Harvesting the Forest

A traditional Yanomami village

The concept of the ‘Rainforest Harvest’ was most notably brought to the forefront of mainstream thinking with the production of the “Rainforest Crunch”  bar in the U.S. in 1989. The idea behind the catchy phrase is that by harvesting rainforest materials and goods and selling them on an international market the rights and cultures of indigenous people who live on that land can be protected and supported. There has been prodigous debate about the validity of this argument, and, when taken out of the context of profit and put into the sphere of land rights, it does appear to hold far more problems for indigenous groups than solutions.

We have all come across products which purport to be Fairtrade regulated and hark from rainforest areas (or what were once a rainforest area that has now been cleared). Maybe the label has a picture of a local indigenous person or farmer on the front and evokes a sense of connection between the consumer and the contented producer. Evidently, not all these products will fall into the category that I am going to discuss, but some will. It is important to be mindful of the fact that most products that claim to be environmentally sound are extraordinarily good at encouraging recycling, yet the most important aspect of environmental thought, to consume less, is never espoused (It is REDUCE, reuse, and then finally, if the other two options are not possible, recycle).  To encourage consumers to consume less is unlikely to prove a successful business model, yet it is a bitter reality that, one day, businessmen/women will have to face.

The question is; what is wrong with the theory that producing rainforest products will provide support to indigenous people? We need to be aware of this point, that “value and profit are not the same thing. A little thought about this rather bizarre idea that a natural area can be preserved by foreigners eating more of its produce – will quickly throw up some rather difficult and complex questions” (‘Harvest Moonshine’, Stephen Corry). Those who live in the rainforest are usually subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers which means the value of that which they harvest is not based on financial foundations, but something different. This perspective is universally different from our western viewpoint but, of course, we must nonetheless respect it. The daily harvest of the forest by those that live off it is a real harvest, our western ‘harvest’ cannot be conceived of in this same light, as we are harvesting for profit, not necessity. Consider, for example, that a certain live tree can provide large amounts of a resin or timber. Our approach, based market theory, would be to cultivate as much of that tree as possible, to the totality of any legal regulations set in place. If there are no regulations then we will cultivate that tree as much as possible with no regard for anything else. Of course, most of the time, even when regulations are in place they are chronically ignored or broken and authorities rarely interfere.

One of the main arguments against allowing indigenous people their land rights comes through large corporations, governments and land owners who all say that indigenous groups want far too much land. Hundreds or even thousands of square miles set ‘aside’ for people that number only in the hundreds or thousands themselves cannot be condoned, they claim, especially when we are seeing such a rise in the global poor in urban areas. If these indigenous groups are not really using the land to produce for the market then they shouldn’t be allowed to ‘own’ it. This perspective sees benefits in the rainforest harvest, because if we help these people produce from their own land in a sustainable way, then everyone will win. Product becomes the vehicle for change, while issues of land rights and environmental protection can be stealthily subsumed. The indigenous people’s right to their land therefore becomes inextricably linked to a market economy and what we consider to be useful. Hunting, gathering and subsistence farming become obsolete in our world view.

Groups that suggest this harvest is positive tend to suggest that it is the choice of the people living in the area as to whether or not they want to be involved. If we ignore the fact that this is, in general, a gross perversion of the truth (in reality, when it comes to gaining financially from indigenous land there are often huge amounts of misinformation given to the tribal groups from corporate representatives) it becomes evident that when indigenous groups agree to deals to make products from their land they lose essentially all control over their products and finance from that point on, “A handful may earn a lot of money, perhaps even get rich – that is not being disputed.  In fact they will earn just as much, or as little, as the company wants to pay.They will have no influence over this.  They will not control the transport of their product to the market or have access to a range of buyers; the markets and buyers are thousands of miles away, operate in a very different culture, in a different language, with a different currency, and are driven by a fierce competition geared to profit.  When the forest communities become dependent on the monetary income earned, their future will be entirely at the whim of the company, at the mercy of consumer demand in the rich countries – demand which can fast fluctuate or collapse. Should the company change its mind about the price, or the amount it wants to buy, or should it want a different product, or to pull out of the deal altogether, the community would be able to do absolutely nothing about it.” (‘Harvest Moonshine’, Stephen Corry)

Another argument in favour of the harvest says that higher prices paid for the products will induce conservation in the area where these products come from. What actually occurs is a greater incentive to exploit the resources, in an aim to garner the most profit. High timber prices in the Amazon have led to widespread legal and illegal logging.

