Category Archives: Sierra Magazine Archive (1986-94)

Read it and weep: Clearcut

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall, published by Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

As readers of Sierra magazine know well, opinions on how to protect public and private forests in the United States are at least as numerous as the conservation organizations that hold them — and no such group, small or large, is shy about articulating its position. The result has been a cacophony of voices conveying an often-muddled message to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

This spring, however, 100 forest activists, brought together by the Sierra Club and representing a broad array of conservation groups, both small and large, convened in the capital to deliver a unified message to key members of Congress and Clinton administration officials: clearcutting is ripping the heart out of America.

The catalyst for this gathering was the publication of Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a landmark volume from Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Douglas Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. (See “At a Glance,” May/June, page 84.) Activists rallied to hand-deliver copies of the book to decision-makers in the belief that its combination of photographs of clearcuts and essays on forest ecology and politics would show them the folly of forest mismanagement.

Clearcut comes 30 years after The Last Redwoods (Sierra Club Books, 1964), the first book to use images of clearcuts to focus attention on threatened forests. That “exhibit format” book, which used such pictures sparingly, was subdued and traditional compared to Clearcut, a brash, in-your-face display of denuded landscapes that testifies to the spread of industrial forestry across the continent. It stands alone as the first avowedly ugly collectable book.

The 150 photos in Clearcut show a small part of the millions of acres that have been deforested, from British Columbia (where shots depict the wasting of Vancouver Island) to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park (with clearcuts up to its boundaries) to North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (landscapes that only General Sherman’s ghost could admire).

The reaction to the book on Capitol Hill was encouraging. Representative Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) expressed delight with it, saying its analysis of the issues and its deliberately unattractive photographs “make beautifully clear statements.” Representative John Bryant (D-Texas) averred that the book would make a substantial contribution to forestry reform. Even Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), not known for undue sympathy toward environmental causes, seemed “excited and disturbed” by the book, according to Lee Stanfield and Don Duerr of the Sierra Club. “Clearcutting was a mistake of history,” the senator told them. “It’s archaic and ugly. Most people don’t want it.”

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, however, preferred not to comment on or be seen in public with Clearcut, contending that the Forest Service is already shifting away from clearcutting, so he didn’t need to see any more pictures of it. Yet according to Sierra Club forestry expert Ned Fritz, who was in Washington for the event, Thomas has still not adequately explained what alternative method his agency is embracing. The fact is, says Fritz, unsustainable logging is still the rule on public lands.

Most enthused by the book were the anti-clearcut activists themselves, because it served to unite them on the issue. Too often in the past they have argued over policies. Organizations such as Earth First!, for example, want to ban all logging on public lands, an approach that alienates those who fear this might stimulate increased cutting of private and foreign forests. The Sierra Club prefers a more discriminating approach, opposing all timber cutting in old-growth and roadless areas, but allowing for limited, ecologically sound harvesting on previously logged public and private lands.

Dave Foreman, cofounder of Earth First! and now executive editor of the journal Wild Earth, welcomed the chance to cooperate with people from many organizations, and found the Clearcut education week to be constructive. “We’ve been a dysfunctional family of late,” he says of bickering environmental groups. “But there was a real willingness among everyone in D.C. to make a new start.”

Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council, a “zero-cut” proponent and outspoken critic of the Sierra Club’s position, agreed. “The event was good,” he says. “It brought me face-to-face with some of the activists I’ve reviled in the past. I found common ground with them.”

Tensions will no doubt resurface among conservation groups as they continue working on many different ideological and political fronts to reform forestry practices. “But during the Clearcut exercise,” says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, “a lot of disagreements were put aside. We realized how much we have in common, and how much we stand to gain by working together.”


This article appeared in Sierra, July-August, 1994.




High Hopes: A World of Mountains Worth Saving

As vulnerable as tropical rainforests and just as endangered, the mountains of the world have received inadequate protection. Our mountains are crumbling, scientists say, and it’s high time we shore them up.

Summit Strategies

Hutchings Creek, Mt. Lyell, Sierra Nevada.
Photo by Peter Alpert.

FEW OF EARTH’S FEATURES APPEAR MORE ENDURING and immutable than its mountains. A relief map of Asia conveys how solidly they define the world: the Caucasus and the Urals form borders between Asia and Europe; the Himalaya isolate Tibet from India; the Tian Shan divide China from Kirghizia; the Altai stand guard at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, and China. From adventure-travel accounts one gains the impression that the Andes, the Rockies, and other great ranges are fortresses all but impervious to assault. Unlike lowlands, where rainforests, rivers, marshes, and grasslands can be easily reached and destroyed, highlands seem aloof, secure in their immensity and sacrosanct in their beauty, mystery, and power.

But conservationists’ long experience in defending the Sierra Nevada and other North American ranges against the onslaught of irresponsible developers has taught us that the uplands are indeed vulnerable. While our species once feared and revered the Olympian heights, today we arrogantly and ignorantly reshape the gods’ former abodes. The “conquest of mountains” no longer signifies women and men striving to reach difficult summits. It now connotes the reckless human bent for blasting and molding mountainsides to accommodate resorts and egos; for removing a mountain’s insides and leaving tailings to poison streams; for stripping forested slopes of their trees and their dignity.

