Breakfast o’ Biodiversity

This week’s reading, Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rainforest Destruction by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto was a very interesting and compelling book. To me it was analogous to a can of condensed soup; each topic addressed in this book could have, and possibly has already, been elaborated on in a whole other book. For this reason it was a very intense and stimulating book to read through.

The book started out explaining this socio-economic-ecologic dilemma through a case study of the classic history of the United Fruit Company (aka Dole) and banana production in Central America. Briefly summarized, as a mode to alleviate large debts accumulated by the Costa Rican government, politicians were economically forced into allowing American companies buy land and set up banana plantation. Large amounts of land were purchased, pushing locals to marginal agricultural areas. Yet only about 9% of the 565,000 acres were being used for cultivation. Locals are then drawn in as wage laborers, which is quite appealing for an average Costa Rican farmer with a family to support and very little land to farm. But since banana production can be flexible, local wage workers have very little job security and many are fired after poor growing seasons. These newly unemployed wage workers have two choices; either move to the city (San Juan in the case of Costa Rica) or start their own subsistence farm by clearing out an area of rainforest. The latter is something that is quite appealing because of the autonomy it entails, but is highly unsustainable due to the ecology of the biome.
It is a sad state of affairs. Not only are American companies responsible for destroying vast quantities or rainforest, but we are actually turning locals too against it. It is understandable for a farmer to opt for clearing out a piece of rainforest, ruling the health of his family over the health of the forest, but it is saddening that we as Americans are responsible for forcing Central Americans to make this terrible decision.

Overall it tackled a throng of relevant environmental-economic issues that we as Americans have ignored, centered on the rainforest and the “first worlds” unfettered exploitation of such a globally vital biome.
That is the main issue covered, and the rest of the book goes into alternative models and even possible solutions to this imbalanced economic interaction. The theory that I found the most interesting was dependency theory. This theory holds that “the underdevelopment of the Global South is not an accident of history or a product of bad real estate, but an organic outgrowth of the progression of the developed world”(p.73). I have been aware of how the first world perpetuates the third, but I have never considered it on the detail examined in this book. Essentially money, in the form of products and resources, is being siphoned out of the “global south” and inserted into the economy of the “developed world.” This is perpetuated by social pressures to maintain consumption power in the developed world’s working class. In American industry, take the auto industry for example, employers want their employees to have enough money to buy their products, which is a key component of economic growth. This is given through benefits and high wages. In the “global south,” Americans do not care about the economic growth of the country being exploited. In fact it is beneficial to keep economic growth as bay, ensuring the “global north” retains the upper-hand, and keeping prices for American consumers as low as possible. There is no base of development in the third world, and an American CEO could care less about if his outsources employees have enough money to buy cotton, bananas, or sugar. Rather, he is interested in whether Americans, specifically his workers, can buy his products. Essentially the workers and factory owners of the developed world are the consumers of the less-developed world’s products. This parasitic relationship has huge ecologic impacts.

This book connected with me on a personal level. Back in the summer of 2006, I had the opportunity to go on an outdoor adventure trip through Costa Rica. On this trip I was visually exposed to the exploitation of such a biologically diverse and important biome. Seeing freshly clear cut forests and realizing that it is the gluttonous American mindset that creates demands for such devastating ecologic impact. Seeing forests being cut down by local workers made me realize the destructive force of Americans’ false sense of entitlement. After returning home, fast food chains, superstores, supermarkets seemed to look different, almost fake. The trip really impassioned me to further explore the exploited world that American companies so adamantly succeed at hiding from us. That experience set me on track to where I am today as an environmental studies major and reading this book was a way for me to revisit this issue with a more complete, academically detailed approach.

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