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dependence is so highly visible to him. He knows that his life is based on the living organisms that surround him. From the biological diversity that forms his natural environment he gathers edible fruit, wild animals for protein, fiber for clothing and ropes, incense for religious ceremonies, natural insecticides, fish poisons, wood for houses, furniture, and canoes, and medicinal plants that may cure a toothache or a snakebite.
There are indigenous peoples in some parts of the world who have an appreciation for biological diversity that puts our own conservation theorists to shame. I stayed once in southeastern Mexico with a Maya farmer who expressed his view this way:
“The outsiders come into our forest,” he said, “and they cut the mahogany and kill the birds and burn everything. Then they bring in cattle, and the cattle eat the jungle. I think they hate the forest. But I plant my crops and weed them, and I watch the animals, and I watch the forest to know when to plant my corn. As for me, I guard the forest.”
Today, that Maya farmer lives in a small remnant of rain forest surrounded by the fields and cattle pastures of 100,000 immigrant colonists. He is subjected to the development plans of a nation hungry for farmland and foreign exchange. The colonists have been forced by population pressure and the need for land reform to colonize a tropical forest they know nothing about. The social and economic realities of a modern global economy are leading them and their national leaders to destroy the very biological resources their lives are based upon.
The colonists are fine people who are quick to invite you to share their meager meal. But if you want to talk with them about protecting the biological diversity that still surrounds them, be prepared to talk about how it will affect them directly. If you look a frontier farmer in the eye and tell him that he must not clear forest or hunt in a wildlife reserve and that the reason he must not do these things is because you are trying to preserve the planet’s biological diversity, he will very politely perform the cultural equivalent of rolling his eyes and saying, “Sure.”
But he will not believe you. Instead, you should be prepared to demonstrate how he can produce more food and earn more money by protecting the biological resources on his land. The developing world colonist may understand his dependence on biological diversity, but his interest in protecting that diversity lies in how it can improve his life and the lives of his children. Colonists on the agricultural frontier do not have the luxury of debating the finer points of deep ecology.
The same thing can be said for the government planner in the nation where the pioneer farmer lives and the development banker in Washington, D.C. The planner and the banker may appreciate the moral and aesthetic values of biological diversity. They may lament the eradication of wilderness and wildlife. But if you want them to protect a critical area of forest or place their hydroelectric dam outside a protected area, be prepared to talk about the economic value of watersheds, income from tourism, and cost-benefit analysis.
In the developing world, as well as in our overdeveloped world, we are obligated to present economic, utilitarian arguments to preserve the biological diversity that ultimately benefits us all. Deep ecology makes interesting conversation over the seminar table, but it won’t fly on the agricultural frontier of the Third World or in the board rooms of the Inter-American Development Bank.