Though what’s happening to mountains under the crush of expanding populations is alarming, the damage isn’t yet irreversible. Hopeful voices were raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where scientists from the International Mountain Society put forth a plan to save the highlands: they called for intensive alpine research and a vast array of conservation projects, and convinced all 178 governments in attendance to sign on to the program.

For the plan to succeed, the world’s mountains need a large and dedicated constituency. Brilliant dreamers and zealous defenders must give the peaks a voice. To that end I present a portfolio of words and images, some portraying enduring grandeur, others depicting tragic decline. My hope is to inspire not just sighs (whether of admiration or despair), but commitment.

Prosperity’s Price

Dorje Lakpa, Himalaya, Népal

THEY ARRIVE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD — vacationers in ever-increasing numbers on pilgrimages to the mountains. Often in search of respite from urban ills, these sojourners are finding more and more that the troubles they hoped to leave behind shadow them up the slopes.

Mass tourism boomed after World War II as industrial economies recovered their strength and low-cost, long-distance international travel became readily available. Mountain areas closest to population centers have borne the brunt of this onslaught. Perhaps hardest hit have been the European Alps, where a persistent rash of ski resorts has spread across the landscape.

Nor are the highlands of developing nations immune to such infections, brought on by international-lending banks and aid agencies (such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development) that cheerily help convert rural economies into ones that depend on cash from tourists. The resulting shift often disrupts  the cultural habits of centuries. Populations may boom, and the people may abandon their traditional stewardship of forests, water supplies, and wildlife to chase after vacationers’ dollars, marks, and

Unfortunately, thoughtless trekkers from well-heeled countries too  often generate not only currency but crises. They discard trash willy-nilly, encourage their guides to burn scarce firewood, and overwhelm local cultures, particularly at the height of the tourist season. At those times, the First World meets the Third in an all-too-obvious clash of lifestyles.

The Wellsprings of Life

Wedgemount Lake, Whistler Mountain, Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada

THE WATER THAT MOUNTAINS CAPTURE, STORE, AND DELIVER to the lowlands has historically been the lifeblood of much of humanity. The first tribes migrating to North America flourished in Rocky Mountain valleys, supported by abundant streams and lakes. In the Old World, cultures thrived for millennia along Egypt’s Nile River Delta, depending on water that originally fell as rain in mountains as far away as present-day Ethopia and Burundi. Mediterranean civilizations developed rapidly where the Apennine, Atlas, Pindus, Taurus, and other ranges collected ample moisture.

Yet communities and whole regions can come to harm when timber-cutting and grazing denude the highlands, as has happened with disastrous results in Madagascar, Haiti, the Philippines, and other countries where populations have burgeoned. Rain pelting barren hills is shed quickly, gathering force and generating floods with greater destructiveness than natural circumstances would provoke. Topsoil may erode and wash out to sea. Silt may clog irrigation systems and foul drinking-water supplies. In dry seasons the lack of vegetation can aggravate water shortages, and streams and wells may run dry.

In the Himalaya and other ranges in the developing world, the main threat to watersheds is not from those living traditional lifestyles at subsistence level. Rather, it is from megaprojects pushed by the World Bank, or various regional development agencies, or both. Schemes involving heavy earth-moving equipment — roads, commercial logging, and mining — can exacerbate erosion and other disturbances, sometimes disrupting entire watersheds. Dams can drown rivers. The toll of human misery these projects exact can be equally severe as they force villagers from their valley homelands, in some cases driving them to till unproductive lands high on the slopes.

Abundant Losses

Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo

BY VIRTUE OF THEIR HEIGHT AND EXPOSURE TO THE ELEMENTS, mountains support an array of life zones that harbor remarkably diverse flora and fauna. The dramatic mix of habitats on many tropical mountains varies from pastureland and deciduous forest to rainforest, coniferous forest, tundra, and icefields. A single mountain in northern Borneo — Kinabalu — is home to as many as 4,500 plant species, nearly a quarter of the number found in all of the United States.

While lowland tropical forests rank as the most biologically diverse places on the planet, all mountain habitats sustain a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals. Countless montane species may be lost before biologists fully investigate their genetic material or determine how they might be used for producing new drugs or foods. In some areas, the intricate interweaving of plants, andimals, soils, and climate may unravel altogether.

Mass extinctions are sweeping across mountain ranges world-wide like Biblical plagues. Among the most threatened habitats are those of Madagascar, eastern Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, along with the forests of India’s Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalaya, and the lower slopes of the Andes stretching to western Amazonia. In North America, the ugly swaths being cut through wildlife habitat by irresponsible logging practices have left many species with no place to call home.

The Sacred Profaned

Mt. Ngaruahoe, New Zealand

A VEIL OF MYTH AND LEGEND HAS LONG SHROUDED MANY of the world’s mountains, adding mystery to their features while obscuring them from trespassers. Centuries ago on New Zealand’s North Island, Maori warriors crossing the high plateau at the base of Mt. Tongariro avoided looking directly at the volcanic cone. They feared insulting the peak’s spirit and being punished with a blinding snowstorm.

