Readings: Breakfast OF Biodiversity

Breakfast of Biodiversity is especially interesting in that it opened me to a complex ecosystem of a Rainforest and its implications of world politics, ideologies and incentives. It would be difficult for me to imagine, even after this reading, that the World Trade Organization’s first case involved rainforests and that CIA was instrumental in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala due to a similar backdrop of events! It only goes to show that human society is ready to cross any borders, any line of morality (if there exists one) to exploit our natural resources to satisfy selfish means.

The Solidarista movement that destroyed unions in the Sarapiqui, leading to distress and helplessness on the part of the laborers really caught my eye! The book made some astonishing claims about the movement. For example, the book claimed that “union membership now stands virtually at zero and company officials proclaim that no union people are able to find jobs” (8). To destroy the very basis of “social upliftment” for the working class to cater to maximize profits seems fascinating and treacherous at the same time! It was very interesting to learn that they made unions ineffective and failed to recognize the rights of collective bargaining by offering poor laborers   It was all the more shocking to learn that the Association for Free Labor Development which was funding the Solidarista movement was suspecting of having ties with the CIA!

The United Fruit Company - Ruling the Bananas = Ruling the World?

I was surprised to learn that soils in rainforests are not the best suited for agriculture. This was opposite of the intuition that I had of soils in rainforests. The fact that they are highly acidic and have low nutrient storing capacity which makes them problematic for agriculture was interesting to learn. Also, as the weather is warm and the air has enough moisture, organic content in the soil is taken away immediately, more so after deforestation for cultivation. It was also interesting that soil in rainforests consists of various types such as alluvial, volcanic and hillside soil, similar to a mosaic tiling, which makes it all the more difficult for low-scale farmers and researchers to determine how to maximize productivity. However, the Chinampa system, supposedly used by the Mayans to increase soil fertility was rather fascinating! To make canals, breed fish for livestock and also collect and manually transfer the depleted top-soil back to where it came from is phenomenal!

The author also talks about how slash and burn agriculture can lead to high population growth rates at times as the farmer would like more people to help him in production. However, the interesting point here is, economics says that low income families typically have a tendency to have lots of kids, to help out with work, but as incomes rise, families will rather have lesser children and better quality of life for each of them. However much we put the blame on the “Global South” for excessive population, the West is the culprit and it is essentially making sure that low-income peasants do not grow to the higher-income brackets. This was especially evident when the author talks about how Bruce was relocating his entire business to Honduras as the military there knew “’how to control unions’” (75). This left the workers of that factory in Costa Rica helpless!

Green revolution is another important aspect of this book. The discovery of fertilizers and other agents that could increase productivity many-fold on the same piece of land created wonders for the Western world. But, the fact that this was later expanded or “taught” to the Global South only to use it as a market is scary. I remember that India adopted the Green revolution about a little more than a decade ago, and that revolutionized agriculture in India. India now had huge amounts of surplus grain as opposed to having to import grain due to deficits. This however, later caused serious concerns in that it was only helping the richer farmers, depleting soil nutrients making lands unproductive, and also contaminating other resources such as water in the locality. Green revolution which was once hailed in India has become a matter of concern and scrutiny today. However, the use of fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid plant varieties has picked up commercially, making it near-to-impossible to eliminate them. This goes in line with the dependency theory that the author talks about on how the West has mobilized the rest by giving them “incentives” to act for the “West.” The Union Carbide example that the author sites is also a similar example. Would this phenomenon be better termed as “silent slaughter”?

M S Swaminathan - Father of the Green Revolution in India

It was also interesting to learn about the changing face of the Banana industry in Costa Rica. As Costa Ricans have now moved on to higher paying jobs in the services / technological industry, the labor-intensive nature of the Banana industry seemed to be in trouble. However, the fact that migrants from Nicaragua have kept the industry alive is interesting. It is just fascinating that an entire country is thriving on the basis of the long history of the Banana industry. Even though we can argue that there has been a lot of problems that the native people have faced, there have been some positive outcomes. The question being, are they really “positive?” I think this question boils down to the argument that colonialism actually did have some positive impacts on colonized regions in the form of introduction of technology, creation of a sound transport system such as railroads and so on. For example, in India, some believe that the introduction of the railroad during the British colonial rule is a gift to India. The debate of whether this is really a “gift” is another debate altogether!

India Railways, Population Growth, Colonialism - What does this picture really represent?

I also especially like the “text” and “reader” analogy that the author talks about when describing the components of a rainforest. I believe that the idea that it depends on the reader on how he interprets the text. Also, the idea that rainforests should / should not be looked at as a part of humanity revokes our discussion on how we view nature. Is nature/wilderness part of us, or is it something that is distant from us. Considering the fact that rainforests are among the best wildernesses that we can get in today’s world, this idea seems to apply perfectly here.

This is my favorite line in the book: “True meaning, then, is not to be found in the text alone, but rather in the reading of the text” (163).

Another interesting aspect of this book that I really appreciate is that, the author has not been overtly critical about any of the views that he has presented. Instead he has sensibly weighed the pros and cons of each, allowing us to make a more informed decision. This makes this book an excellent read, as I often feel that a lot of literature on conservation and sustainable development take one view and present excessive criticism which could be overdone. The author also makes note of this in the misguided and misguiding “backlash” strategy that he describes in the latter part of the book.

All in all, this book was very informative and fun to read. I feel more aware of how rainforests work and how they are so important in today’s world that they are often at the centre of polical debate in international politics.

Click Here to learn more about the World’s largest Rainforest and River basin!

Feel the beauty - Sarapiqui


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