Raising a crop of fire
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1998:
DALLAS, MANILA, KUALA
LUMPUR––Martha Hovers, attending 300
dogs at the Animal Refuge Foundation sanctuary
in Sherman, Texas, saw the smoke from
the burning Las Chimalapas biosphere refuge
and environs on May 27 and knew it was no
ordinary fire: the clouds were too dark, too
thick, too high. advancing as one dark blanket.
She called ANIMAL PEOPLE to make
sure we were on the story.
Among the largest dog sanctuaries in
the U.S., ARF is about as far from Las
Chimalapas as it could be and yet remain in
Texas. Mexico is most of a day’s drive south.
Las Chimalapas is in Oaxaca, toward the
southern end of Mexico, 2,000 miles away,
while the also burning El Triunfo nature reserve
is in Chiapas, even farther south.
Guatemala, where other forest fires
contributed more smoke to the blanket, is more
Eventually the smoke drifted as far as
Wisconsin and the Dakotas to the north, and
Georgia to the east.
More than 700,000 acres were razed
by mid-June. Tall trees survived, their
canopies still green, but the ground underneath
was scorched, a cinder instead of a spongy
mass of roots, moss, and decaying leaves.
Three weeks after Mexico City-based
environmental reporter Ron Mader of E l
Planeto Platica began trying to alert U.S. colleagues,
the sky grew so dark over Dallas that
the Dallas Morning News dispatched Randy
Lee Loftis to check it out.
Loftis hadn’t yet read in the June
1998 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE that the
Hindu creation myth holds we are now living in
the age of Kalki, when the world will go up in
flames. But he did note in a June 2 syndicated
feature that the Las Chimalapas fire and other
tropical fires around the world are symptomatic
of global economic and cultural transition.
“All three of the countries whose
forests have burned recently––Indonesia,
Brazil, and Mexico––are mostly rural and agricultural,”
Loftis explained, “but high-dollar
commerce also has pushed forests toward the
edge. In Indonesia, evidence shows that settlers
were being paid by large corporations to
burn forests to convert land into corporateowned
palm or rice plantations, some conservation
specialists said. In Brazil, experts place
much of the blame on commercial timber companies,
whose roads open up new areas to
farming and ranching.
“But in the parts of Mexico that are
burning,” Loftis continued, “the driving force
is the old tradition of small-scale slash-and-burn
farming. Used by the poor around the world,
the technique substitutes the torch for the plow.
First, the farmer cuts the biggest plants,”
which are frequently trees that can be sold as
logs, for the price of tools, seed, and perhaps
some livestock. “Increased air flow and sunlight
dry out the plot,” Loftis summarized.
“Then the farmer burns what’s left, clearing the
land and recycling nutrients.”
Potentially problematic animals––
such as poisonous snakes––flee the fires or are incinerated.
The system works for poor farmers while the forests
hold out and monsoons come in time to douse the flames before
too much burns at once. It works even better for big farmers,
who soon enough buy or expropriate and then link the peasantcleared
tracts into parcels amenable to mechanized cultivation,
where the soil and climate permit. Around the world, agribusiness
no longer has the clout to cut into rainforest with impunity,
as it did 20 years ago, but the international environmental community
is sympathetic to indigenous needs, and besides, it’s
cheaper and easier to let the peons do the dirty work.
That’s how it worked on the U.S. frontier, too,
where near-penniless immigrants and migrants from the crowded
east cleared the land, fighting natives and nature for it, only
to lose most of their gains within less than a generation to the
banks, the railroads, and corporate strategies for using
economies of scale to extract much more return from each acre
with much less human toil.
Dispossessed by grasshoppers, droughts, and finally
the Dust Bowl, the U.S. working poor had mostly resettled
from small farms to cities by the mid-twentieth century, less
than 100 years after the first wagon trains rolled west.
The world today has 445 million fewer acres of native
forest than it did in 1980, losing 161 million acres just between
1990 and 1995. Offsetting the loss of biomass, the volume of
land occupied by tropical tree plantations has doubled to 208
million acres since 1980, all according to the United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organization. The rural land base is producing
much more food and wealth than ever, yet the human
population is increasingly concentrated in cities.