For many devout millions, mountains continue to signify far more than agglomerations of stone or mere recreation sites. They are the dwelling places of supernatural beings either benevolent or malign, or are gods themselves. The traditional Quechua people of the Andes commune daily with mysterious apus who reside in even the smallest hillocks. The larger an apu’s domain, the more formidable its power. Many of the world’s 600 million Hindus regard an entire, might range as one god: Himalaya, father of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. In the Xishuangbanna Mountains of Yunnan, China, the forests are considered holy, and are protected from disturbance

These traditions crumble as industrial society fosters a technocratic attitude toward mountains that is far from reverential. It is difficult to imagine any mining engineer invoking the gods, or asking for forgiveness before blasting away a hillside.

The Dispossessed

Mountain-Top Removal in Appalachia, U.S.

MOST TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN CULTURES REGARD AS ALIEN THE modern Western concept of nature as something apart from and subservient to humans. They see the natural world as encompassing and supporting them while demanding their respect. Given the freedom to live as they have for many hundreds or even thousands of years, highland societies typically exact only minimal toll from the land, farming on terraces to minimize erosion, practicing shifting cultivation to preserve soil fertility, collecting medicinal plants, cutting trees selectively, and utilizing animal dung for fuel.

Topography often combines with traditional feelings of kinship with the land to promote conservation practices. Before the Spanish conquest of western South America in the 1500s, natives of the Andes had successfully adapted to their vertical world by developing a highly specialized form of agriculture in which varied crops — including the first potatoes — were grown on small parcels of land spaced out up the slopes like patches on a quilt.

Today the vast majority of native Andean people — like indigenous mountain people in developing countries around the world — live in abject poverty. They have little choice but to work on large plantations given over to cash crops. The imposition of foreign land-tenure and farming systems has proved disastrous for the Andean environment. Indian families produce as many as a dozen children in desperate hope of extra hands to provide for the table. The population crush has forced a mass migration of campesinos from the highlands to such sprawling coastal cities as Lima and Santiago. There millions live in squalid shantytowns, breathing the fouled air that piles up against the mountainsides like trash against a curb.

In Appalachia, communities suffer as the landscape around them is scarred irreparably through mountain-top removal, a pernicious affront to the sensibilities of the people, not to mention a travesty for wildlife.


Towering Monuments

Mt. Huascarán, Cordillera Blanca, Andes, Peru.

IN 1972, MOST COUNTRIES ATTENDING A UNITED NATIONS conference in Paris agreed to identify their outstanding geographical areas and nominate them for consideration as World Heritage Sites. Once approved by an international committee, the delegates decreed, the places os designated would be safeguarded in perpetuity through the cooperative efforts of the world community.

To date, 25 mountain areas in 15 countries have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Such designation has helped to modify road proposals for Mt. Huascarán in Peru, discourage mining on Mt. Nimba on the border between Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and limit ski-resort development on Bulgaria’s Mt. Pirin.

Many spectacular areas nominated for the list still await approval; of even greater concern are those areas not yet nominated but eminently deserving of protection. Though an urgent case can be made for protecting all mountains — even those celebrated only by the people who dwell in their shadows — it is heartening that the nations of the world have concluded that some peaks and ranges, at least, are so distinctive that preserving them is clearly in the interest of all.

Cultural Revival: The Ladakh Project

IF I HADN’T WOKEN UP WITH A SPLITTING HIGH-ALTITUDE HEADACHE in northern India one morning, I could now claim to have met the Queen of Ladakh. This royal personage occupies a mud-brick palace in the village of Stok, not far from the Indus River in Ladakh (la-DOC ), a stark, arid land that lies between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges on the western edge of the Tibetan plateau, in the department of Jammu and Kashmir. My traveling companions had arranged an audience, but I was suffering from mild altitude sickness and had to opt out.

I stayed in my hotel bed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and amused myself by reading a guidebook history of the region. I began wondering how her majesty must feel being the figurehead of a Tibetan Buddhist dynasty whose 400-year rule ended when the Hindu Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir “acquired” Ladakh in the 1840s. With 25 servants, and an 80-room palace to wander in, the queen couldn’t feel too bad, though she might well harbor some lingering resentment: When the Maharajah’s troops invaded, her royal ancestors had to flee the eight-story, 16th-century Leh Palace. From my window I could see the old, abandoned building, wrapped in an aura of grandeur and mystery.

But what did the Hindu invaders capture? As any visitor soon learns, Ladakh is a land of barren, gray mountains laced by glacier-fed rivers and dotted by monasteries and villages. Its most valuable natural resource may well be yak manure. If you walk downwind of a traditional Ladakhi home at mealtime or when the temperature drops (it can reach minus 40 degrees in winter), the sweet scent of dung-burning stoves and heaters wafts your way like incense.

Just such an odor was drifting through my hotel-room window. Soon came the added smell of baking wheat bread, at which point the lure of Leh proved stronger than my will to lie down. I ventured out to find a breakfast of warm bread, jam, and local green tea churned with salt, soda, and butter before winding through a confusing maze of narrow streets toward The Ladakh Project, an environmental and cultural-survival institute headquartered in town.

En route, though, I was distracted by Muslim traders who wanted to haggle over the prices of bronze Buddhas and bracelets inscribed in Tibetan with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum (“Oh, thou jewel in the lotus”). Tranquil, red-robed lamas nodded in pasing, and excited children shouted “Jullay!” — Ladakhi for “hello.” From various rooftops, strings of prayer flags flapped like handkerchiefs hung out to dry.

