Ethno-botanist Darron Collins believes it’ll take a complex, multi-level effort to save the rainforests.
Collins lived for two years with the Q’eqchi’, a Mayan-speaking people of northern Guatemala. Now with the World Wildlife Fund, Collins is responsible for the implementation of forest conservation programs throughout Latin America. EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar spoke to Collins about where we are now in our effors to save the tropical rainforest.
Jorge Salazar:The public has been aware of the issue of deforestation in the tropics for some time now. Many have been working hard to save as much tropical forest as possible. Can you comment on the progress that’s been made?
Darron Collins: There’s been significant progress over the past few decades, but the tropical rain forest problem hasn’t been solved.
It’s an issue that came to the forefront in the 1980s. It was an issue that was on a lot of people’s minds in the 1990s. But it’s tended to fade in relevance in recent years. And that’s a shame, because we haven’t solved the problem.
We’ve made good progress in terms of more and better-managed protected areas. That’s one tool in a conservationist’s toolkit for looking at tropical forest deforestation, but it’s only one. And we’ve got to understand that people will always play a large role in shaping tropical rain forests. There are ways of doing it sustainably, and there are ways of doing it unsustainably.
Certainly, timber management has improved significantly over the past decade. There are ways to harvest tropical timbers that can bring local benefit in terms of economies, and that are ecologically sustainable. There are methods of doing agroecology that are more sustainable than others. So, there are toolkits that are out there that are useful in improving the situation. But, clearly, the problem hasn’t gone away.
Over the last several decades, the world has wanted to see a silver bullet for preserving the lowland rain forests. People have felt that there’s got to be one solution. And, over the past decades, that’s meant thinking about protected areas and debt-for-nature swaps, regional and national environmental policies, and non-timber forest products. The list goes on and on.
But what we’ve learned from looking at all of the various solutions is that none of them are a silver bullet. And instead, when we’ve been successful in a particular place, we’ve been successful because we’ve instituted a strategic and integrated set of interventions that deal with everything from a very local, site-specific work, up through working with indigenous communities and other local people, up another level to looking at regional and well-financed protected area strategies, and then all the way to policy and legal reform and transformational changes to business and industry. And only when we stack all of those together in one spot, have we gotten success out of a conservation plan.
Jorge Salazar: Can you tell me more about how the tropical rain forests are managed?
Darron Collins: Frequently, up until 2000, much of lowland Amazonia was not managed for timber. Tons of timber was pulled out of lowland Amazonia, but not with a whole lot of management.
In the past five years, though, in the lowland Amazonia of Peru, they’ve instituted some really incredible reforms within the forestry sector to try and regularize forestry and make forestry an industry rather than a piecemeal, scattershot approach. They’ve instituted reforms that require sustainable forest management plans and that have regularized the concession process by which people can extract timber from lowland Amazonia. Peru has really been out in front of the curve in terms of management of lowland tropical forests for timber extraction. If we can replicate some of those reforms that Peru has made, then other countries will really improve upon what we have now.
But the take-home message is that sustainable forestry is only one element in what has got to be a multifaceted group of elements to ‘save’ the lowland forests. There’s no silver bullet for saving Amazonia. It’s only through an integrated, strategic set of conservation interventions that we’ll get anywhere.
Jorge Salazar: Can you tell me some of what has worked in Peru, and elsewhere, in terms of forest conservation?
Darron Collins: In the lowlands of Peru, it’s critical to work with local people, because local people make a living off the forest. They do it through timber, and for non-timber forest products, for medicinal products. The forest is how people live. Their local economy is all based on forest resources.
So, clearly, we have a lot to learn in the conservation community from local indigenous people about how to manage forests, and about proper and potential uses of forest products. We are not saying that we all need to live like indigenous people, because the world is rapidly changing. It needs to be a two-way street. Just as we can learn a lot from indigenous people, there are certain capacities that can be built among indigenous communities, like mapping, GIS technology, the concept of a GIS-based management plan. So, there’s a lot of learning that needs to go both ways at the very local level if we’re going to be successful in the long run.
We should also talk about national strategy, and national governments. There has been a certain trend toward decentralizing national governments. The trend has been toward giving local authorities more and more power to decide for the future of the landscapes that they’re managing. So, not only does the conservation community have to work with national government, but we also have to pay a lot more attention to local, or district level governments if we’re going to look out for the ecological integrity of lowland forests over the long-term.
And then, at a greater scale, there are regional and international treaties. There are multinational corporations whose footprint can be felt on the lowland tropical forests. So, only by looking at those three levels, and even the many more levels, only by focusing on the international, the regional, and the local, will we affect any long-term sustainable changes in the Amazon basin and worldwide.
Jorge Salazar: What are the priorities of the World Wildlife Fund with respect to deforestation?
Darron Collins: At World Wildlife Fund, our vision for both the lowland Amazonia, and for all global priorities, is one where a representative sample of the world’s biodiversity is conserved. That’s a critical issue.
