preserving biodiversity.
The protection of forest areas in a country such as Paraguay is very complex because most of these lands have been acquired by private entities as economic investments, and often it seems fair that in order to cancel the deal they ask for some monetary reimbursement, that might never come. So they prefer to use the land at full speed.
Since we are talking about money, it is good to remember that money can solve a lot of earthly problems. The conservation of forest is an economic problem: for the private land owner who must forget to use his or hers acres, sometimes bought thanks to a lot of hard work; for the NGOs that must buy forests before they are destroyed by farm activities, and for the Government, that must reroute resources to projects that possibly would bring too few votes. But, as a society, is good to reflect a little about what we are loosing when we burn forests.
Let’s imagine that we have inherited a library with hundred of volumes, many of those we have read superficially, and many others that we even haven’t opened yet and we don’t know what they are about. I think that you will agree with me that if we need more space in our studio for professional activities, we won’t set fire to all of these books.
Certainly, there is always the possibility that we don’t enjoy reading, but we could not tell if these books would or would not be useful to our children some day. And I am sure that may people around us will censor such an act of barbarism. I would be better to donate them or to sell them.
But suppose we are not able to find anybody interested on them. Would we burn books whose value we completely ignore? Yet that is what is happening to the forests at this very moment.
Let’s take as an example the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest. Many people believe thatthe name refers simply to the undeveloped lands that surround Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, but no, it is much more than that. The phrase “Upper Paraná” does not refer to some geographic Department in Paraguay, but to the “Upper Paraná River Basin”, that is, the Paraná River from the Itapúa region to beyond Sao Paulo State, Brazil, at north, including all of its secondary tributary rivers: on the Paraguayan bank, on the Argentine bank and in Brazilian territory. The “Atlantic Forest” in the name seems like a joke in a landlocked country such as Paraguay, but it refers to the “interior Atlantic forest”, or the innermost part of the Atlantic forest. The Atlantic forest is a vast region that extends (or unfortunately, extended) from the Atlantic Ocean towards the continent’s interior, reaching Paraguay’s Oriental Region and the Province of Misiones, Argentina. We must remember that these borders exist from a little over one hundred years ago, but the animals and plants that live in this region doesn’t acknowledge them. In fact, they arrived there thousands or millions of years before politicians.
Who live there? Lately, Paraguayans, Argentines and Brazilians, a their soybean, sugar cane, corn and sunflower crop fields, their cows and bulls, their cities and factories, and everything that gives people means of earning a life and run the region’s economy. But it is fair to remember that it wasn’t always this way: there was a time when there were no Homo sapiens in thousands of kilometers around, and none of their plants and animals, which they brought from far away.
In those times the landscape was more or less like this: hills and more hills with forest full of palo rosa, cedro, guatambú, incienso, several laurel species, aguai, timbó, indigenous yerba mate, palmito, pindó, 85 orquidea varieties and 250 other tree species. Flying above, there were harpía eagles, royal crest eagles, bell-birds, winy parrots, 5 tucanoe varieties and another 500 bird species. Further below, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, deer, coatis, pecarís, black lion-macaques, serpents, lizards, turtles, toads, monkeys and many more species. In the brooks and rivers, there were giant river otters, tapirs, caimans, alligators, several frog species and nearly 300 fish species. In summary: thousands of rare and amazing species, all different. And there are many more that haven’t been discovered yet, and even worse, many that only exist in these forests and in any other place in the world.
But these thousands and thousand of species are not interesting to many people, because you can not eating them, industrialize them or, aside some eccentric folks with no ethics, nobody wants to buy them. They don’t have any monetary value, not even adding them all together. People prefer to exchange all of this biological diversity for a few dozen domestic or human-created species, all of them fully known, such as soybeans, cattle and the like, that have much more monetary value. But, would the economic equation be always like this?
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
If there is anything that we had learned through experimental science is that Nature hides many more wonders that we could possibly imagine. And the more we observe, the more we discover.
Let’s imagine that astronomers could only observe the Sun, the Moon, the Morning Star, the Polar Star and nothing else. Could you imagine how the astronomy books would look like? That chemist can only experiment with a handful of chemical elements. Could you imagine Chemistry if nor Mendeleev nor anybody else were never able to collect enough information in order to construct the Periodic Table of the Elements? And that biologist could roam only through ranches and farms and pick samples of only a few market-valuable species? What would have been of Biology if Charles Darwin had stayed in Scotland studying cows and never have sailed to the Galápagos?
Every time we burn forest we are destroying valuable information that Nature generated by means of millions of years of biologic evolution. Each living species is the survivor of a long chain of mutations and testing performed by the environment in which it lived. Each one of them contains information about what works and what doesn’t work in Biology, about what is useful and what is a disability. Each species is a piece from a gigantic puzzle which we don’t even know what size is. And each species can tell us a lot about why Homo sapiens itself survived up to the present time, why it has the physical and mental characteristics it has and what are the strong and weak spots of our genetic heritage.
The entire ecosystem tells us how it is possible to be born, grow, multiply and thrive (not for years or centuries, but for millions of years) without being cared for by some farmers or cowboys. But many people are convinced that our methods of raising plants and animals are superior to what Nature has been doing in a planet that has limited resources and many more species than those we control today. They believe that we know everything, and we cannot learn anything else.
Now let’s imagine future generations of biologist studying only stuffed animals and photographs. What would their chances of improving human knowledge be? What would be left undiscovered? Some believe that the cure to cancer or AIDS. Some believe that a way to make humans live 200 years. Some people believe that what would be left undiscovered would be great things that we even can’t imagine today, like when Fleming discovered the antibiotics, by accident, in a fungus. Natural ecosystems are huge data bases with enough information for centuries and more centuries of research and discovery, with consequences that nobody can predict.
Activists from many institutions that deal with preserving Nature are like 21st Century Noahs, trying to save at least one couple of each species before “the great flooding” comes. But we now know that the biblical story is not true, because there is no room for tens of millions of living species in a 300-cubits-long wooden ark, as there is no room for all of them in the local Zoo, and not even in hundreds of CD-ROMs. Ecosystems need kilometers and more kilometers of natural environments; in this case, ancient forests. And it is good to remember that once they are destroyed there is no going back, because extinction is forever.
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First published in ABC Color, on 13 August 2006. Photograph: a jaguar ("Panthera onca") at Edinburgh Zoo, Scotland, United Kingdom. Photograph credit: Pascal Blachier, from Savoie, France (original license, of the photograph only, available at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en). With permission from Pascal Blachier.