The Ladakh Project’s ecology center was easy to identify by its big sign advertising a restaurant, a library, and a solar-power demonstration. The project was the brainstorm of Swedish linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge, who came to Ladakh in 1975, shortly after the Indian government opened the region to foreigners. She soon noticed that the influx of Westerners — with their cameras, clothes, wads of cash, Walkmans, and notions of industrial progress — was rapidly altering Ladakhi culture. Ladakhis had formerly regarded themselves as rich; after comparing themselves to the newcomers, however, they began to feel ashamed of having no blue jeans or nylon backpacks (like mine) and of having to plow fields rather than push buttons on a computer keyboard (like the one on my laptop).

Norberg-Hodge founded the Ladakh Project to teach local people how to counter large-scale development with locally controlled enterprises. Eventually a group of Ladakhis formed the wholly indigenous Ladakh Ecological Development Group, which runs the center. I saw their accomplishments as I toured the facility: One south-facing wall, painted black and fronted with a double layer of glass panes, heated the space year-round, and a workshop provided craftspeople with tools for designing gravity-driven water pumps and small-scale hydro-generators.

Norberg-Hodge told me that about 100 tourists a day make their way to the Ladakh Project. They’re welcomed with open arms, tips on how to respect traditional Ladakhi culture, and solar-baked muffins — which, by the way, my traveling companions did not get while chatting with Her Majesty the Queen.


This article appeared in Sierra Magazine, March/April 1992.

Piercing the Jungle’s Heart

Oil company seeks to exploit reserves under Waorani Indian homeland.

Yasuni Waorani1Northeastern Ecuador’s Napo River region has for centuries been home to the Waorani (Huaorani) Indians, a fiercely independent people who live in cane dwellings and wear only waist cords and a few ear, hair and neck ornaments.

But more and more, this land lush with tree ferns and orchids, sloths and anteaters, parrots, manatees, and Amazon dolphins has become a drilling field where multinational oil companies sink their bits and pump their fortunes. Since 1967, oil workers and contractors have swarmed to the area, bringing bulldozers, toxic chemicals, viruses, guns and alcohol.  They frequently secure the sexual services of Waorani women by bribing their brothers with sugar, boots, axes, and chainsaws—good and equipment often pirated from company supplies. Sometimes the pilfering workers even contrive to blame the thefts on the Waorani.

One group of about 125 Waorani living in and around Yasuní National Park—one of the Amazon Basin’s largest rainforest preserves—has mostly avoided contat with oil workers. But its isolation from Western culture may soon be shattered. As early as March or April, Conoco Ecuador Limited, an affiliate of the Texas-based oil giant, expects to begin carving a road for pipeline construction more than 100 miles into the park, penetrating to the heart of the Waorani nation.

Not only will Conoco’s road carry oil crews and equipment into Yasuní Waorani territory, says the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, but it will draw colonists to the forest from all across Ecuador—speculators seeking to clearcut land for farms and cattle ranches. And that, the Defense Fund’s lawyers say, will prove so disastrous to the Waorani way of life that Conoco and the Ecuadoran government, which approved the project, could be held liable for ethnocide, a criminal offense under international law.

“The Waorani Indians face cultural annihilation if there are any major incursions into their territory,” says Karen Parker, a human-rights attorney retained by the Defense Fund. “They aren’t very adaptable to new influences. The Waorani are migrant people, hunters. Their territory has already been reduced to an area too small for their traditional lifestyle.”

Conoco officials strongly object to the allegation of ethnocide. “In fact,” says Conoco attorney H.J. van Wageningen, “we’re trying to avoid any harm coming to the Waorani.”

As evidence of their concern, Conoco officials point to an environmental assessment they commissioned from anthropologist James A. Yost, who lived among the Indians from 1973 to 1982. The company says it has developed policies based on Yost’s observations that will prevent disruption of the Waorani culture.

Among Conoco’s plans is a medical clinic for oil-company employees that would also be available to the Waorani. Whether that measure would suffice to guard against the spread of such diseases as influenza, which is alien to the Waorani people, is an open question. In areas of the Ecuadoran rainforest where flue viruses have been carried in by oil-company workers or tourists, may Waorani have died of secondary pneumonia.

Conoco Ecuador recognizes that the most severe threat to Waorani society would come from colonization along the new pipeline road. The company points out, however, that such settlements in Yasuni National Park is forbidden by Ecuadoran law. Colonists can be turned back, the company maintains, by means of around-the-clock police surveillance at key checkpoints along the road; those who ship through can be detected by satellite monitoring of the entire park.

Anthropologist Yost isn’t reassured. “Colonists in all parts of the developing world have proved time and again to be tenacious and relentless,” he says.

Yost believes the potential for disaster in Conoco’s roadbuilding scheme is enormous.  “Imagine the world of the Wao,” he wrote in his environmental assessment, “a person born tinto a culture that has a technology limited to stone, wood and fiber; a person who has never seen a horse, much less imagined an automobile. . . . Imagine how easily this erson’s sense of well-being is going to be challenged when the age-old sollutinso fo survival o longer work and he or she has no sense of control over the future.”

Acknowledging that oil development seems inevitable in the face of world demand for energy resources, Yost nonetheless advised Conoco Ecuador that his personal preference would be that no road be built into Yasuni National Park. “No matter how sensitive Conoco or any others going into the area might be,” he observed, “the Waorani will undergo some wrenching changes.”