The U.N. believes another 222 million acres of tropical
forest will be cleared and cultivated within the next 10
years, as 97% of human population growth occurs in the topics.
The current rate of population growth requires an annual 1.8%
increase in the world food supply. Need drives destruction of
nature reserves. But use of armed force to protect nature fuels
insurrection, Conservation International director of Mexican
and Central American programs James Nations warned Loftis.
Examples range from the guerrilla warfare smoldering in
Chiapas, to the squatters overrunning the national parks of
Africa and much of Asia, to wise-use wiseguys terrorizing conservation
officers in Alaska and the U.S. west.
Nor are the effects of rainforest destruction limited to
the tropics. Ecologically destructive as it is, slash-and-burn
farming around Las Chimalapas probably still couldn’t have
touched off a blaze of the magnitude of the one in May if the
region hadn’t already been abnormally dry––just one of many
catastrophic apparent effects of El Nino, the recurring high
pressure zone in the western Pacific that since early 1997 has
disrupted rainfall and helped spark forest fires around the globe.
Scientific debate continues over whether or not the
increasingly frequent reappearances of El Nino over the past 20
years are themselves symptomatic of the loss of tropical forest,
resulting in more heat reflected from the earth in the regions
where trees once stood, but it does seem apparent that the
smoke drifting over Texas this spring helped to prematurely
heat the upper atmosphere to summer levels, keeping clouds
high and prolonging a drought that began in April.
By June 19, 33 Texas counties had applied for federal
disaster aid due to drought. Drought-related agricultural
losses in Texas were officially projected at $517 million for the
year. This would still be only 10% of the drought-related losses
reported in Texas during 1996, the dryest year so far of the
decade––and 1996 was not an El Nino year. But the 1996
drought did follow a year of abnormally harsh weather in central
and northern Asia.
Exactly how such patterns influence each other
around the globe is still uncertain. More and more certain,
though, is the climatological evidence that the earth is getting
warmer, and that how people feed themselves in the tropics is
going to profoundly effect both wildlife and how we feed ourselves
in North America.
Missing the story
Loftis, Giles Whittell of the London Times, Mark
Stevenson of Associated Press, Molly Moore of the
Washington Post, and most other reporters on the scene in
Mexico focused on the familiar angles.
First came vivid coverage of the firefighting, contrasting
barefoot natives mounting bucket brigades with the
arrival of American water and chemical bombers, whose use
was restricted by the rugged terrain and lack of visibility.
“Antonio Juarez,” wrote Moore, “is a foot solider on
the front lines of hell. His weapons against southern Mexico’s
worst fires in a century are a machete and five gallons of water
in a rubber backpack.”
Then came concern for the loss of biodiversity. “His
futile mission,” Moore continued, “is to help hold back the
raging wildfires that are gobbling Mexico’s last remaining virgin
cloud forest, home to nesting toucans and quetzals, charring
tens of thousands of acres of hunting territory of endangered
jaguars and pumas, and creeping beneath the thick blankets
of lichen and mosses on the forest floor to consume the
roots of rare flora.” Sixty-two species of reptile were at risk,
Stevenson noted foxes, tapirs, and raccoon-like coatis
fleeing the fires, and quoted Juan Carlos Cantus of Greenpeace
Mexico on the loss of “rare and little-studied species of insects,
orchids, and bromeliads, plants that grow suspended in the
canopy above tropical forests.”
Loftis, apparently the only reporter to cover the agricultural
angle in depth, got around to it in his seventh paragraph.
The others, if mentioning agriculture at all, offered no
more than transient mentions of the role of peasant land-clearing
in starting the blazes.
Late March fires that ravaged more than 3,700 acres
of mouse deer, tarsier, and bearcat habitat on Palawan island,
the Philippines, drew similar coverage, as did fires that spread
to peat swamps a month later in the Kuala Langat Forest
Reserve and other parts of Malaysia.
