Years ago it was a common sight on the streets of England to see shabby, doleful men wandering about in sandwich boards bearing such exhortation is as, “Repent. For the end is nigh!" These men, if approached, would hand out little pamphlets begging the recipients to mend their ways for Jesus was about to return for Judgement Day. More recently various cult leaders announce that the end of the world is going to arrive any day soon and they lead their flocks up mountains armed, with sandwiches and soft drinks, to await the rapture. Neither the little men with their sandwich boards nor the cult leaders have a very good record at timing these millennial events. The cult leaders and their flocks come shuffling back down the mountain looking rather sheepish and admit that they have read the tea leaves wrong and are going back to the drawing board.
Recent news items have prompted these recollections. The first described a large group of peasants, normally resident in the uplands of Peru, who are laying waste to a huge area of the Amazonian rainforest in order to mine for gold. The second noted that the once pristine countryside between Nairobi airport and the city has been turned into a large housing settlement and that the jungle is shrinking. The third pointed out that lemurs, once present in enormous numbers in Madagascar, have recently being placed upon the endangered list. The last reported exhaustion of fish stocks from over fishing.
The Peruvian peasants normally live in poverty in their villages. They have found that a month's work in unofficial goldmines produces more money than they can earn in a year from the land. Their activities cause environmental degradation and the local authorities are trying to drive them away - but these these same authorities don't have any other plans for them. Obviously the miners are choosing a practical way to improve their lot.
The population in Kenya is increasing rapidly and Masai herdsman are finding it more and more difficult to find grazing. Their traditional way of life is threatened. There is a worldwide trend for urban populations to move towards the big cities to seek better circumstances. Several mega-cities are developing which impact adversely on surrounding countryside. Consequently, grazing and wildlife habitat are shrinking causing wild animals such as lions attack the herds. The graziers respond by killing the predators. Lions, formerly plentiful in East Africa, are under threat of extinction. it is said that there are only twenty or thirty thousand left.
Similar pressures exist in Madagascar and the natural habitat of the once plentiful lemurs is being steadily reduced. Their extinction is feared.
The demand for seafood is high worldwide. For poor coastal villagers, fish forms a vital part of their diet. They have no other source of food. In the developed world fish adds variety to an already adequate diet. However demand exceeds supply and marine biologists report fears that common edible species are endangered. Modern commercial fishing techniques strip the oceans of fish at an unsustainable rate.
Stories like these are common the world over. Old-growth forests in Borneo are being chopped down to produce wood for furniture. The cleared land is then used to grow palm oil trees. The soils on which the forests stood very quickly become exhausted and then it is not possible even to grow the palm oil. The Amazonian forest is being destroyed to make way for cattle.
It is easy to see why all of this destruction of the natural world goes on. Who can tell the Peruvian miners to go home and starve along with their families when they know that modest riches are to be had through illegal gold mining? Who can tell the rural poor to remain on their tiny farms to scratch out a meagre existence for themselves and their families when they suspect that life would be better in the cities? People in Borneo are sitting on a modest fortune if they chop down the forest and sell the trees, consequently it makes good short term sense to do so.
To return to the theme of the opening paragraph it is unlikely that the end is all that nigh but ways and means have to be found to distribute the earth's bounty more equitably. If illegal forest and land clearing goes on at its present rate serious problems will ensue and it will become harder to produce sufficient food for an increasing population. The land stocks remaining for potential agricultural use are of low quality with poor soils. Unfortunately, mankind doesn't have a very good record of cooperation. Selfish motives and the desire to survive trump other considerations. If those in the developing world seek to ape the standard of living of those in the developed world, the outlook for all will be quite stormy. It is difficult to see how the fortunate will be able to insist that the rest just put up with their lot. Coming to grips with these global problems is very difficult and requires complex, concerted action. The tiny targets that rich countries have set themselves to help the poorer ones are probably insufficient and even these are not being met. A fraction of one percent of GDP for a country like the USA or even Australia does not seem a lot but governments don't seem either willing or able to stump up. Beyond these meagre efforts, there is not a lot of evidence that much effort is going into the solution of the problems facing the poor of the Third World.
Lethbridge, July 2012