Let’s Go to the Videotape! Documentary Provides Balance to Save-the-Rainforest Celebs

From the August/September 2000 issue of CEI UpDate


Two cute tamarinds, perched on a branch, appear to frown and furrow their brows with concern as the camera cuts to a view of a tree being chopped down. It’s a powerful image, one employed artfully by the World Wildlife Fund in Amazonia, its politically-charged video about the rainforest. Amazonia is typical fare from environmentalists pushing political agendas under the guise of “saving” the rainforest. Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, Environmental Defense, Rainforest Relief, the Smithsonian, and the National Wildlife Federation all have “save the rainforest” campaigns. Hollywood gets in on the act with efforts like the children’s film Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, and an annual star-studded rainforest benefit concert in New York. These groups construe the rainforest as a fragile ecosystem, pushed to the brink by man’s greed.


Now comes a documentary to supply much-needed balance to the rainforest debate. American Investigator (AI), a syndicated television news magazine seen frequently on the America’s Voice network, found its own powerful images to counteract the alarmist rainforest rhetoric of environmental groups. AI correspondant Marc Morano led a film crew through Brazil and up the Amazon to interview rainforest experts. The result is Amazon Rainforest: Clearcutting the Myths.


Amazon Rainforest shows the other side of the rainforest debate, a side often unheard over the screams of the professional rainforest alarmists. It also exposes celebrities’ shallow understanding of the issues they seek to promote.


Morano interviewed numerous celebrities on their way into the rainforest benefit concert. When Billy Joel was asked the message of the evening’s concert, he replied, “Just to save the bloody thing.” Tony Bennett explained, “If it doesn’t get fixed, the earth is not going to work!” And John McEnroe said, “I want trees to be a lot around in ten years.” A studio audience cheered when Bill Maher asked on Politically Incorrect, “Don’t you think that if we could bomb Saddam Hussein and stop him, we have the right to stop them from burning down the rainforest?”


It’s an all-out battle for these environmentalists, but what they’re fighting for is not entirely clear. These celebrity spokespeople for the rainforest are famous for their talent, not their ideas, and there does not seem to be much substance behind claims of the need “just to save the bloody thing.” But their voices are much louder than those of people like Mario, former chief of a Terra Preta tribe, who said in an AI interview, “No, no. The forest is doing very well, thank you, we see it every day. It is not in danger.”


Dr. Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace (who quit the organization in protest of its growing extremism), and Dr. Antonio Nobre, of the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, explain in the film that the Amazon rainforest is probably the least threatened of the world’s forests. Its hot, wet habitat fosters plant growth but is inhospitable for human habitation. Only 10 percent of the forest has ever been converted to agriculture and settlement. Less than 12.5 percent of the rainforest has ever been deforested. And one-third to one-half of that eventually was left to lie fallow. As a consequence, some 94 percent of the Amazon is now in the hands of nature.


Environmental groups claim that the Amazon is being destroyed at an alarming rate, but can’t seem to agree on what that that rate is. Trying to use a reference point that most Americans can understand, they often speak in terms of football fields—and their impossible estimates range from 2 football fields (2.6 acres) per minute to 3 football fields (3.9 acres) per second . But even at the lower estimate, in one week the Amazon would have more barren land than the Sahara. That is clearly not the case. Most of the Amazon is lush and flourishing.


The widely varying estimates may be based in part on the repeated clearing of certain tracts of land. Much of the jungle grows back so quickly that cleared areas have to be cut back continually. This refutes another myth of the rainforest scare, that once an area of the Amazon is cut back, it is lost forever. Dr. Charles Cannon of Duke University studied Indonesian rainforests both one and eight years after logging and discovered quick recovery of the forest. His findings were published two years ago in Science, the highly respected journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Robin Chazdon of the University of Connecticut works in a rainforest lab in Costa Rica. She discovered the rainforest has incredible regenerative capacities, and that some suppressed species flourish after a large-scale disturbance. Chazdon and other scientists have also discovered that in 15-20 year old secondary forests there is a higher overall abundance of trees with medicinal qualities—though they are not sure why these suppressed species seem to have more healing properties.


