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segunda-feira, 25 de janeiro de 2010


There is a movement afoot in the United States that environmentalists call deep ecology (Tobias, 1985). In a nutshell, its basic tenet is that all living things have a right to exist—that human beings have no right to bring other creatures to extinction or to play God by deciding which species serve us and should therefore be allowed to live. Deep ecology rejects the anthropocentric view that humankind lies at the center of all that is worthwhile and that other creatures are valuable only as long as they serve us. Deep ecology says, instead, that all living things have an inherent value—animals, plants, bacteria, viruses—and that animals are no more important than plants and that mammals are no more valuable than insects (Blea, 1986). Deep ecology is similar to many Eastern religions in holding that all living things are sacred. As a conservationist, I am attracted to the core philosophy of deep ecology. Like the Buddhists, and Taoists, and supporters of the Earth First! movement, I also believe that all living things are sacred. When human activities drive one of our fellow species to extinction, I consider that a betrayal of our obligation to protect all life on the only planet we have.
Where I run into trouble with the philosophy of deep ecology is in places like rural Central America or on the agricultural frontier in Ecuadorian Amazonia—places where human beings themselves are living on the edge of life. I have never tried to tell a Latin American farmer that he has no right to burn forest for farmland because the trees and wildlife are as inherently valuable as he and his children are. As an anthropologist and as a father, I am not prepared to take on that job. You could call this the dilemma of deep ecology meeting the developing world.
The dilemma is softened somewhat by the realization that the farmer in the developing world probably appreciates the value of forest and wildlife better than we do in our society of microwave ovens and airplanes and plastic money. The Third-World farmer appreciates his dependence on biological diversity because that
dependence is so highly visible to him. He knows that his life is based on the living organisms that surround him. From the biological diversity that forms his natural environment he gathers edible fruit, wild animals for protein, fiber for clothing and ropes, incense for religious ceremonies, natural insecticides, fish poisons, wood for houses, furniture, and canoes, and medicinal plants that may cure a toothache or a snakebite.
There are indigenous peoples in some parts of the world who have an appreciation for biological diversity that puts our own conservation theorists to shame. I stayed once in southeastern Mexico with a Maya farmer who expressed his view this way:
“The outsiders come into our forest,” he said, “and they cut the mahogany and kill the birds and burn everything. Then they bring in cattle, and the cattle eat the jungle. I think they hate the forest. But I plant my crops and weed them, and I watch the animals, and I watch the forest to know when to plant my corn. As for me, I guard the forest.”
Today, that Maya farmer lives in a small remnant of rain forest surrounded by the fields and cattle pastures of 100,000 immigrant colonists. He is subjected to the development plans of a nation hungry for farmland and foreign exchange. The colonists have been forced by population pressure and the need for land reform to colonize a tropical forest they know nothing about. The social and economic realities of a modern global economy are leading them and their national leaders to destroy the very biological resources their lives are based upon.
The colonists are fine people who are quick to invite you to share their meager meal. But if you want to talk with them about protecting the biological diversity that still surrounds them, be prepared to talk about how it will affect them directly. If you look a frontier farmer in the eye and tell him that he must not clear forest or hunt in a wildlife reserve and that the reason he must not do these things is because you are trying to preserve the planet’s biological diversity, he will very politely perform the cultural equivalent of rolling his eyes and saying, “Sure.”
But he will not believe you. Instead, you should be prepared to demonstrate how he can produce more food and earn more money by protecting the biological resources on his land. The developing world colonist may understand his dependence on biological diversity, but his interest in protecting that diversity lies in how it can improve his life and the lives of his children. Colonists on the agricultural frontier do not have the luxury of debating the finer points of deep ecology.
The same thing can be said for the government planner in the nation where the pioneer farmer lives and the development banker in Washington, D.C. The planner and the banker may appreciate the moral and aesthetic values of biological diversity. They may lament the eradication of wilderness and wildlife. But if you want them to protect a critical area of forest or place their hydroelectric dam outside a protected area, be prepared to talk about the economic value of watersheds, income from tourism, and cost-benefit analysis.
In the developing world, as well as in our overdeveloped world, we are obligated to present economic, utilitarian arguments to preserve the biological diversity that ultimately benefits us all. Deep ecology makes interesting conversation over the seminar table, but it won’t fly on the agricultural frontier of the Third World or in the board rooms of the Inter-American Development Bank.