This article appeared in Sierra, “Hot Spots,” March/April 1990.



Another Rush for the Ark

The Last Extinction, edited by Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory, The MIT Press, 1986. 

TheLastExtinctionIt wasn’t so long ago that for John Muir and the likes of him, it sufficed to protect wilderness because it was “Godful,” a beautiful “celestial city.”  But modern conservationists, Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld laments in his contribution to The Last Extinction, seek to preserve wilderness primarily to protect “a potential source of new drugs to cure cancer, of hydrocarbons and fuel oils from plants, of natural rubber, of genes for insect resistance of crop plants,” and so on, intoning the whole litany of “useful” purposes wilderness serves for humankind.  This is dangerously close to adopting the ideological rationale of the enemy, Ehrenfeld says, echoing the sentiments of the deep ecology movement. One supposes that for him the enemy consists of developers and industrialists, exploiters of the natural environment.

As an alternative to this utilitarian approach to conservation, Ehrenfeld urges us toward stewardship of the planet, an ancient concept that most can be comfortable with.  But in so doing he seems inadvertently to admonish and contradict some of the other contributors to The Last Extinction. Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory have brought together seven authors with conflicting styles and viewpoints in this wide-ranging, uneven, sometimes clumsy discussion of the extinction crisis. The result is a hodgepodge of opinions in a book that never quite hangs together.

Kaufman, a curator at the New England Aquarium, reminds us that plant and animal species worldwide are vanishing at a rate approaching and possibly exceeding that of the Late Cretaceous, when all dinosaur lineages abruptly ceased. This mass extinction, he says, demands immediate attention as one of the most serious problems facing the world today.

Most environmentalists could not agree more. Just to make sure we get the point, though, the editors include an entire chapter devoted to paleontological evidence of mass extinctions. David Jablonski concludes that the current extinction of species is not only occurring earlier (by half) than it ought to be in the usual 26-million-year cycle, it is also being caused primarily by humans. Good information – but for conservationists, merely an update on old news.

The next chapter, focusing at length on the endangered Amazon, reflects the book’s spotty coverage of its topic, neglecting vast bioregions of the world in favor of an almost exclusively Western Hemisphere approach.  “Just as the Garden of Eden was given to Adam and Eve to use,” Ghillean T. Prance writes about the disappearing rainforests, “the Amazon comprises a wealth of useful species that we cannot ignore.

This is exactly the sort of materialism that Ehrenfeld warns against. Even so, the motive to secure a potentially infinite supply of medicine, food, and fuel plants becomes compellingly clear in light of the vast number of animal and plant species that stand to be lost in the spreading destruction.  The question, then, is how to allow for essential development while maintaining the integrity of fragile rainforest ecosystems. The answer, Prance says, “is not to create a vast biological reserve as a playground for naturalists and rich tourists,” but to practice a balance of conservation and utilization. This means exploring the rainforests to learn “as much as we can from what is left of their indigenous culture.”  It means that botanists and zoologists must conduct an urgent inventory to discover the “useful” native plants and animals: capybara, turtle, deer, tapir, agouti, and others. It means developing sustainable agricultural systems, relying more heavily on trees and perennial crops than on exposing areas of fragile soil to the leaching, compacting power of tropical rains. The emphasis of all programs must be on maintaining diversity. Otherwise, mass extinction will spread at an irreversible rate.

A well-written but philosophically disturbing part of The Last Extinction comes toward the end of the book: a discussion about the role of zoos and aquariums as repositories for genetic material during the coming centuries of habitat upheaval.

In a chapter entitled “Riders of the Last Ark,” Thomas J. Foose of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens observes that the “demographic winter” now settling in will last anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years.  This will be a period characterized by enormous, uncontrolled human population growth, resulting in the devastation of wildlands, the disappearance of wildlife, and the disruption of ecosystems. We will be unable to prevent the destruction of many habitats; so zoos and aquariums, Foose argues, must serve as animal and plant refugee camps. These institutions must equip themselves to preserve examples of animals and plants against the day when their lost habitats can be restored. But since it is neither physically nor economically feasible to keep captive and alive all the species whose habitats are being destroyed, Foose maintains, it will be necessary to preserve them in another way: as germ plasm in a “frozen zoo.” The raw genetic material of as many animals and plants as possible must be preserved.

This is an extremist concept that demonstrates the severity of the extinction crisis, and Foose argues it well. Genetic diversity is vital to the survival of species. Large habitats allow for large gene pools, but “gene pools are being converted into gene puddles.” Already, remaining wildlands have become virtual “megazoos,” islands of unspoiled habitat in an expanding sea of human settlement. These megazoos are important because of the genetic diversity they harbor. This is why the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has developed a “species survival plan,” which has species coordinators deciding which plants and animals may board the ark of survival. When there is not enough space, hard decisions will have to be made about whether to preserve a species ore let it go—a decision Foose and others call euthanasia.

“Many zoo professionals believe euthanasia will be essential if the conservation responsibilities of captive facilities are to be fulfilled,” Foose says. But equally appropriate and less euphemistic would be the war-related term “triage,” the allocation of treatment to disaster victims according to a priority system designed to maximize the number of survivors. This is what Foose and his colleagues are advocating.

