Monday, October 8, 2012

They Paved Paradise

When I was a kid there was an enormous empty field across the street from our house where we spent long hours riding bikes, catching tadpoles, getting muddy and doing all that kid stuff. Sometime in junior high it got bulldozed into a subdivision of houses. Since by then I was too cool for kid stuff, I didn't really mourn its passing, but it was a really special gift to have had this parcel of wildness just outside my door growing up. Like Joni said, "you don't know what you've got til it's gone."

Graffiti in Managua: "To lose Bosawas
(Nicaragua's largest nature reserve) is
to lose everything."
Maybe it's just nostalgia, but I think stories like this uncover a bit of our natural ambivalence toward "progress" and "development." Anyway, that was what was bouncing around in my head on during our long, bumpy trip to the campo last week (driving bad roads can be really hypnotic somehow). The dirt road from Matagalpa eastwards to the Atlantic Coast is pretty terrible in the rainy season, muddy and rutted where not washed out entirely. But we passed armies of workers working to extend the cobble-stoned sections of the road, brick by brick, in a constant struggle against the ravages of the tropics.

(Road building in the U.S. is done by machines and a handful of humans; here, where the cost of labor is shockingly low and capital equipment is expensive, roads are built by hundreds of humans armed with shovels.)

It is expected that improved roads will bring economic opportunities and a measure of increased prosperity to the poorest parts of Nicaragua, which is undeniably a good thing! But there are notes of worry and ambivalence too when we listen to the pastors in the region. With roads often come a flood of newcomers, changing the culture and the way of life, new technologies, problems from the big cities, pollution and deforestation. When we visited Ecuador's oilfields a few years ago, many people told us that the road built by Texaco in the 1960s was one of the most destructive elements of the oil exploration, overnight changing an isolated corner of pristine rainforest into a frontier town.

Liscow 2012
This last week I was in the north to teach a class on "The Church and the Environmental Crisis" and several of the studying pastors had harsh words for what they called the "fever of cattle ranching" that has swept Nicaragua in the last few decades, taming the great expanse of Nicaragua's rain forest and converting it into pasture. Since the end of the civil war, Nicaragua's great wild eastern forest--including the vast nature reserves of Bosawas and Indio Maíz--has been nibbled and gnawed, faster and faster, and is now legitimately threatened (see map). According to their testimonials, in the last 30 years, a mere generation, they have seen a drastic reduction in the local forest, and the virtual disappearance of many of the iconic rainforest species. They mentioned, changes in the local climate and rainfall have shifted planting and harvest times by as much as a month.

Apropos of all this, e360 has a really interesting article and video presentation about the planned highway through part of the Bolivian amazon that has pitted Evo Morales against some of the indigenous groups who helped make him Latin America's first indigenous president.
Bolivia has been embroiled in conflict for the past year over the planned construction of a 182-mile highway, 32 miles of which would cut through TIPNIS, a vital ecosystem — located at the geographic heart of South America — that links the Andes and the Amazon basins. The road would be an important addition to Bolivia’s woefully undeveloped highway system. Yet environmental studies predict that the project will cause widespread damage, contaminating the park’s three main rivers, opening large areas of forest to illegal logging and settlement, and altering habitats that are home to 11 endangered species and rare primates. All that would threaten the traditional way of life of the reserve’s three dwindling indigenous cultures — the Tsimanes, Yuracarés and Mojeño-Trinitarios.
There is a sense, fostered by many environmental and development groups, that the twin goals of environmental protection and economic development can be wedded together through the concept of "sustainability." Sustainable development is at heart a positive, hopeful vision of a future that is prosperous, just and green -- although some have argued that it is a mirage that papers over real tensions between the two goals. I still think the concept has a lot of merit, but it's worth recognizing how hard it really is to accomplish, especially when not everyone involved is on board with the idea, even in theory (e.g. a few recent reports on the role of organized crime in driving deforestation).

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