Feb 28, 2013 - Issue 506

Another Tragedy in the Rainforest

In ancient Greece, Euripides, the playwright, told the story around 416 B.C. about a man who returned home after a long absence expecting to be reunited with his wife and children, only to be driven mad resulting in their deaths at his hand.

The man was Hercules and the play was a tragedy, as was Hercules.

In 2013, another tragedy is forming, only this time it does not take a playwright to create the script. This tragedy is being planned by a New York-based corporation, Herakles Farms (Hercules) and it plans to clear-cut a rainforest 10 times the size of Manhattan in the West African country of Cameroon. The forest destruction will be for a palm oil plantation that will provide profits for the “farm” corporation.

According to the environmental organization, Greenpeace, the area to be destroyed is “home to some amazing wildlife, like African elephants and endangered chimpanzees. And, it is also home to more than 14,000 Cameroonians who rely on the forest for subsistence farming.”

The group said this month that clearing of the rainforest from the area already has begun. Although Herakles has insisted that it is engaging in this enterprise in a “sustainable” way and that it is being done in a place where minimal forest clearing is required, they do not provide any proof that this is the case.

Their palm oil plantation is enormous and whatever rainforest area they clear-cut, it will be further destruction of wildlife habitat and, literally, the homes and forest farms of the people who occupy the land now, including the forests themselves, which are vital to the subsistence living of the people.

The subsistence living of the people does not seem to be a hindrance to Herakles’ development of its plantation. After all, they say they offer a new way of sustainable farming and the people will be able to work on the plantation and be introduced to the modern methods of agriculture, such as that seen in the U.S. It’s doubtful that the Cameroonians are told of the difficulties of farm life in the U.S., that small farm agriculture is on the way out, and small farmers are forced to sell out and work for industrial agriculture giants or move to the city for low-wage jobs, if they can find any.

A similar fate awaits the Cameroonians who live in the area destined to become a palm oil plantation. Some will likely find employment on the Herakles holdings. The others? Who knows? One thing is for certain, and that is that once a forest is clear-cut, it will take several long lifetimes for another forest to grow to similar size and function in the ecosystem. So, humans should be extremely careful about disrupting something that seems to be working well.

Herakles would like the world to believe that it only wants to help the Cameroonians and that its operations in Africa and elsewhere are simply to provide that help, ignoring the issue about who benefits from the rainforest destruction and the “unsustainability” of a monoculture like a palm oil plantation. Innumerable U.S. corporations have traveled the world, telling the people that their methods and operations will be good for the people of the country, again, ignoring the disastrous results of monoculture industrial farming in the U.S.

To help the general public understand the benign nature of the company’s efforts in the country, Herakles has even put a Cameroonian native in charge, Dr. Blessed Okole, senior vice president of strategic planning and field operations. Also at the top of the staff in Cameroon is Sarjit Singh, senior vice president, agriculture. Okole holds a Ph.D. in agriculture technology, while Singh holds a B.S. in agronomy science from Punjab University, India.

Environmental organizations are generally very critical of displacing human cultures and wildlife populations for the kinds of development Herakles is embarking upon and it is mostly because they see such an operation as unsustainable, in that clear-cutting rainforests is virtually always so, no matter how the issue is dressed up. Herakles has promised to show the people who are displaced modern methods of agriculture and to provide some 10,000 jobs. Usually, these promised jobs are low-wage, which do not compensate for the loss of traditional ways, cultural and social.

It’s unlikely that the people had anything to say about their removal from the lands. It is very likely that the deal was cut between Herakles negotiators, on behalf of CEO Bruce Wrobel, directly with the government of Cameroon. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, French Cameroon became independent in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon and, in 1972, a new constitution replaced the federation with the United Republic of Cameroon. 

Since 1982, however, the country has been ruled by President Paul Biya, who appoints the prime minister, the Supreme Court judges, and he has the power to lengthen or shorten the five-year term of the legislature. According to the CIA, “The country has generally enjoyed stability, which has permitted the development of agriculture, roads, and railways, as well as a petroleum industry. Despite slow movement toward democratic reform, political power remains firmly in the hands of President Paul Biya.” It does not take a great leap of understanding to see the ease with which Herakles and Biya, alone, could come to an agreement on the clear-cut in the south of the country.

Despite Herakles’ contention that the area already had been logged and degraded (and, therefore, it wouldn’t make much difference if it were clear-cut), Greenpeace stated that “ground, aerial and satellite surveys have shown this to be untrue. Rather, areas that have been logged have been done so selectively and the forest remains largely intact. Thus, Herakles Farms will be cutting down dense, high canopy tropical rainforest.” 