The day may come when ethical considerations about biological diversity become our most important reason for species conservation. But in the meantime, if we want to hold on to our planet’s biological diversity, we have to speak the vernacular. And the vernacular is utility, economics, and the well-being of individual human beings.
In the 1980s, the question seems to be, “What has biological diversity done for me lately?” The good news is that the answer to that question is, “Plenty, and more than you realize.” Our lives are full of examples of the logic of preserving the plants and animals that we depend upon as a species.
Our food is a good example. Human beings eat a wealth of plants and animals in the home-cooked meals and restaurant dinners that we live on day-to-day. Yet one of the most immediate threats posed by the loss of biodiversity is the shrinkage of plant gene pools available to farmers and agricultural scientists. During the past several decades, we have increased our ability to produce large quantities of food, but we have simultaneously increased our dependence on just a few crops and our dependence on fewer types of those crops. As much as 80% of the world food supply may be based on fewer than two dozen species of plants and animals (CEQ, 1981). We are eroding the genetic diversity of the crops we increasingly depend upon, and we are eradicating the wild ancestors of those crops as we destroy wilderness habitats around the world.
We are dependent on biological diversity in ways less visible than the plants and animals we eat and wear. We also depend on them for raw materials and medicines. We depend on the diversity of plants and animals for industrial fibers, gums, spices, dyes, resins, oils, lumber, cellulose, and wood biomass. We chemically screen wild plants in search of new drugs that may be beneficial to humankind. We import millions of dollars worth of medicinal plants into the United States and use them to produce billions of dollars worth of medicines (OTA, 1984).
We use animals in medical research as well, though sometimes with brutal results. We import tens of thousands of primates for drug safety tests and drug production (OTA, 1984). We use Texas armadillos in research on leprosy. When human activities threaten the survival of these animals and their wild habitats, they threaten human welfare as well.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we will never be able to demonstrate an immediate, utilitarian reason for preserving every species on Earth. Some of them may have no use for humankind beyond being part of the great mystery. But who will tell us which species are unimportant? Who can tell us which level of extinction will seriously disrupt the web of life that we depend upon as human beings?
Environmental writer Erik Eckholm says that one of the key tasks facing both scientists and governments is to identify and protect the species whose ecological functions are especially important to human societies. And “in the meantime,” Eckholm continues, “prudence dictates giving existing organisms as much benefit of the doubt as possible” (Eckholm, 1978).
One of the important factors in providing those species with the benefit of the doubt they deserve is educating ourselves and our governments’ policy makers about our dependence, as human beings, on biological diversity. That education tends to emphasize the utilitarian value of species protection. One of the results is that there is a growing, pragmatic ethic among scientists and conservationists. It is an ethic that centers on the realization that our ability to preserve biological diversity depends on our ability to demonstrate the benefits that diversity brings to human beings (Fisher and Myers, 1986).
On one level, these benefits take the form of immediate economic income through activities like wildlife harvesting, tourism, and maintaining agricultural production. On another level, they focus on unfulfilled potential—new crops, new medicines, new industrial products. Taken together, the benefits of biological diversity provide short-term income to individual people and improve the long-term well-being of our species as a whole.
These two levels of benefits work together in the sense that if we hope to see the long-term benefits of biological diversity, we have to focus first—or least simultaneously—on the immediate, short-term benefits to individual people. Few of the wild gene pools—the raw materials for future medicines, food, and fuels—are likely to survive intact in places where people have to struggle simply to provide their basic, daily needs (Wolf, 1985).
One of our long-term goals as a species is to enjoy the uncounted benefits that our planet’s biological diversity can eventually bring us. But in the short term, at a minimum for the next few decades, our basic strategy must concentrate on ensuring that people here and on the frontiers of the developing world receive material incentives that will allow them to prosper by protecting biological diversity rather than by destroying it (Cartwright, 1985). That done, we can return to the ethical and aesthetic arguments of deep ecology with the knowledge that when we look up from our discussion, there will still be biological diversity left to experience and enjoy.
The authors of the three chapters that follow are counted among the most successful and most dedicated of the scientists now working to point out the short-term and long-term benefits of biological diversity—three scientists who are working as quickly as possible to discover the unread books of our planet’s genetic diversity and to translate those discoveries into practical advantages for their fellow human beings.

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