Ultimately one has to wonder to what extent this view is wound up with the author’s intimate involvement with and faith in zoos. After all, they are by no means universally accepted by conservationists. To some, the mere presence of zoos encourages the perception that we can safely allow the disappearance of natural habitats while maintaining zoos as our arks. The reassurance this notion offers is deceptive, in that it allows us to be complacent in the face of continuing environmental destruction.

Conservationists will have to face this issue squarely. Have we appointed our zoos and aquariums to act as arks? Can we believe that after a thousand years the “frozen zoos” will be able to release re-constituted species into rejuvenated wildlands? The answers to these questions are based on countless assumptions that must be sorted out. The public must take responsibility for decisions that will shape the environment of the next millennium.

This article appeared in Sierra, March/April 1987.

In the redwood groves

Redwood National Park dedicates a grove to forest defenders Edgar and Peggy Wayburn.

Peggy and Edgar Wayburn hold the commemorative plaque presented to them by Redwood National Park Superintendent Bill Ehorn. Photo by Mark Mardon.

“The last time we went up to Redwood National Park was in 1989,” says Edgar Wayburn as he guides his car onto the tarmac of a small airfield north of San Francisco. “During the battle, though, we used to go up a lot.”

In less than two hours, the Sierra Club’s vice-president and his wife, Peggy, are due at the park to take part in an event celebrating the Club’s centennial. Fortunately, despite some coastal fog, the weather looks perfect for flying. Waiting for us beside a four-seater Cessna is Woodward “Woody” Payne, a volunteer pilot with Project Lighthawk, the environmentalist air force known as “the wings of conservation.” We climb aboard, Woody passes out headsets, and the plane is soon en route to Arcata, California, not far from the park.

The “battle” Ed refers to was the fight during the 1960s and ’70s between conservationists and timber interests over the establishment and later expansion of Redwood National Park. Ed became a leader in the fight, and the Wayburns threw themselves into the cause, scouting the most suitable areas to be accorded federal protection. Their ardor sometimes led them to tread surreptitiously across private timberland that they had been expressly forbidden to enter.

“We’d hear a lumber truck coming and would dive into the woods or hide among the logs,” Ed recalls. Many of the loggers carried guns, the Wayburns knew, and didn’t much like conservationists.

Edgar and Peggy Wayburn in the grove named after them in Redwood National Park. Photo by Mark Mardon.

“This is where the Redwood Highway was put in the 1920s,” Ed says through the static of the headphones as we pass over the valley of the South Fork Eel River. About 60 miles from Arcata we get a good view of the North Yolla Bolly Mountains and the southern flank of the Trinity Alps, with Mt. Shasta prominent on the northeastern horizon. As we skirt China Peak, Peggy points to a huge clearcut scar on a hillside. “It’s been scalped,” she says sadly.

A momentary retreat of the coastal fog lets us slip into the Arcata airport, where we meet park ranger Aida Parkinson, who shuttles us north in her van on U.S. 101 along the shore. Logging trucks bearing freshly cut redwood sections pass us, heading south to lumber mills. Each carries several small- to medium-size logs, but Ed says the trucks will often carry only one huge log each. “Not much anymore,” Peggy corrects. “There aren’t that many big trees left.”

We pass three lagoons and a freshwater marsh before the highway turns inland, bringing us to the village of Orick beside the Redwood Creek estuary. The hills beyond are part of the national park, and we head toward them. Today’s ceremony will take place among redwood groves along Skunk Cabbage Creek and at Davison Ranch, properties recently purchased by the Save the Redwoods League and the California Department of Transportation and turned over to the national park. The cows were removed from the ranch, and elk have moved in.

First to greet the Wayburns upon our arrival at the ranch is Jean Hagood, a resident of Orick who has long kept her house open to Sierra Club activists. We join a group of about 30 others, including Wayburns’ daughter Laurie, and Marty Fluharty, chair of the Sierra Club Centennial Committee, who has arranged this event. Park Superintendent Bill Ehorn calls for all to follow him, and we head down a trail into the heart of grove R-10.

For a moment in the cool quiet of the trees, it’s possible to forget that 95 percent of all coast redwoods have been logged and that only a small fraction of the original ecosystem remains intact. Certainly the redwoods around us look exactly as Ed described them for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1973, after he wandered among “their deep brown and gray fluted trunks,” which soared above and all around, “solid and straight and somehow reassuring” for having stood in their places for at least five centuries.

It’s a distinguished lot that assembles around the edges of this steep, ferny glade: Doris Leonard, a longtime activist and wife of climbing great and former Club president Richard Leonard (absent today because of illness); one-time staff forester Gordon Robinson; two former Club presidents, Ed Wayburn and Richard Cellarius, and incumbent president Tony Ruckel; Redwood Chapter stalwart Lucille Vinyard; Club Chairman Michael McCloskey; and Michael Fischer, the Club’s fourth executive director. Many of these people fought in the redwoods campaign for decades.

Also here is John Dewitt, president of the Save the Redwoods League, a venerable organization whose relationship with the Sierra Club has sometimes been contentious, despite close links between the two groups. The League historically cooperated with the timber industry to buy up small, museum-like parcels of forest for inclusion in the California state-park system. In contrast, the Club sought federal protection for extensive ecosystems. The two groups locked horns in 1964, when the National Park Service first proposed the establishment of a redwoods park. The League and the Club differed over which watershed to protect – the relatively small but picturesque area of Mill Creek, or the much larger, more diverse expanse of the Redwood Creek watershed. In the long run, the Club’s view prevailed.