Secondly, and intimately linked to that, is a world where local communities can benefit and prosper and recognize the relationship between the health and well-being of their communities and the health and well-being of the forests. That’s a critical issue as we look at the health and integrity of lowland forests.
Our vision is also of a world where industrial corporations, multilateral lending agencies, and other institutions that are global recognize that their footprint on the world is large. We need for them to embrace ecology as something that’s front and center, something that they do on a daily basis.
When those three things happen, when we have a representative set of biodiversity conserved from the tropics to the poles; when we have healthy, vibrant, local communities recognizing the relationship between healthy communities and healthy forests; and when we have these global, international institutions, both private and public, embracing ecology as something central to what they do on a day-to-day basis, then we will have success in the lowland tropical forests.
Jorge Salazar: And how close do you think we are to that vision?
Darron Collins: We’ve made a lot of progress in both the private sector and governments. Ecology and conservation and environmentalism has been embedded in the private sector and in the public sector in the past decade. But you set that against the fact the ecology and conservation aren’t on the tip of most people’s tongues anymore. The environment isn’t in vogue. It’s not an issue that people really vote on. And that’s a concern. It seems to me that the environment and conservation for the average person is less relevant than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And, when you contrast that with the fact that businesses, governments, and corporations are beginning to take ecology and conservation seriously, that’s an interesting dichotomy that I don’t know quite how to explain.
Jorge Salazar: In what way are businesses, governments and corporations beginning to take ecology and conservation seriously?
Darron Collins: The private sector has made significant strides in embracing environmental and social responsibility. It’s part of what they do on a day-to-day basis. It’s part of how they talk about themselves, part of their web sites. That’s a real advance. Not all of the advance is transformational. A lot of it is what is called ‘green washing.’ Nevertheless, significant advances have been made, and that’s great.
What’s difficult to understand is why the private sector and why governments have made these advances, but at the same time it seems as if the environment and conservation is no longer very relevant to people. It’s not what people are talking about. And that is an interesting, though somewhat puzzling and troubling, dichotomy.
Jorge Salazar: Can you give me a specific example of a company that’s taking conservation seriously?
Darron Collins: Some very large corporations, like Home Depot for example, have made very, very significant and positive strides toward sourcing more sustainable materials. That’s a big step. That’s really getting out in front of the curve. But at the same time, you ask most people who go to Home Depot, ‘Do you know where this timber is being sourced?’ They probably don’t know, and most people probably don’t care. And that’s troubling.
When a consumer questions a supplier, ‘Where does my wood come from?’ that can have a really positive effect on how materials are sourced. It can have an effect on cleaning up some of the sourcing problems that we’re having. I think that consumer questioning and consumer concern on the origin of products is important. Retailers really listen. I always encourage everybody who goes into a timber shop or a lumber supply store to be asking, ‘Can you tell me where this wood is sourced from?’ The minute that a supplier hears that, they know that there’s some concern. They know that they’re going to start thinking critically and strategically, about where the materials are sourced. That’s really important.
It’s a parallel conversation, because we are surrounded by wood and paper products. And, next time you go into work, just think about how many wood and paper products you’re surrounded by. And, think of the origin and the resources that went into making those things. The minute that you start to question the retailers, you’re making some positive steps in the right direction, making sure that we’re sourcing these things from legal sources, and eventually from well-managed sources.
I think that World Wildlife Fund is unique in the conservation community simply because we have this local-to-global scope. We can implement a conservation portfolio that includes the very local work with protected areas, work with indigenous communities, work with local governments, work on policy reform at regional scales, all the way up to working with institutions and markets at global scales. And, World Wildlife Fund is unique in that we can stack those all together and point them in one particularly important area for biodiversity.
The evolution of the next 10 years means that organizations are going to have to pay more attention to working with the private sector, certainly. We’re finding that the footprint of the private sector on the globe is increasing, and that we need to form stronger partnerships. We need transformational partnerships, where we work on changing the behavior and attitudes of the private sector in how they source their materials for example. That’s a big thing that World Wildlife Fund does, and it’s something that more and more organizations are going to have to adapt to and evolve with over the next decade.
That renewed emphasis with the private sector is a very important change. In the 1970s, for example, the private sector, the large, multinational corporation was seen as public enemy # 1 for the environment. Now we’re taking a much different and more constructive approach. We’re working with private sector corporations as true partners, as looking at the world as a place where local people can benefit, where economies can prosper, and where ecologies can be conserved. And that’s been a real change over the past three to four decades.
The bottom line is that for conservation to work over the long term, it involves working from the most local to the most global scale, and integrating those two often disparate sides of a coin to affect long-term sustainability on the ground. And I really think that World Wildlife Fund is unique in our ability to do that. And, we’ve had some amazing success in lowland Amazonia and throughout the globe, and hope to replicate those successes over the coming years.
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