Magazine article The Humanist

Slicing Up the Rain Forest on Your Breakfast Cereal

Magazine article The Humanist

Slicing Up the Rain Forest on Your Breakfast Cereal

Article excerpt

Here you can experience that special feeling that inspires poets and explorers--from the myriad vegetative forms so evident even on first glance to the misty mornings that invoke mysterious feelings and bucolic images of paradise lost. The rain forest here, as elsewhere, is a collective human construct that some times serves as our mystical Garden of Eden, but it is also a material collection of fabulous plants and animals, a natural construct of the high temperature and heavy rainfall of equatorial climates. The trade winds rise as they encounter the eastern seaboard and with their ascent they cool, condensing the water vapor they borrowed during their voyage across the Caribbean. The consequent rains collect in several basins and come together roughly at the town of Puerto Viejo, continuing northward to empty into the San Juan River, the border with Nicaragua. This is the region known as the Sarapiqui (sah-rah-pick-ee, with an accent on the ee), site of several of the world's most famous rain forest conservation areas.

Streaming into the area to partake of the breathtaking beauty of the natural world in this region are biologists, ecologists, and ecotourists, spending their grant money or retirement savings to visit the "heritage of humanity" It is hardly necessary to repeat the cliches any longer: tropical rain forests cover only 7 percent of the earth's surface yet harbor at least 50 percent of the world's plant and animal species (the earth's biodiversity); they are the lungs of the world, eating away at the excessive carbon dioxide we have excreted from our incus trial metabolism; they are the source of foods and pharmaceuticals, bananas and Brazil nuts, chocolate, cashews, coffee and cocaine, cortisone and quinine. They are also beautiful! The aesthetics of these forested lands cannot be overestimated, and the sense of wonder one experiences walking through this cradle of biodiversity cannot be expressed in words.

But as anyone visiting the Sarapiqui can readily see, all is not well in this Garden of Eden. Certainly, it remains beautiful inside of the conservation areas. The problem is outside those areas. And the problem is the same one Costa Rica has had ever since Minor C. Keith built his famous railroad and helped found the United Fruit Company in 1898. The problem is the banana. Currently, at least five major banana companies are converting vast acreage in the area to banana plantations, thus threatening both directly and indirectly the rain forests we so revere. Those same biologists, ecologists, and ecotourists who love the rain forest when they're in Costa Rica also love to slice bananas onto their cereal in the morning. And with our penchant for viewing the world in isolated little disconnected fragments, it is apparently difficult for us all to see the connection between the knife that slices the banana in our cereal bowl and the chainsaw that slices tree trunks onto the rain forest floor.

Not so long ago, environmental activists in the developed world became aware of the so called hamburger connection. Central American rain forests were being cut down at an alarming rate to make way for the production of low quality beef to supply the fast food industry in the First World. Stop eating fast food hamburgers, the argument went, and you would reduce the demand to cut down more forest. The banana expansion currently underway in Central America has been likened to this hamburger connection. But the whole argument surrounding the hamburger connection was flawed, and an at tempt to construct the same argument for bananas would simply repeat that flaw. In fact, the expansion of bananas, like the expansion of pasture for beef production, is a tangled web of subtle connections. Tweak the web at one point and it reverberates all over, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The transformation currently underway in the Sarapiqui is neither unprecedented nor unique, which makes it a useful example. …

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