Among the more telling parts of the AI documentary is an interview with the aforementioned Dr. Nobre. Nobre is passionate about the rainforest, stating, “Deforestation is completely, absolutely not justifiable in any circumstance.” But when presented with claims of rampant rainforest clearing and subsequent depletion of oxygen, he acknowledges that environmental groups exaggerate. “This is a disservice to truth. When you overblow facts, you are compromising the actual importance.”


But Amazon myths concern more than just the trees. Sometimes the rainforest itself seems to merely act as a stage on which environmentalists can enact other dreams and political ideas. They conjure wistful images of a forest older than time, never disturbed by man until recent years. On the contrary, archeological evidence shows a past of great civilizations of indigenous people in the forest, burning and building upon large areas of the land. Environmental groups also romanticize poverty, employing watercolors and soft pastels to paint a portrait of those who live in the forest without roads, electricity, or a means of making money. Rainforest Relief President Tim Keating told American Investigator that it is “a misperception to think that if they don’t have running water or electricity they are poor.” Environmentalists have successfully lobbied against World Bank and other loans for development in Brazil. They have also encouraged legislation forbidding the tribes that live in the forest to cut down any trees or to use the land in any way. At Earth Day, actor Tom Arnold explained to AI, “It’s arrogant, but we have to tell them what to do because we have learned from our mistakes.”


But when American Investigator interviewed forest inhabitants, they did not agree. Fabio Ferreira, a Cabloco, or forest dweller, said, “These groups do not have a right to tell us what to do, because it is a matter of survival.” Cablocos have traditionally relied on subsistence farming, but in recent years food has become more scarce, as environmental regulations have severely limited their ability to use land. Chief Samuel of the Terra Preta explained that he was less concerned about keeping the Amazon totally undisturbed. Instead, his concerns were rather more parochial: “Number one is, how do we survive? We would like more progress.”


Jayni Chase, wife of actor and comedian Chevy Chase and leader of Friends of the Earth, responds with her explanation of the environmental movement: “Environmentalists are looking at the long term. We’re not just looking at how to feed your child tomorrow.” But are they looking at how to feed your child at all? George Mason University economist Walter Williams, interviewed for the American Investigator film, thinks environmentalists “are trying to make a zoo out of people.”


This is a dangerous “colonialism of ideas,” according to Phillip Stott, professor of Biogeography at the University of London. What does this colonialism entail, apart from not cutting down trees? The catch phrase is “sustainable development.” But such words mask a deeper cause. According to Rainforest Relief’s Keating, “Capitalism is antithetical to sustainability.” At Earth Day 2000 Chevy Chase told AI he did not think capitalism would necessarily be a good way to help the poor, “because sometimes socialism works.” Then he cited Cuba as an example of free markets and socialism working together to great results.


Chase would be better off to consider the success of Manaus, a large city in the state of Amazonas. Brazil’s socialist government declared the city a free trade zone in 1966, and it quickly grew to be the largest center of production of electronic consumer goods in Latin America. While 12.5 percent of the total Amazon Rainforest area has been developed, only two percent of the rainforest within the state of Amazonas has been deforested. Vicente Nogueria, environmental secretary of Amazonas, said that development in Manaus is why the forests within his state are in such good shape. He says jobs and tax revenue create funds with which to protect the forest and reduce pressures for deforestation: “If the economy does not solve the problems, the environment will always be a loser.”


Although The Amazon Rainforest: Clear-Cutting the Myths uncovers flaws in the arguments of environmentalists, it fails to dig to the root of the real problem the rainforest suffers. The documentary does not address the institutions governing it. Who has property rights to the Amazon? The forest is owned and regulated in large part by the Brazilian government. And it is the perverse incentives of common ownership that contribute to resource mismanagement. But instead of learning from this lesson, environmental groups simply argue for government controlled policies, in the hope that their own lobbying will always win out over other parties’ lobbying. Perhaps the next myth American Investigator can chop down is the faulty idea that forests are better managed in the hands of government.


Ali Freeman ([email protected]) is a CEI policy analyst.