An interesting point is made when considering the value we, as consumers, put on these sorts of ‘conservation rainforest products’. Most people are prepared to pay more for a product if they feel it is environmentally or ethically sound, as was well highlighted by the first rainforest product, the ‘Rainforest Crunch’ bar. In 1989 this snack bar hit the U.S. shelves and  it became very popular, making many newspaper column inches. People were told loudly that the product they were consuming was helping indigenous people conserve their land in the Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, in that same year, the Yanomami people, who currently live on the largest demarcated area of Indigenous land on earth, were suffering the worst year of the genocide against them. Something which received far less media coverage. The Yanomami currently number about 32,000 people and live in a region twice the size of Switzerland, in the heart of the Amazon. They are still under constant threat from gold miners and have severe health problems due to outsiders. Over a period of 4 years leading into the early 1990’s, 20% of all Yanomami were killed through the genocide. This is a potent reminder as to why the actual rights (be they land or human) of indigenous people need to put at the forefront of the movement to protect and support them, and not quelled behind vacuous promises of material consumer products. (As an aside, the Yanomami’s tale is not a remotely unusual story with regard to the plight suffered by tribal people, see this link http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/yanomami#main for information on the Yanmami and loads of other tribal groups).

It is some twisted ‘big brother’ logic that pulls the veil over our eyes enough that the message to us, the consumers, can be that by buying these products we are doing our bit for the environment or human rights. Do not worry about writing to our MP’s, speaking out or organising against the decimation of some of the most unique and vulnerable people on the planet.

Do not interpret these points wrongly. I am not advocating that all products from any tropical region be named as bad or evil (Although I might well say that in the context of a different debate!). What I am saying is that, with regard to the sustainable approach to managing the rainforests and providing an environment in which indigenous groups can determine their own existence and rights, we need to move against these particular products and towards real awareness, critique and understanding. It is consumer demand and a collective awareness that will sway this one, not product information and corporate/government bedsharing.

“It is vital for the future of indigenous peoples’ rights that the “harvest” ideology is rejected and that the growth in support for these peoples is channelled, not into purchasing power for these essentially useless products, but into a worldwide outcry demanding respect for their rights.  Such an outcry will eventually succeed; are we really only going to conserve those wildernesses which can pay their way… are we really only going to stand up for the dispossessed if they start producing something we want… are we really going to let business and profits dictate conservation and human rights’ strategies and goals?   Are we really only going to support people who can pay?  And if so, what about those who don’t want to… or can’t?”. (Harvest Moonshine, Stephen Corry)

“Indigenous peoples must be self-reliant.  If we are going to grow crops, these crops must feed the people.  It is not appropriate that the lands be used to grow crops which do not benefit the local peoples.” (Kari-Oca Declaration and the Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter)

Further Reading:


“In her autobiography, the founder of the Body Shop, A Roddick, says: “We have never spent a cent on advertising…I would be too embarrassed to do it.” And, “The trouble with marketing is that consumers are hyped out.  The din of advertising… has grown so loud that… they are becoming cynical about the whole process.  They have heard too many lies.” In spite of these claims, the Body Shop runs joint advertising campaigns in the US with American Express.  In these A.Roddick extols the virtues of both her impact on the Kayapó and her credit card. American Express (through its whollyowned subsidiary, Lehman Brothers) is heavily involved in arranging financing for James Bay II, a massive hydroelectric scheme which will flood vast areas of Cree Indian land in Quebec. Not surprisingly, the Cree are totally opposed to this.  Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec) said, “American Express is involved in arranging financing for the destruction of our lands. That American corporate interests are using indigenous peoples’ plight for their advertising is inexcusable. That the Body Shop’s ingredients are ‘environmentally friendly’ adds insult to injury.” American Express has been criticized from several other quarters as well. It is the subject of two separate boycotts: for its promotion of fur products; and for its involvement in the “development” of an ecologically-sensitive area in Colorado.  It is also known for its intimacy with theUS government (Kissinger was a director and ex-President Ford an adviser) and its trade union wrecking in Pakistan. It was one of the loudest supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement and is also in the forefront of pressing for liberalisation in the banking services trade, which the UN Conference on Trade and Development said, “spells dangers for the Third World.” All this can hardly be squared with Roddick’s constant reiteration about corporate responsibility.  She says in her autobiography: “(Green consumers) will be looking for products which hurt no one, which damage nothing… Aware of the knock-on effect of what we are doing to others, to the environment, to the Third Worldand to the planet itself, they will demand information, want to know the story behind what they buy…” “If (Body Shop customers) realize the connection between certain products and major issues like the destruction of the rainforest, global pollution or the threat to primitive cultures, they will avoid these products.”

(Appendix to the ‘Harvest Moonshine’ article, Stephen Corry)

N.B. The James Bay Project completed its first phase in 1986. The Quebec government then struck up new plans for a second phase of development which would have flooded an area twice the size of Scotland. The Cree and Inuit groups, along with environmental, scientific and NGO people, opposed this vociferously and it was cancelled in 1994. Parts of the original plan have been undergoing construction again since 2007, with input from the Cree and Inuit. Their traditional hunting grounds and land have already been irrevocably changed however, and their integration into the scheme, based on force, cannot be taken back. “The Cree of northern Quebec have made it abundantly clear that in spite of receiving millions of dollars in compensation, the James Bay project has severely damaged their community. As they are dependent on fish for their diet and for employment, mercury poisoning of the water has caused a particularly harmful dis-ruption to the Cree way of life. The new roads associated with the project have been equally pernicious; they have facilitated importation of alcohol and other products harmful to the community.”

(J.J. Linton http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic44-3-iii.pdf)


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