TTo prevent future pandemics, we must stop deforestation and end the illegal wildlife trade. Do you agree? Of course I do, because what don’t I like? The ball stops with the other baddie. The question is, will you solve the problem by doing those things? And the answer is probably no. They will help, but there is another potentially bigger problem closer to home: the use of natural resources in the global north, especially its reliance on livestock.
The story that epidemics are punishment for disturbing the natural order of things is not new. But it is a peculiarly modern postcolonial twist to imagine that the source of that malaise is somewhere far from most of us, that is, the parts of the world that were covered in forests, until recently, and conveniently coincide with the parts more poor. . And it turns out that this narrative may be interfering with our attempts to protect ourselves from new diseases, as well as efforts to address climate change and the erosion of biodiversity.
As French environmental historian Guillaume Blanc argues in a new book that has yet to be translated into English, The invention of green colonialism (The Invention of Green Colonialism), the idea that Africa was once covered by a vast primary forest It is a myth invented by the colonialists at the beginning of the 20th century. Over a period of several million years, the continent’s tree cover increased and decreased as the climate warmed and cooled. After the humans arrived, they cut down some trees and planted others, so by the time Denys Finch Hatton took Karen Blixen for a ride in his Gipsy Moth, a scene immortalized in Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, the landscapes of Kenya over which they flew. they were completely sculpted by humans.
Starting in the 1930s, the colonialists created national parks to protect the forests from the locals who were supposedly destroying them as their population grew. But hypocrisy is double-barreled, because by then the colonialists were responsible for the large-scale destruction. Between 1850 and 1920, in Africa and Asia, Europeans and their descendants reduced 95 million hectares of forest to make way for their farms, four to five times more than what was destroyed in the previous century.
The myth of the disappeared forest persists. As the American environmental historian James McCann has said shown, the laudable and Nobel Prize-winning fight of former US Vice President Al Gore to alert the world to climate change, in part through his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, borrowed false statistics that Ethiopia’s forest cover is it decreased from 40% in 1950 to 1% in the 1990s (Ethiopia was never colonized). The 40% figure is based on brief estimates published by Europeans in the 1960s; no systematic study of the forests of that country has ever been carried out. In much of West Africa, meanwhile, British anthropologists Melissa Leach and James Fairhead have shown that forest cover actually increased throughout the 20th century. Also in Asia, research has shown doubt on the alleged link between local population growth and deforestation.
So powerful is the myth, we simply accept the inconsistencies that flow from it. The fact, for example, that the carbon footprint of a tourist from the global north visiting an African or Asian national park dwarfs that of a local farmer traveling on foot and using no electricity. Although there is no evidence of extensive man-induced destruction of African flora and fauna until the arrival of the colonialists, we have internalized their distinction between “good” and “bad” hunters. When Thomas Cholmondeley, a descendant of a well-known white settler family in Kenya, was convicted of the 2006 involuntary manslaughter of Robert Njoya, many journalists noted that Britain’s colonial past had been tried with him, but few disputed his description of himself as a sports hunter and conservationist, while Njoya, a black man, was a “poacher”.
The conservation and overexploitation of the world’s resources were born at the same time and place, argues Blanc – Europe during the Industrial Revolution – and have proceeded in parallel ever since. Both arise from the search for Eden by the Europeans after having destroyed it at home. And the myth of that other Eden has returned with force, now that we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic.
We know that the greater intensity of human-animal contact is accelerating the appearance of new human diseases of animal origin, some of which have pandemic potential, and we know that in many cases – including coronaviruses – the virus comes to us from a bat or a wild rodent. (the natural reservoir) through a farm animal (the intermediate host). We blame the wildlife trade, bad hunters, and deforestation for the increased encounters between people and natural reservoirs, but we don’t say anything about the bridge. The elephant, or rather the cow, the camel, or the civet in the room, is cattle.
Here self-deception turns into cynicism, because industrial-scale agricultural companies, many of which are located in the global north, know very well the risk they represent, that is why they carry out surveillance their herds and flocks in search of new pathogens. So far, it turns out that they do better in the United States and Europe than in China. But around the world, those companies are bringing their smaller-scale counterparts closer to the forest. Sometimes they even drive small farmers out of business and into the wildlife trade.
Deforestation is real, in some places, but where it is happening, the capital and the mindset that drives it often stretches back to the global north, as it did a century ago. Our predatory consumption is the problem, and that also applies to climate change and loss of biodiversity. The global south knows this very well. That’s why he took 20 years of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro for the creation of an international organization to tackle the problem of biodiversity. North and South argued over the values that should dominate the conservation agenda. This is also why there is a continuous struggle for property of the world’s genetic resources.
Sometimes, as Blanc points out, the South makes the hypocrisy of the North work in their favor, as in the case of African governments that treat national parks like cash cows. But nobody is fooled. From aid to conservation, the South knows how to distrust the salvador blanco complex, for the horrible truths it hides.
Finding solutions to our genuine problems is going to be devilishly difficult, but the process has to start with the recognition that nature is a great interconnected skein, of which we in the global north are a part, and that we are the ones currently pulling. is out of shape. We are not all white, and we can argue about where the global north begins and ends, but if a Northerner is writing this and quoting another Northerner named, appropriately, Monsieur Blanc, it is because it is our myth that makes the world sick. And we should break it
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.