I have been tramping around rainforests for more than three decades now, pursuing research, community engagement, conservation and my own love of nature. I have spent time in tropical forests, all remembered for the life lessons they taught me.
Forests and forest people have a lot to teach the “developed” world about how ecosystems work and how life is sustained in diversity and abundance.
In my first solo expedition into the forest in Papua New Guinea in 1975, I learned that despite my academic experience, real knowledge was context-specific – in the jungle, I was the ignorant student and my barefoot guide was the eminent and all-knowing professor. He had a lot to teach me about the ways of the rainforest.
Forests Need People
On a 1978 trip to Panama I learned that rainforests without their local rainforest peoples were vulnerable to rapid and wasteful resource exploitation.
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In the Lakekamu Basin of Papua New Guinea I came to see that local people need to remain the stewards of their own forests. They may require some help from the outside, but they must be the leaders of any process that promotes local sustainable development.
Working with Economic Realities
My expeditions to Indonesian New Guinea (then called Irian Jaya and now called Papua) taught me about the world of great resource-extractive companies and their pervasive environmental and social impacts.
One not insignificant task of a large industrial operation in a rural setting is the need to assist local sustainable development without overwhelming indigenous cultures and their traditions. On the other hand, the government of a developing nation who gains big cash rewards from the industrial development project needs to invest its royalty payments, and remember that these “royalties” are payments of principal—not interest. Too often the principal is spent as soon as it is received, with nothing for the rainy day, after the resource is gone.
My five sojourns in India taught me about the perils of scientific imperialism. Western scientists often are oblivious to the needs and aspirations of local scientists. Close collaboration between foreign and in-country researchers benefits everyone, and reduces the tension.
People and Rainforests Across the World
My field trips to Madagascar and Cebu Island, Philippines, gave me a view into the not-so-bright future of the world’s rainforests, should our global resource-exploitationist habits continue unabated on this planet.
Why can’t more national leaders learn the costs of failing to plan for the future? We all will need fertile soil, clean drinking water and abundant lumber a century from now.
I also learned that tropical forests have a lot of physical similarities across the continents, and should be managed at the global level to protect critical global environmental processes.
Good Governance is Good for Forests
What did I learn from my travels to the Ivory Coast? That political stability and good governance are pre-requisites for successful nature conservation. That self-determination is a critical component of a civilized world.
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Moreover, stable land tenure is essential as well. The movement of tribal groups across West Africa has led to the degradation of natural resources as landless groups settle in forested areas that have not yet been developed by the local tribes. Forests are the source of health and prosperity, but we often think of them as “waste land” without value, and we hand them off to others without a thought.
We are Only Beginning
Exciting explorations of the Foja Mountains of western New Guinea taught me that humankind knows this Earth hardly at all, and that virtually every patch of forest is home to new species waiting to be studied and described by naturalists. Humankind has a mandate to know the natural world in order to better understand civilization’s best options for a sustainable future.
Cultural and natural diversity are what make this planet of ours livable and interesting. We need to conserve both the diversity of human societies as well as wild natural diversity if we want to leave our grandchildren a world worth living in.
The tropical forests of the world are the domain of forest-dependent peoples who are those forests’ protectors. To protect the forests, one must foster those forest societies and give them the autonomy to manage these natural resources so critical to the Earth’s health.
EXPEDITION: Read the daily dispatches from Bruce Beehler's travels to the Foja Mountains.
CI Senior Research Scientist Bruce Beehler’s latest book is “Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest” (Yale University Press, $28)