No one made the connection between the ongoing
series of fires and seemingly unrelated developments in North
Korea, which has belatedly––and grudgingly––accepted foreign
help in response to ongoing crop failures and famine,
resulting mainly from decades of dictatorial mismanagement.
Human interest coverage was intensive when
Hyundai industrial group founder Chung Ju-yung, 82, on June
19 returned to his boyhood home in Asan, North Korea, for an
eight-day visit, after several days ofdickering at the border.
Recounting how in 1933, at age 15, he stole and sold
a cow from his father, using the proceeds to get to Seoul and
start building his fortune, Chung brought with him as a homecoming
gift 500 high-quality cattle in 50 trucks. Of the 200
cows, 150 were pregnant. Another 500 cattle were to follow.
Chung had already sent 10,000 metric tons of corn north, and
planned to send north another 40,000 metric tons. His total
investment in expanding North Korean cattle production comes
to approximately $8.5 million.
Chung emulated on a grand scale the ongoing effort
of the 18-year-old Sri Sathya Sai Central Organization, of
Singapore, headed by engineer Wee Lin, 52. Earlier, Sri
Sathya Sai sent North Korea 100,000 metric tons of rice and
180 metric tons of corn. Then, Braema Mathi of The Straits
T i m e s reported, they were inspired by the example of “rich
people in India giving cows to poor villagers to help them
become more independent.” The Vishnu Dairy Farm of
Singapore sold Wee Lin and four friends five dairy cows, at
$1,200 apiece, whom the men personally took to North Korea.
The Kim Jong-il Communist dynasty isn’t likely to
want poor villagers to become more independent, however. It
might want factory farms, bringing livestock under the same
intense control as the North Korean human population.
Burning rainforests are only one manifestation,
among many, of the ongoing Third World transition from
agrarian to industrial economies. In the west this transitionary
phase was called the Industrial Revolution. The last stage, following
establishment of the factory system, and extension of
factory methods from manufacturing into education and governmental
organization, is industrializing agriculture, amounting
to a redefinition of the traditional relationship between
farmers and animals.
Once virtual voiceless partners in pulling plows and
carts, work animals almost disappear. Livestock, formerly
kept in large part for their milk, eggs, and help in refuse disposal
and insect control, come to be raised instead mainly for
cash value as meat.
Meat production comes to dominate agricultural economics,
because funneling grain and other resources into poultry
and pigs for resale to urban markets is more profitable to the
individual producers than just selling grain––even if the environmental
cost and the cost to the health of society is greater.
As in the U.S., the Third World is just beginning to
find out about the risk of factory farming, brought with the
promise of chickens or pigs or prawns in every pot.
“Pig breeders must have oxidation ponds,” the
Sarawak Tribune bannered on May 23, describing the introduction
of environmental controls by Malaysian environment
and public health minister Datuk Amar James Wong.
“Imagine a huge farm with 15,000 pigs discharging
their wastes into the river,” Wong said, sounding much like
his counterparts in North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa,
Oklahoma, or Utah––except that in the U.S. the numbers per
farm are often 10 times greater.
Malaysian authorities are also battling the use of illegal
livestock growth stimulants, such as clenbuterol, apparently
introduced from the same Dutch and Belgian sources whose
influence produced the clenbuterol scandal exposed in recent
years by the Humane Farming Association.
But the most urgent farming issue for most of
Southeast Asia is the simultaneous threat to wildlife, fish
spawning, forests, and topsoil presented by the fast-paced conversion
of mangrove swamps, rice paddies, and even irrigated
guava, mango, coconut, and grape plantations into shrimp
factories. A traditional staple of the Southeast Asian diet,
shrimp are in such demand that the developers can make hitand-run
profits whether or not their operations are sustainable.