Calling for everyone’s attention, master of ceremonies McCloskey unveils five carved wooden plaques, each representing a virgin redwood grove along Skunk Cabbage Creek. These groves will be named in honor of the Wayburns, the Leonards, all Sierra Club presidents past and present, the Redwood Park volunteers, and Fred and Francis Speekman, two prominent contributors to the Sierra Club Foundation.

First to be recognized are Ed and Peggy. At the top of the slope, in front of a particularly massive old sentinel, Ed looks about at his fellow tree-huggers and clears his throat. He’s supposed to make a speech on the redwood campaign’s history, but has left his prepared comments back in San Francisco. Gamely, he launches into an extemporaneous reminiscence. “I’ve always been a sucker for redwoods,” he says, going on to recount how, in 1955, he and Peggy were made heartsick by the destruction along Bull Creek, which had its upper slopes logged and was then ravaged by a flood that sent debris roaring through the creekbed, ripping out hundreds of the trees. That’s when they resolved to devote themselves to preserving the remaining ancient forest. The effort was carried out locally, in Congress, at the Interior Department, and directly with President Lyndon Johnson. Their dream of a park was finally realized in 1968.

At 4:30 p.m., after all the speeches are made and lunch is concluded back at the ranch, we return to the plane with Woody. A strong headwind sweeps down the runway as we take off, and the Cessna lifts up quickly, banks, and soon is flying out of sight of the park, over Pacific Lumber Company clearcuts.


This article appeared in Sierra, May-June 1993

The Big Push: The Cocaine-Rainforest Connection

For years a battle has been waged between those who grow coca and produce cocaine, and government forces wanting to eradicate coca crops to end the cocaine trade. In the middle stand the rainforests … but not for much longer.

Click to enlarge.

The report below, which appeared in Sierra Magazine in 1988, remains relevant to students of North-South issues and the international drug wars. At the time of publication, it drew attention in the United States both from environmental groups eager to focus public scrutiny on the destruction of rainforests in South America, and from officials in Washington, D.C., wanting to validate the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s campaign to destroy coca crops in Peru, ostensibly to stem the flow of cocaine (which derives from native coca leaves) into the United States.



The Big Push

by Mark Mardon


IN ONE ASPECT, THE TEST PLOT is a letdown. I had thought that, given its inherent scientific and political importance, it would make a stronger visual impression. Instead the plot barely stands out, a gray splotch in the midst of green fields.

Situated near the top of a low, rounded hill, this roughly 25′ X 25′ patch of ground has been treated with three different herbicides; it supports only dead and dying shrubs. Decaying logs laid end to end mark its boundaries. Slender, pale-white tree stumps dot its terrain. The site resembles nothing so much as a garden left untended and unwatered for months.

If this spot were located in the farmlands of North America, these naked stems might be mistaken for the remnants of a drought-strangled crop. This is, however, Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley, an area some 150 miles long by 50 miles wide that edges the Amazon River basin along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The plants are Erythroxylum coca var. coca, the leaves of which are used to produce cocaine.

This site is one of several where the Peruvian and United States governments are conducting anti-cocaine experiments, initiated by the U.S. State Department at the request of Attorney General Edwin Meese. These dead coca bushes are the aftermath of scientific experiments; they indicate the kind of destruction likely to occur to crops and forests alike if certain herbicides are applied heavily throughout the valley.

Hence the presence here of an impressive array of VIPs inspecting this pathetic-seeming bit of real estate. Principal among these is General Juan Zárate, commander of the anti-narcotics force of Peru’s Civil Guard, wearing his characteristic sunglasses, visored cap, and green fatigues. Zárate stands on the hilltop beneath the stationary rotor of a blue Bell 212 helicopter provided by the U.S. State Department. He rests his right hand atop the holstered pistol on his hip as he talks with the chief press officer of Peru’s Ministry of the Interior. Close by stand two agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) dressed in full military camouflage gear. M-16s slung over their shoulders, they alternately scrutinize the general, scan the hillsides, and watch a second helicopter, piloted by another DEA agent, circle overhead.


The gist of remarks the State Department officials make openly, and of what they leave unsaid, is that the coca war is a no-win situation as far as the environment is concerned.


Down the hill, within the testing area, a chemicals analyst from the United States is poking around among the dead shrubs. He is one of four researchers from the Arlington, Virginia, laboratory of Labat-Anderson, Inc., who at the State Department’s request prepared an environmental assessment on the use of herbicides to eradicate illicit coca in the Andean countries of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia. Even though his name appears on the final report, this is his first visit to South America, and his first look at a test site.

Reporters from Newsweek, The New York Times, the Indianapolis Star, the Boston Globe, Sierra, and ABC News are tramping through the test plot, trying to find something to report on. Unfortunately, there is little to learn. As an environmental reporter, I would like to know which herbicides have been applied to which areas, but no one in our present company is qualified to say.

