It’s the short-term! Associated with the philosophical and ethical ideas mentioned in #17 has been an indifference about the future consequences of actions, an interest in short-term gain over long-term sustainability, a preference for free markets, and the idea that everything can be valued in terms of economics (dollars). Over time, as economic systems have become global and surpluses the norm in affluent countries, more and more goods have become available, and, as populations surge, there are more and more people to consume. Population growth, as well as the increasing desire of each individual to have more goods (and an increased ability to pay, in some countries) has led to an increase in consumer demand which shows no signs of peaking. The demand for more goods has fueled destructive activities in tropical countries, which provide many of these goods (exotic woods like mahogany and ebony, beverages such as coffee and tea, pharmaceuticals, precious metals, foods such as chocolate, cheap meat, and bananas). Many of these products are raised not only at the expense of rainforests, which are cut down to provide land or timber, but at the expense of local foodstuffs. Land which had been or could be used for local subsistence purposes is converted for raising export goods – cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soybeans and the like.

Coffee is an interesting example. Globally, there are approximately 11.8 million hectares of coffee plantations, almost all of which have been established in former rainforests. For a long time, coffee trees, which require shade, have been raised on plantations in which many forest trees are retained to provide shade for the light-intolerant coffee trees. These plantations, while not undisturbed rainforest any longer, still provide excellent habitat for a number of species, particularly birds, insects, rodents, reptiles and amphibians. More than 150 species of birds have been reported from coffee farms in Central America. These “canopy farms” provide an income for local farmers as well as retaining the integrity of the forest to some extent. More recently, new varieties of coffee which tolerate direct sunlight have been introduced, obviating the need for a shady tree cover. This coffee is raised on plantations which have been razed of their tree cover, and, because they are so open (coffee trees are rather small and spindly), do not provide a good environment for wildlife. Halweil (2002) states that there are fewer than half as many bird species in “sun” coffee plantations as in “shade” plantations. Trees in sun plantations require huge amounts of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, which contaminate the local waterways and soils. Additionally, because all of the forest trees have been removed, there is no chance that the forest can ever grow back when the plantations are abandoned. Half of the coffee now produced in Central America comes from these “full-sun” plantations. Likewise, cocoa is grown on eight million hectares worldwide. Coffee and cocoa plantations occupy 80% of the original rainforest land in Ivory Coast. Oil palms have taken the place of three million hectares of lowland rainforests in Malaysia, which produces half of the global supply of palm oil, and Indonesia, with 2.5 million hectares of oil palm planted, has designated 15 million additional hectares for cultivation of this tree (Hardner and Rice, 2002).

The interest in short-term profits is incompatible with conservation because the benefits of conservation activities will not necessarily be seen for a long time, perhaps for centuries. There is a substantial difference in time scale between economic development projects and conservation projects. Economic development forecloses options; conservation is dedicated to keeping options open. However, as Goodland (1995) maintains, “The south will gain more from a preventive approach than from emulating the short-sighted and expensive curative approach and similar mistakes of the north.”

a. Free market economics and the profit motive: In elaborating economic theories, economists have often made the assumption that natural resources exist to be exploited by humans, and that the value of everything – including our environment – can be expressed in terms of money. If, then, everything on earth has to justify itself in terms of its value in the world economy, plants and animals (and other natural resources) are simply exploitable objects, only to be kept if they turn a profit for someone. As expressed by Amelung, Torsten and Diehl (1992), “The tropical rainforest is an economic resource providing a multitude of products and input factors for a number of economic activities and industries. From the viewpoint of the respective tropical countries these resources should be exploited in order to enhance the development process, even if the exploitation of these resources incurs serious environmental problems in the long run.” This attitude toward rainforests, not to mention other resources, is widespread and pervasive. In part it is due to the philosophical attitudes mentioned above, in part to greed or unconcern on the part of governments and individuals, and in part to desperation.

b. The international economic order and powerful business interests: The purpose of the current global economic order is to make profits, and, as the components of this system are not tied to any particular social or cultural system (except the capitalistic economic system), their concerns are almost entirely economic. The marketplace rules these global organizations, and it gives high value to wood and wood products, as well as to agricultural and pastoral uses of land. It has little regard for the “ecosystem services” provided by rainforests, and which are essential for the health of the earth. Consequently, species which are popular in international trade (such as rattan and mahogany) usually suffer depletion, and the forests in which they reside are damaged or destroyed. In Papua New Guinea, where local people control most of the forest land, international logging interests override weak and corrupt government controls and persuade inhabitants to sell them logging concessions (usually at very cheap rates). This happens over and over again in tropical countries, in which the forest sector becomes a fief of the multinational logging operations.

c. Local economic benefits: Obviously, local ranchers, farmers and loggers benefit in the short run, in obtaining (at least briefly) some profits from the removal of rainforest. For some, these benefits are very large, especially in comparison with using the forest for other purposes, although their activities may result in losses for others. Consumers elsewhere may obtain cheap goods – foodstuffs, construction materials and fibers, although generally these goods do not substantially alter their standard of living. These sorts of marginal benefits are known as “diffuse gains.” For instance, in the 1980’s, Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines exported 85 million cubic meters of wood (4% of the global wood supply), worth about $3 billion (Katzman and Cale, 1990). While the benefits to the logging companies were great, loss of this supply would have simply shifted the global market toward nontropical woods and increased consumption of wood substitutes. Thus in these cases, the tremendous deforestation occurring in tropical countries (almost complete in The Philippines, and well on the way in the others) has not had a crucial effect on the global economy. Certain groups have indeed been enriched, however.

The same is true of meat derived from tropical cattle ranching. Amazonian meat production yields only 3% of meat imports into industrial countries, although the vast areas of forest converted for ranching are irremediably degraded. In the process of producing wealth for the few, many poor and indigenous peoples – those without political power – are dislocated and marginalized, and people in developed countries lose many values. “In economic terms, tropical deforestation imposes external diseconomies [a cost borne by those not involved in the activity providing the economic benefits] on the remaining inhabitants of the globe. If the polluter always paid [for these diseconomies], the parties responsible for deforestation would compensate the rest of the world for the lost aesthetic, scientific, climatological and economic option values.” (Katzman and Cale, 1990, p. 828)