For centuries, writes Tony Juniper, the destruction of tropical forests was ‘predicated on the idea that they were worth more dead than alive.’ Rather belatedly, we have begun to recognise this short-termist idiocy and, while ‘the window for action’ is ‘narrow and closing’, Juniper sees scope for cautious optimism. Setting things right won’t be cheap, but then ‘spending billions of dollars to avoid trillions-worth of damage certainly makes economic sense’ and if governments and multinationals redouble their efforts ‘we can save most of what is left and put back much of what’s been lost if we want to.’
Those who would like to turn that ‘if’ into a ‘when’ will welcome Juniper’s spirited book. It travels across Asia, Africa and the Americas, revealing just how fascinating rainforests can be and explaining how vital they are to the planet’s ecological and environmental well-being.
Juniper stresses the role to be played by indigenous populations. In the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt described Amazonia as a ‘tenantless wilderness’. Well, it hadn’t always been that way, but European incursion had wreaked havoc with old, sophisticated cultures. There is some solace, then, in the fact that we have begun to realise that such peoples – like the Asháninka of Peru – are sometimes the very best custodians of their ancient homelands.
Juniper alerts us to examples of things going right: he is guardedly approving of Costa Rica’s ability to adopt a new economic model and double its forest cover since the 1980s. But he also shows how much remains to be achieved: what the future holds for the Congo Basin’s vast rainforest is likely to be an acid test of our ability to mend our ways. The political and social importance of this book and the cause it advocates is not hard to spot, but Juniper does not lapse into pulpit-bashing and his sheer wonderment at the world’s rainforests is every bit as compelling as his environmental passion. The varied frogs of the Costa Rican cloud forest were always likely to charm the reader, but Juniper even makes the decomposition of leaves sound interesting, too.
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