That means that Herakles will be clear-cutting sustainable rainforests, to make way for the growing of a product that will make them much profit, but leave the people who live there with little to show for the destruction. For them, there is little expectation that their government would be responsive to their wants and needs. Since they cannot use all of the palm oil that would be produced, obviously the product is for export, sold on the world market. Palm oil, which is native to West Africa, is used for cooking, cosmetics, lubricating oil, and diesel and other fuels, among many other uses. In such an arrangement, the only one that would profit from the plantation would be Herakles. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Far away, in another part of the world, there is a very different approach to saving the rainforest while, at the same time, enriching the lives of the people who depend on the forest. Willie Smits, for 30 years, has labored in the rainforests of Indonesia and he has found a way to grow cash crops, keep the rainforests as they are, and teach local people how to benefit from the research that he and they have accomplished during their long collaboration. The 56-year-old Smits is a conservationist, a trained forester, animal rights activist, and a microbiologist. He is now a citizen of Borneo and has been recognized by the Indonesian government for his work and dedication.

The difference between Smits’ vision for economic development of “developing” countries and that of companies like Herakles is stark. The sugar palm trees that Smits has planted on thousands of acres of rainforest (as a demonstration of what can be done on a massive scale) do not require cutting of forest for them to thrive. They grow well under the canopy of the forest, can be dispersed throughout the forest, and can be tended by individual farmers, who benefit directly from their sugar palm trees. There are many of the same uses for the sap from the sugar palm, including biofuels. 

He has come up with a plan for processing of sugar palm sap by people who live in the deepest rainforest, where there are no roads. Called “village hubs,” the little factories can be lowered anywhere, even into the roadless forest by helicopter, so the people can process (add value) to their sugar palm production, which can then be taken out to be sold at a higher price than the raw sap would bring. Such an enterprise allows the people to maintain their independence and way of life, send their children to school, and solve some of their social problems. Smits’ group, Masarang Foundation says of the people and their hubs, “They can make a better living and preserve the forest at the same time. Not only do the Hubs process sugar sap, they are also equipped to immediately deliver clean bio-ethanol (healthier to cook on than wood), electricity, drinking water and even have tools for medical care.”

Smits’ vision is one that is needed in our dealing with all of the rest of the world, since he believes that sustainability will only be achieved when the majority of the people in the developing countries are the beneficiaries of any programs, especially those that are promulgated by the technologically advanced nations. It’s too easy for any program that is offered by a transnational corporation to become a program that only makes money for that corporations…same with governments.

There are entire bureaucracies of developed nations that are devoted to “helping” or “aiding” or “assisting” the developing countries, but the end result is nearly always the same: There is a great flurry of activity, such as the clear-cutting in Cameroon, when jobs are available, for some, and there is some benefit, for some, but in the end, the money goes to the corporation, to foreign banks, and out of the country. The people who have been displaced are then left with the destroyed residue of the natural resources, which brings them nothing but disruption of their societies, and the loss of the necessities of life. What is happening in Cameroon is happening in virtually every part of the world and the exploitation of people in need is becoming commonplace.

Americans are suffering the same fate, in some ways. The nation’s heartland is full of communities that are just vestiges of their former selves, with their empty storefronts, theaters, schools, and churches. The connection to the outside world is a big box discount store at one of the exchanges of the nearest Interstate highway. The bustle of a hundred farm families in the community has been replaced by the relative silence of a computerized “farming” operation, likely owned by investors in New York City or Chicago. They are the ones who have decided which towns, villages, and small cities will live and which will die. The people have no say in any of it, except after the fact. And then, they say, if they say anything, what they have heard from the boardrooms and the schoolrooms, on television, and in their local newspapers is: “You can’t stop progress.”

So it is in the U.S., with the issues of hydrofracking for oil and natural gas and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring toxic tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Houston, Texas. Both are set to do irreparable harm to vast regions across the country, if we are to judge by the history of corporate activity over the past century. This time, however, the people are organizing and rising up over environmental and social issues, but it remains to be seen whether it will make a difference. The people, in so many ways, have little control over their own lives, compared with the power that Corporate America wields over people.

It’s hard to decide which came first, the disempowerment and displacement of American farmers and workers, or the displacement of peasant and indigenous peoples around the world to make way for the corporate kind of “progress.” Did the transnational corporations use the American technique to exploit the developing world or vice versa? It doesn’t really matter which came first. In both places where they have held sway, the results have been the same. Since the peoples of developing nations have little power, it is up to volunteer organizations in the rich nations to try to bring corporations to heel. 

These are tragedies of Herculean proportions in the making and it will take the same kind of efforts of sheer numbers of citizens to thwart the destruction that is coming. The planet needs friends and there are very few to be found in the government-corporate coalitions that are striding across the world, ever in search of more and more profit.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.