It's not really true that U.S. greed for cheap beef and pulp is responsible for destroying the Amazon forest at incredible speed, nor that the World Bank is staffed solid with cynics who care for little beyond their own high salaries and freedom from income tax.
But what is unarguably true is that the great tropical forest is vanishing (every year the global loss of forest land equals the size of England and Wales). If the forest is lost altogether it may be thought of as a calamity comparable to nuclear war. The fact that it is not taken all that seriously is less a reflection of the danger than of our natural distaste for unpleasant news.
Meanwhile scapegoats are sought for the tropical damage already done. As Nicholas Guppy, a longtime student of tropical rain forests, observed last year in Foreign Affairs, we may be approaching, in the destruction of these forests, a crisis point between human activity and life support systems. Which means simply the point at which anything resembling a high civilization becomes impossible.
One tempting scapegoat is the World Bank, which can be made to seem the ultimate fount of evil in the world. Its crimes, such as they are, consist of lending vast sums of money for projects worked out with tropical governments that result in hopeless forest damage, attended by human misery.
Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) said recently at a Senate hearing on the effects of such lending that the American people would be shocked if they knew their tax dollars (a fifth of the World Bank funds and the largest contribution of any nation) were being used for such destruction. An example is World Bank payments for a road through the forest of southwestern Brazil and the urging (by the Brazilian government) of the poor to strike out and claim free farmland there. The forest is rapidly disappearing, but the farmers lured to the wilderness have failed, because the land itself does not support agriculture more than one or two years. Then the farmers move on to new land if they can get it, or work cheap on cattle ranches, which also fail because the land does not support ranching, either. Who cares where the hell they go?
There are impressive laws in Brazil to ensure the Amazon's preservation, but then there were laws in America during Prohibition to prevent drinking. And while so temperate and respectable a student of the forests as Nicholas Guppy will say that every World Bank project is a model of careful planning and implementation, he would hear loud objections from many who have also studied the matter. And even he says that increasingly there are fears that the World Bank's enormous loans "may actually encourage deforestation in poor countries -- that they can gain in the short term twice over, first by selling their forests and then by getting loans to repair the environmental damage -- to pay for which they cut more forest; while the banks and lending countries acquire interest payments, export orders and political and economic power . . ."
The World Bank says nothing to these charges, beyond sending an irate senator a letter saying in effect thanks for your inquiry and if we can help further, etc., etc. -- a response Sen. Kasten calls an insult, and which probably has something to do with his threatening to reduce American contributions to the Bank.
Before the delicious prospect of unrestrained Bank-bashing obscures all reality (admittedly the temptation to sing an alleluia or two for the senator's hearings is considerable) it ought to be said that the World Bank did not make the mess with which it has had to deal.
There is almost endless land in Brazil, to cite an example. Each Brazilian family could have 10 acres useful for agriculture without touching the forest. Half the farmers of Brazil own only 3 percent of the farmland, however, while 1 percent of the farmers own 43 percent. The World Bank had nothing to do with that.
The World Bank also had nothing to do with population policies and, in a nutshell, the problems of tropical nations would be horrendous even if the Bank never funded another Amazonian development scheme.
Tropical countries borrowed multibillions to spur their industries (rocketing oil prices did not help) and must somehow pay the interest. Which translates to exports to the rich world of the United States, Europe and Japan, and since one obvious export is farm products, this means the "efficient" use of large blocks of land. Which in turn means the displacement of small landholders, who are invited to take up free farms in the Amazon where they promptly fail and add to the problems of their nation.
"To meet this self-inflicted need," Guppy argues, "the rain forests of Amazonia . . . were opened . . ." with disastrous results that all can see.
The problem is easier to state than to solve: How do debt-ridden tropical nations pay their debts except by "development," and how can this development take place without destroying the surprisingly fragile forest which, once destroyed, cannot possibly be renewed within forseeable centuries?
One way to begin with some sanity is to require that whatever else is done, the Amazon forest may not be ravished. The effect of its destruction on the life of the planet, human as well as plant and animal, is as unacceptable as nuclear war.
Many World Bank critics would settle, or at least temper their anger, if the Bank supplemented its high environmental rhetoric (for of course it is opposed to witless destruction) with an adequate staff of ecologists (which it lacks) to report on the effect of these great "development" schemes before the Bank agrees to pay for them.
World stability, financial and otherwise, does not permit rich nations to pull out and leave the tropics to collapse or explode. It is some progress to notice the problem, and to acknowledge the danger of forest destruction. Self-flagellation in the United States for our part in encouraging tropical exports will not achieve much, and neither will it help to substitute Brazil-bashing or Indonesia-Ethiopia-bashing for Bank-bashing. Brazil, which keeps being mentioned because it has most of the great forest, is more concerned with the problem than we are -- lest anybody think they don't care.
Nothing has been said here about timber production, a knotty problem in itself, nor the dumping of large populations in new localities where their prospects for starving are excellent. Nor of the effect of sudden influxes of billions on governments not used to having so much to handle -- the temptations to graft would be enormous in our own country, and perhaps in the tropics, too. And it is impossible in a sentence to say why the biological richness of tropical forests is a priceless treasure.
Already, even in America, rumors of alarm over the forest are detectable. They are going to get louder.