RAINFORESTS around the world are littered with memorials created in the name of progress. Even the expansive Amazon, a place so filled with life in all its beautiful and hideous forms that it seems still stuck in the maelstrom of the Creation, has been badly scarred.
Roger Stone and Catherine Caufield report that pristine rainforests have become battlegrounds between nature and those bent on imposing their order. The casualty list is frightening: Indians who have been displaced by meaningless roads that go from nowhere to nowhere; thousands of acres of erstwhile rainforest, now gray moonscape, foraged by skinny cows searching for a few blades of grass; and small farmers fighting to hold onto a miserable patch of cleared jungle against the private army of some corporate landowner. In short, the forest and its natives -- plants and animals, including humans -- are dying.
This is progress?
In fact, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest will cause a greater global disaster than "energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government," according to one of Stone's sources.
If this is so, and Stone and Caufield make a strong case for the magnitude of the Amazon apocalypse, then why are trees tumbling at such an alarming rate? Why are we draining the life's blood of this planet?
The world's hunger for paper, furniture and building materials is one reason. The regional hunger for vacant land in Brazil and other rainforest host countries is another. Then too, Brazil has a foreign debt of nearly $100 billion, and a lot of people there think that a pay-off may come from the mines and forests of the Amazon.
So it seems time that analysis of the fight for survival of rainforests include deference to the role of nationalism, foreign debt and population explosion. Only through an understanding of the pressures these forces exert upon the countries that hold rainforests can meaningful conservation policies emerge. Tell a hungry man he can't clear a patch of jungle to try to grow crops, and he'll have your hide. Tell a people that tampering with their land will change the world's climate, and they'll tell you: "Mind your own business. A fine job you did with your Indians and dust bowl."
It's already irrefutable that if we destroy our natural environment, sooner or later we'll destroy everything that thrives on it, including ourselves. At this stage of our knowledge, journalism about the global environment is barely useful if it only laments the obvious and avoids the conundrum posed by the forces of development and destruction.
CAUFIELD'S BOOK, admirably ambitious, is a disappointment to those seeking to know if there may be a widescale scheme for the survival of these resources. She has the enviable assignment of reporting from the rainforests of the world, but she does it sophomorically. For example, she concludes: "One reason that the Central American rainforests seem doomed to disappear is that their destruction takes five cents off the price of an American hamburger." Such silly overstatements devalue the serious observations she is trying to make.
A more useful observation would be the effect on the forest, if any, of the change in government in Nicaragua; after all, she condemns Somoza as environmentally rapacious. Shorter lines at Hardees aren't going to save too many trees, but maybe, for example, the new democracy in Brazil will have a positive effect. The fate of rainforests is not determined in rainforests, but in boardrooms and government chambers.
Caufield's writing is laden with snap observations and the easy clich,e. She describes one scientist as "a born and bred Californian, fluent in what Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau calls mellowspeak . . . a dead ringer for the blond policeman in the television series Starsky and Hutch."
What is most maddening about Caufield's shortcomings is that a grand statement was nearly hers. In writing this book she raised expectations: she postulated that the rainforest in Bali has something in common with the rainforest in Brazil which has something in common with the rainforest in Zaire and so on. Unfortunately, there is no narrative thread, no control of the subject; each chapter opens as if nothing came before. At one point she neatly hypothesizes that "the life expectancy of most forest people is perhaps half that of a middle-class European or North American, who can stay alive for many years in an unhealthy state. When they cease to be healthy, forest people die." A hundred pages later comes a chapter on the wonderful natural pharmacy which forest people have discovered to cure their ills.
Roger Stone, on the other hand, embarked on a more manageable venture, through the Brazilian Amazon only, and writes about it deftly and intelligently. A correspondent for Time-Life in Brazil in the 1960s and now a World Wildlife Fund official, Stone evidently had been bitten by the "writer's bug" that infects nearly every traveler with the urge to get to the nearest typewriter and describe hair-raising adventures.
He has carried around that enthusiasm for a score of years, during which time he culled libraries for nearly every tale from the conquistadors to Teddy Roosevelt, and he complements his reports of these epics with excellent interviews of scientists feverishly studying this jungle before it is all destroyed. Stone's book is a primer of Amazon history and an articulate warning about its future. He recognizes that the forces at play in the forest are more complex than the price of fast food.
What he sees happening to the Amazon fits one man's definition of progress -- and Stone's definition of ultimate destruction. Human occupation, other than by indigenous groups, has been a disaster. When this fertile land is tampered with, there is no reward to the violator. The conquistadors found hunger, not gold; Henry Ford, who had plans for the world's largest rubber plantation, found a tree disease; and cattle ranchers have found that the soil beneath the lush forest is really nutrient-poor and cannot sustain pastures.
A government minister in Brazil shared these same observations with me a few years ago. He admitted that development did not always connote progress. "But how do you keep people away?" he wondered aloud.
Then he rubbed his forefinger and thumb together. "That's it. Yes. The world wants us to leave the Amazon alone, because it is a treasure that belongs to everyone? Fine. You pay us, and pay all the people who go there for the treasure they're after, and it'll be left alone."
Would that things might be so easy. Then it would be enough to write about how pretty the flowers are.