In December of 1993 I took my second jungle eco-tour in the headwaters region of the Amazon River. My earlier adventure was in December of 1976. I think about those tours every time I read about our continued deforestation of the planet.
One of the obvious solutions to removing the carbon dioxide that’s causing climate change is to stop cutting down our forests. However, one of the many recent studies on climate change, from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, reports that reforestation alone won’t be enough to save the planet. It’s undoubtedly true that the main thing we need to do is to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, which means we have to stop burning fossil fuels: oil and coal. But it’s also true that we need nature’s solution to removing the excessive amount of CO2 that we’ve already placed and will place in the atmosphere: trees.
It doesn’t get much attention, but one of the worst things about the Canadian tar sands excavation is that it is destroying an ancient boreal forest that should be preserved. It’s a spruce and pine forest the size of Florida, and it will be completely razed to get to all the tar sands oil – but only if we make it profitable enough for them to do so by allowing the pipeline construction.
Hopefully by the time you read this President Barack Obama will have vetoed the irresponsible Keystone XL pipeline bill. The bill is intended to help make Canada an oil empire and to enrich the Canadian tar sands owners and its American investors like the Koch brothers. The Canadian public doesn’t want to run the risk of piping that nasty crude across Canadian soil and hope we will take all the risks instead. Expectedly, the Fox-Republican-Tea Party in Congress is trying to oblige them.
The best hope for saving the forest is a combination of two things: continued low oil prices and a vetoed pipeline. Using trains to ship the crude is not only more dangerous than a pipeline but also more expensive. A July 2014 analysis by the Department of Transportation projects that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next 20 years. Greed is the driving force behind the pipeline, and if it’s not built, the huge expenses of destroying the forest and excavating the tar sands oil won’t be worthwhile.
As important as forests are in getting a handle on climate change, there are other reasons for saving them as well. They are also habitats for wildlife that are in danger of becoming extinct like gorillas in central Africa and orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. People who could care less about vanishing habitats and species seem to always sarcastically mention the spotted owl. I recall my father’s initial response to the fate of wildlife due to our careless actions: he asked, “That’s too bad, but what good are they?” My immediate answer was “What good are we to them?” He quickly conceded, “That’s right.” Too many times, moral arguments are never considered.
Forests also harbor unique trees and other plants that have medicinal values. And that brings me back to my jungle eco-tour. In the early 1990s, I was teaching history at the American School of Guayaquil, a coastal city in Ecuador. During a Christmas vacation, three friends/ fellow teachers and I traveled by bus east of the Andes into Ecuador’s Amazon basin.
I had previously met the owner of Amarongachi Tours in the town of Tena, so I recommended our using his operation. He placed us in the hands of a native family who shuttled us by dugout canoe across the Rio Napo and then led us on a two-hour backpacking hike upriver to their compound. We were on the foothills of the Andes Mountains and in the headwaters region of the Amazon River.
The compound of our guides and caretakers consisted of a few bamboo huts that they lived in plus a dirt-floored dormitory and dining room for us. The toilet hut had wooden flooring over a hole with one square cut out in the middle of the room – that was the toilet, and it worked just fine.
They showed us what they had planted for their own use – things that grow well in tropical climates: a ti plant, which is used as a detergent; a cocoa tree; a yuca plant (not “yucca”), which I call a jungle potato; and some pineapple plants, which require 18 months to reach maturity – you can imagine how much rainforest would have to be cleared if you made your living from pineapples.
From the compound, our guides took us on treks through the rainforest to locations that had interesting trees or plants. My two favorites were the achiote and dragon’s blood trees. The achiote tree has beautiful red “gumballs” that provide a red juice that can be used as a sunscreen, an antibiotic, or a dye. A native tribe in central Ecuador uses it to dye their hair red, which is why the Spanish named them the Colorados. The dragon’s blood tree was really special. A guide took his knife and made a small slit in the trunk of the tree. Red blood came oozing out. It can be placed on a wound to stave off or cure infections.
Deforestation is equivalent to planetary suicide. Forests are necessary for our and other species’ survival. Anytime a forest will be destroyed for reasons of greed, like the Canadian tar sands, we should all be outraged.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 25, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor and again on March 10, 2015, as a guest editorial.