Our planet’s lungs have a cancer that year after year is corroding these indispensable ecosystems. This cancer is the irrational exploitation of the tropical forests, where too many believe that green is just the color of money.
In the Brazilian Amazon, from 1970 to 2005, this cancer has devastated 720,000 square miles of old-growth forests, an area the size of Mexico.
This calamity is not only leveling irreplaceable ecosystems and astronomical diversity. It is also decimating ancestral cultures who for centuries have shared the forest sustainably.
This is also the case in neighboring Peru, in the Madre de Dios region, one of the most remote corners of the Amazon. Many logging mafias —armed with insatiable greed and absolute impunity— invade territories of tribes who have never been exposed to the outside world.
“This has caused confrontations and even deaths,” says Julio Cusurichi, an ecologist and community leader from the Shipibo tribe who defends the rain forest. “When there are confrontations with these isolated indigenous groups, we never know how many of the indigenous peoples have been killed. We only hear about the loggers, because they are the ones who come back.”
Finally, in 2002, the Peruvian government turned the region Cusurichi protects into a natural reserve, although the exploitation continues.
“This so-called development is only making us poorer,” he accuses. “We don’t oppose development. We oppose the pillage of our resources.”
In this unfair fight, Cusurichi and his colleagues literally put their lives on the line.
“They have burned down my home, they have threatened to cut our necks, but they don’t intimidate me,” he warns.
This courage is what has granted him international recognition and the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize for Central and South America, also known as the Nobel Prize for ecology, which he received last month.
“I will fight until the last day of my life,” he says, encouraged by the international support he has garnered. “This is my challenge and I will go on with my head raised and my mind clean.”
But this cancer has spread far beyond the Amazon. In Guatemala, illegal logging has destroyed 60 percent of its old growth forests in 15 years, including more than 1.8 million acres of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, according to the environmental group Trópico Verde.
Two of its members, Carlos Albacete and Piedad Espinosa, have been fighting the pillage of Guatemala’s natural treasures and the government inaction and complicity for 13 years.
“The biggest challenge we have faced is the total impunity these environmental crimes are dealt with in Guatemala and the corruption embedded in State institutions,” Albacete says.
And he adds that in his country very few illegal logging suspects are detained, and when they are, the defendants are finally freed.
Through the years, they both have been practically living “at knifepoint.” And what both feared finally took place after months of exposing the destruction of public lands in the Maya Biosphere.
In January, on their return from an overseas trip, a car passed their taxi, blocked their way, and from it jumped four men wearing bullet-proof vests and black caps, who opened fire on them.
“We escaped the attack because the taxi driver had the presence of mind to drive on and because of many fortunate circumstances that kept the bullets from hitting us,” recalls Albacete.
After they investigated the attack, they concluded that the criminals were members of police or military intelligence. Following other harassment incidents, they finally decided to go into exile in the United States and later Spain because their lives were in severe danger in Guatemala.
These environmental heroes also deserve a prize, but Albacete insists that the cure for this cancer lies in the will of importing countries, such as the United States, “to take effective measures against illegal logging and local official corruption.”
In the past few months environmental champion Earl Blumenauer from Oregon has introduced the Legal Timber Protection Act, which would make it a crime to knowingly import, sell, buy or transport illegally-sourced plants and wood products.
In addition, some positive steps have been taken to stop trade in illegally harvested timber through the proposed Peru – U.S. Free Trade Agreement. While there is still much work to do, this marks a new era of dealing with the demand side of illegal logging.
In the meantime, the law of the jungle should not continue to rule the world’s ancestral forests.