Elevating the Amazonian Landscape

By Balee, William | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Elevating the Amazonian Landscape


Balee, William, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


In eastern Bolivia, human artifacts include a diverse flora, suggesting that human occupation in the past actually enhanced the landscape of today.

The conservation literature, for the most part, indicts a single of Amazonian species for the current deforestation rainforests. That species, of course, is us. This indictment--which is not just a rhetorical straw man but clearly a widely held view among conservationists, scientists, and lay persons alike--is a scatter shot that unfortunately takes down the innocent and guilty alike before there has been any trial by the evidence.

As a species, Homo sapiens displays fundamental sociopolitical variation. It is this variation, and not biological, linguistic, or cultural variations, that is relevant to environmental destruction in our time. Simply stated, hunting-and-gathering bands, horticultural village societies, and chiefdoms have been less associated with species extirpations and extirpations on continental land masses, such as that of Amazonia--the watershed of the Amazon River--than have states, ancient and modern.

The Roman, Aztec, and Inca empires are examples of archaic states; the United States, Bolivia, and Brazil represent modern states. Archaic states rely mainly on taxation and tribute, whereas modern state economies are manifested by markets, prices, and finances that consistently transcend territorial boundaries. Both archaic and modern states accumulate surpluses, which to some extent have come historically from unsustainable harvesting of nondomesticated resources and reduction in the variation of crop species in the fields. [1] Ironically, in today's world, it may be up to the state to ensure conservation.

Instinct for Survival

The background rate of species extinctions is merely a constant that reminds us that all life forms are doomed. Above and beyond this constant rare, the fossil record reveals cataclysmic events whereby large numbers of species--sometimes entire genera and suites of species--have perished together. The record of our own minuscule slice of geological time may one day prove to have been another cataclysm of species extinctions. Individual organisms harboring unique, unreplicable DNA, and all their fellow species members that shared the same code, in essence, vanished in these events.

Evolutionary forces alone probably would not have selected for a species that could be mostly or solely responsible for massive extinctions of other species, since one cannot show how species extinctions increase the fitness of individuals from other species. Massive disappearances of entire species, as are presumably occurring in the world's richest biomes--tropical rainforests and coral reefs--seem to bring no fitness advantages to any creatures. If a single species is responsible, that same species exhibits the variation on which natural selection does not act directly, if at all: sociopolitical and economic variation.

Assigning Blame

Some conservationists would nor exempt the native peoples from some share of the blame in species loss. Paleontologist Paul Martin, for example, has made the point, widely accepted by many, that extinction of scores of taxa of megafauna in the Americas coincided with the arrival of the first humans and that their hunting technology was chiefly responsible for a blitzkrieg on those fauna. [2] That view in a sense blames the entire human species for the modern extinctions that exceed the background rate.

The argument goes that the destruction of other species is a natural artifact of the ingenuity of humans, who make and use destructive weapons. There is also an assumption that humans are indifferent to the survival of other organisms in their environment. But not all human societies can be so easily classified. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the hunting technology of Late Pleistocene people in South America was not geared toward dispatching megafauna anyway.

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