In parts of Thailand, for instance, the modus operan –
di has been for well-connected people to lease coastal logging
concessions, clear the timber, flood the land, raise prawns
while they can, then reinvest elsewhere before the leases
expire, leaving behind severe erosion and salinated soil that
may never again grow crops. Thailand has struggled to stabilize
the industry since 1991, but passing laws and declaring
new regulations has proved much easier than enforcing them.
Get rich quick
As small farmers lose their ability to compete, many
sell their land or lose it to creditors, becoming wage laborers
on larger farms, or migratory labor, familiar in the Americas
but relatively new to Southeast Asian agriculture. Others strive
to delay or prevent their exodus to cities and other occupations
by speculating in specialties, seeking a new niche.
Some of the scams are also borrowed from the west.
Diana Ratnagar of Beauty Without Cruelty India has been fighting
for a year or more to maintain legal obstacles that inhibit
ostrich and emu ranching. Two emu producers got started
before Ratnagar learned of their activity, but as of mid-March,
she advised ANIMAL PEOPLE, ostrich production seemed
likely to be averted. ANIMAL PEOPLE has assisted her by
providing extensive documentation of how ostrich and emu
promoters bankrupted thousands of desperate farmers in the
U.S. during the early 1990s, encouraging frantic acquisition of
high-priced breeding stock until in 1995 the boom turned to
bust amind spreading realization that there would never be
much market for either ostrich or emu drumsticks.
Thailand is struggling with the consequences of moving
too slowly against nutria speculators. Five companies
imported 4,640 of the thickly furred aquatic rodents in 1996 and
1997, according to the Thai Agriculture Extension Department.
By March 1998, 1,970 purchasers had bred at least 35,057
nutria––only to find no market for the pelts they had been
assured would make them rich. Polling 1,333 nutria breeders,
the extension department found that about two-thirds would
either eat or sell their animals’ meat, 24% would merely kill
them, and 5.5% would release them into the wild. Similar
speculative failures in the U.S. left feral nutria populations in
Louisiana, Texas, and Oregon. In Thailand, however, feral
nutria might become food for escaped and/or intentionally
released crocodiles, left from a previous round of speculation
on foreign fashion.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, Johor state Fish Health and
Quarantine Division head Ramli Khamis warned farmers about
raising piranhas for the aquarium trade without permits.
Inspectors in May seized about 50 piranhas from two farmers in
Batu Pahat and Senai, along with non-native fish of 38 other
species, any of which might have devastated native marine life
had they escaped from breeding ponds.
Distinguishing opportunity from chimera can be difficult
for any investor, but is even harder for under-educated
peasants, who hear often about the profits to be realized in livestock
husbandry assisted by genetic engineering, and are sometimes
introduced to dubious schemes not only by flim-flam
artists but also by well-meaning philanthropists and/or government
Recent Star of Malaysia headlines ballyhooed official
efforts in Perak to promote turtle ranching and production of
ayam kampung chickens, who purportedly don’t require
imported feed––though if raised on a commercial scale, they
The Straits Times of Singapore suggested that camel
breeding could become profitable in Thailand, because, said
experimental breeder Sak Thongcharn of the Lumpayakland
Animal Husbandryu and Research Centre, “We have to be prepared
for the day when a severe drought hits this country, or
when all our elephants have been wiped out by poachers.”
The Indian National Research Center on the Camel at
Bikaner, India, has promoted the same message for 14 years.
India has about 1.5 million working camels at present, who can
draw about the same load as a light pickup truck at comparable
speeds on typical rural roads, are well-adapted to the Indian
desert climate, stand high enough to see and avoid dangerous
traffic, and can kick the brains out of anyone who mistreats
them beyond their rather high threshhold of tolerance. Camel
enthusiasts such as Animal Rights International–India president
Laxmi Narain Modi argue that camels could humanely take
over the work of thousands of more fragile and less efficient
work animals, while saving India the cost of importing petroleum,
the major contributor to the Indian foreign trade deficit.
But there is one fatal flaw to a vision of camels as the
locomotive power of the Southeast Asian future: their soft feet
suffer severely on pavement. Even in the poorest parts of both
India and Thailand, the main-traveled roads have been paved