The tradition of slash-and-burn farming cannot continue
text/photos by Thor Janson (www.bushmanollie.com)
In Mesoamerica the end of the dry season—April and May—finds millions of campesino farmers busy practicing their age-old method of slash-and-burn agriculture. All the refuse on the fields is put to the torch, enriching the soil with mineral ash. This traditional method of farming is sustainable as long as the human population remains small. The technique goes like this: A piece of rainforest is cut down and set ablaze. The organic material that was stored in the vegetation fertilizes the thin tropical soil. The land is farmed until the soil becomes depleted and the process is repeated.
Because the forest was big and the human population was small, the forest, in time, would regenerate. Today that is no longer the case. I have seen poor farmers arriving at remote rainforest locations equipped with nothing more than a sack of food and an ax. These are hardy, hard-working settlers simply trying to eke out a living. But unless the growing campesino populations are given a helping hand, they have little or no choice but to continue destroying the forest. In the 21st century slash-and-burn agriculture is absolutely obsolete. Soon there will be no more forests and nowhere else to go.
Forest and brush fires were blazing all around me during my recent expedition into the rainforest of northern Belize. The mountains to the south were burning; the situation exacerbated due to the fact that the pine-bark beetle destroyed nearly all of the upper elevation forests leaving plenty of dry tinder. News flash on Radio Belize: A real-life apocalypse of fire was sweeping down on Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancanaux Lodge, located 30 miles to the south in the Mayan Mountains. Tourists were being evacuated. The sky was so choked with smoke that the sun was not visible.
There is no question that all this smoke contributes greatly to global warming, and the grave danger is that this can become a self-reinforcing cycle. As things heat up and dry out there will be more forest fires, more more smoke in the atmosphere and more heat. Now is the time to break this cycle. In Mesoamerica this means that we must provide alternatives for the poor farmers who are simply following the traditions of their ancestors. Traditions which made it possible for them to survive. We cannot fault people for simply trying to feed themselves.
Urgently Needed: A Green Gospel
After working as a conservationist in Mesoamerica for 30 years I have concluded that the only way to save the forests—over the long term—is by gaining the grassroots support of the people. We need to motivate people everywhere to mobilize and become actively involved in the defense of nature.
Fifty years ago there was a massive educational campaign in the U.S. to persuade the population to stop throwing garbage everywhere. “Don’t be a litterbug,” went the slogan. And it worked! The vast majority of people in North America DO NOT throw trash on the ground or out their car windows. This is due to education.
Some years ago I was walking along a wilderness seashore, far from any human population. The beach was strewn with garbage.
My God, I thought, it must be the same scene on so many beaches around the planet. How are we ever going to clean up this mess? Clearly we need a massive, well-funded, educational campaign in Guatemala and around the world to convince Earth’s citizens that they must get involved with the defense of nature. More than half of all the temperate and tropical forests are now gone. About half of the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone and 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are now overfished. Twenty percent of the coral reefs are gone and another 20 percent are severely threatened. Species are disappearing at a rate about a thousand times faster than normal. Persistent toxic chemicals can be found by the dozens in each and every one of us.
What will it take to convince people that we must halt further dismantling of the Earth system, the foundation upon which our civilization is built? Do we have the courage, the honesty, the foresight and the integrity to turn away from our present hell-bent destruction of the natural world and begin to learn how to live in harmony with our Mother Planet?
“I dream of a land where people cherish and protect the sublime and glorious majesty of the vast and mysterious wilderness. Where all the rivers run crystal clear and the air is pure and scented with the perfume of flowers and pine trees. Where humans once again have the time to listen to the beauty of the sounds of nature, the chirping of crickets, the cry of an eagle, the night song of the wolves. A land where its people remember the Great Spirit, and give thanks for all the wonders and bounty of the Earth.” — Thor Janson