Over the past decade, I have traveled with Glenn to some of the world's biodiversity hot spots and other endangered regions where CI is working - from the Pantanal wetlands in southwestern Brazil to the Atlantic rain forest on Brazil's coast, from the Guyana Shield forest wilderness in southern Venezuela to the Rio Tambopata macaw research station in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, from the exotic-sounding highland of Shangri-La in Chinese-controlled Tibet to the tropical forests of Sumatra and the coral-ringed islands off Bali, in Indonesia. For me, these trips have been master classes in biodiversity, as were my own travels to the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and the vast Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian Desert and - before I had kids - a rappelling trip inside die salt domes of the Dead Sea.
In many ways, though, the first trip Glenn and I ever took taught me everything I needed to know about the biodiversity challenge we are facing. In 1998 we went to Brazil, and the trip began with the most unusual interview - location wise - that I have ever conducted. It was with Nilson de Barros, then superintendent for the environment for the Brazilian state Mato Grosso do Sul, who insisted that we conduct our talk in the middle of the Rio Negro. Mato Grosso do Sul is at the heart of the Pantanal region, along the border between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Pantanal is the largest freshwater wetland in the world (the size of Wisconsin), and is home to jaguar and a host of endangered species. Glenn and I flew in on a tiny prop plane, which landed in the front yard of the Fazenda Rio Negro, a ranch and nature lodge on the Rio Negro. We then boarded motorized launches and set off for the meeting point at a shallow bend in the river.
The Pantanal nature reserve is Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. Moving downriver, we passed scores of caimans lounging on the bank, giant river otters bobbing up and down, with egrets, hyacinth macaws, toucans, ibises, marsh deer, spoonbills, jabiru storks, foxes, ocelots, and rheas (relatives of ostriches) all poking their heads through the forest curtain at different points along our route. It was, quite simply, the most stunning cornucopia of biodiversity - plants and animals - that I have ever encountered at one time. De Barros and his team were waiting for us, standing waist-deep in the middle of the Rio Negro.
"First a beer, then a bath, then we talk," he said, cracking open a can of Skol as the river flowed by.
And I thought I had the best job in the world.
The broad threat to biodiversity and ecosystems worldwide today comes from two directions, de Barros explained. The first is from regions where the poorest of the poor are trying to scrape out a living from the natural ecosystems around them. When too many people try to do that, you lose whatever forests, reefs, and species are within reach. That is a huge problem around the Amazon wetlands and rain forest, but not in the Pantanal. The Pantanal, he explained, is not threatened by poor residents who chop down trees and sell them to timber companies to escape from poverty. The culture in the Pantanal is a rare example of man and nature thriving in harmony - through a mixed economy of ranching, fishing, and, lately, ecotourism.
No, the main biodiversity challenge to the Pantanal came from the outside: from globalization. A global triple threat was converging on the Patifanal: Soy farmers on the plateau above the Pantanal basin, eager to feed a rapidly expanding world soybean market, were widening their fields, and pesticides and silt runoff from their farms were fouling the rivers and wildlife. At the same time, the governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia had formed a trading bloc in the hope of making their economies more globally competitive. To better get the Pantanal's soy products to market, these governments wanted to dredge and straighten the rivers in the area in ways that could greatly alter the ecosystem. Finally, a consortium of international energy companies was building a pipeline across the Pantanal, from natural-gas-rich Bolivia to the vast, energy-guzzling Brazilian city of Sao Paulo.
The Pantanal, in fact, is a laboratory of globalization's economic upsides and biodiversity downsides. The biggest upside is that globalization is bringing more people out of poverty faster than ever before in the history of the world. The biggest downside is that in raising standards of living, globalization is making possible much higher levels of production and consumption by many more people. That's flat meeting crowded. And that, in turn, is fueling urban sprawl around the world, an increase in highways and motorized traffic, and bigger homes with more energy-guzzling devices for more people. To feed this ravenous global economy, more and more companies are tempted to take over vast native forests in places like Indonesia and Brazil and convert them to oil palm plantations, soybean farms, and other large-scale commercial enterprises at a speed and scope the world has also never seen before.
Over the years, Glenn Prickett explains, NGOs like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund have developed tools and large-scale education campaigns that can help the rural poor live more sustainably and preserve the very natural systems on which they depend. "But we have not yet developed the tools and scale of operation to meet the globalization threat to biodiversity, which is becoming overwhelming," he explained.
To be sure, in recent years we've seen many collaborations between conservation groups and global companies like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald's, which aim to show these companies how to reduce the impact their supply chains and manufacturing processes have on the natural world. But all their efforts are just fingers in the dike. Global growth is driving up commodity prices, prompting companies to put more land under agricultural cultivation for food, fiber, and biofuels, and stimulating demand for more tropical forests to be stripped of timber, more coral reefs to be lost to destructive fishing practices, and more mines to be dug for minerals.
Without governments that are highly attentive to where and how lands are developed, and able to restrain the pressures from the global marketplace, the growth pressures from a world getting flat and crowded at the same time could simply overwhelm the world's last remaining biodiversity-rich forests and reefs, which will only make the world hotter, because deforestation accounts for some 20 percent of all CO2 emissions.
In the same twenty minutes that will see some unique species vanish forever, Conservation International notes, 1,200 acres of forests will be burned and cleared for development. The CO2 emissions from deforestation are greater than the emissions from the world's entire transportation sector - all the cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Less forest cover means fewer acres of habitat for species, so they must move or adapt. Those that can, survive; those that cannot, go extinct. It's that simple - only it is now happening faster than ever in more places than ever.
This is why we need a strong ethic of conservation. There have to be limits to how much and where we encroach on the natural world. Without such limits, we will see the living and nesting areas of more and more species paved over, rivers fouled, corals bleached, and forests plowed under for industrial agriculture. We will continue to lurch from single-issue response to single-issue response - without ever developing a systematic approach that can marry global growth and biodiversity protection.
Copyright © 2008 Thomas L. Friedman