One of the herbicides used here was tebuthiuron, produced by Eli Lilly Company in the United States and sold in pellet form under the trade name Spike. Basing its decision in part on the Labat-Anderson study, the State Department determined that Spike is the most effective, least environmentally troublesome herbicide available for the U.S.-supported war on coca. When the pellets are dropped from airplanes onto coca fields, their weight is expected to keep them from drifting very far into the surrounding rainforest. And except for preventing photosynthesis in plants, says the Labat-Anderson study, Spike is essentially nontoxic. It is, therefore, the product State Department officials are intent on using in their eradication campaign.

Unfortunately for them, Eli Lilly refuses to sell Spike for this purpose, citing “practical and policy considerations” preventing such a sale. The company’s intransigence has caught the State Department off guard, prompting the agency to mount a campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion in support of its anti-cocaine operations, and to pressure Eli Lilly into cooperation. As part of that public-relations thrust, selected media organizations have been invited on a fact-finding tour of the Upper Huallaga Valley.

The gist of remarks the State Department officials make openly, and of what they leave unsaid, is that the coca war is a no-win situation as far as the environment is concerned. Even if Spike does inadvertently kill rainforests, officials imply–though they steadfastly deny it will have any significant effects on forest ecology–the coca plantations are already doing the same thing. Since one way or the other the forest is lost, there’s no reason not to go ahead with an eradication program that will make some contribution to stemming the flow of cocaine to the inner cities of America.

“Isn’t this impressive?” asks the chief of the U.S. embassy’s Narcotics Assistance Unit. He is referring to a landscape logged to make way for coca plantations. He gazes across a shallow valley, focusing on a hillside where neat rows of healthy coca shrubs grow on expanses of land surrounded by rainforest.

“They don’t grow anything else,” he says, mistakenly, of the coca farmers. New to his assignment in Peru, he doesn’t recognize that the plot he is looking at contains yucca, a staple food crop, as well as coca.

“Yeah, well,” he mutters when someone points this out to him, “that’s one of the rare times you’ll see a mix like that.”

A few minutes later, I ask him why a few coca plants are still surviving within the test site. He suggests almost apologetically that some seeds must have fallen onto the test site since the spraying was completed. It’s a wild theory, though. The plants we’re discussing are mature specimens. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sprayed this plot only eight months previously. Seedlings, if they could sprout at all (given the presence of residual herbicides in the soil), would be quite small. Two of the herbicides applied here– hexazinone and dicamba– persist only a few months in tropical environments. But the third, Spike, has an estimated half-life of more than 11 months in tropical soil, meaning that it persists for years at strengths sufficient to control vegetation. Woody plants absorb Spike through their roots and die after it spreads through their stems and leaves, inhibiting photosynthesis. Once sprayed with Spike, the land could support no life, other than grasses, for at least two years, and probably for much longer. Our Labat-Anderson researcher dismisses the narcotics chief’s idea, suggesting instead that the herbicides used were unevenly applied on the site, so that not all plants were affected. This makes better sense.

Around the hill’s perimeter, at least 16 Peruvian policemen carrying automatic rifles stand guard against possible attack. The situation is as potentially grim as it looks: Our party would be a likely target for a variety of dissidents–narcotics traffickers, of course, but also local farmers angered by the government’s destruction of their coca crops. The policemen watch also for any sign of movement by members of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a Maoist revolutionary group, or by the equally militant Tupac Amarú Revolutionary Movement, better known by its Spanish acronym, MRTA. One year ago, armed MRTA forces moved through the northern end of the Huallaga Valley, taking control of several towns. In response, Peruvian President Alan García established emergency military zones in the departments of San Martín and Huánuco, placing most of the Huallaga Valley and the region’s principal town, Tingo María, under martial law. In an uneasy division of powers, Peru’s military suppresses revolutionary movements, while its civilian police force, the Civil Guard, fights the war against cocaine. So far, at least, the two forces have respected each other’s territories.

On a level area one or two hillsides away from us, a band of peasants has gathered to stare at the intruders in their midst. Standing still, they make no threatening gestures, and the police ignore them. Many of the police, who have been sweltering in the afternoon heat and humidity, have taken refuge in the shade of a peasant’s shack on top of our hill. I ask one of these men the whereabouts of the owner of the house and its surrounding coca plantation; he shrugs his shoulders. “He has gone away,” he says in Spanish.

General Zárate maintains that this shack and other like it are not permanent residences, but “refuges”– temporary shelters built by farmers who understand, but do not accept, that coca growing is an outlaw activity. Even so, this particular refuge appears sturdy, its heavy wooden planks set firmly on the ground, topped with a corrugated tin roof. Inside, the floor is hard-packed earth. Two wooden platforms, piled with bedding and overhung with canopies, are attached to the walls a few feet above floor level. Otherwise, the interior is spare. Two roosters– one at either end of the large room– are tethered to the walls by strings tied around their necks. Oddly out of place in this setting, a backpack- type herbicide sprayer leans against the wall in the shadows of one corner of the room.

Outside, the sky is hazy, as smoke from burning forest spreads across the valley. Clouds appear only intermittently on the horizon–unusual weather, considering that the Huallaga Valley is so frequently overcast that aerial reconnaissance flights for anti-narcotics intelligence-gathering have proved difficult to conduct.


IT IS ESTIMATED that anywhere from 400,000 to 940,000 acres of the Huallaga Valley are now planted in coca. A figure midway between those extremes is probably accurate, according to conservationist Marc Dourojeanni, a former head professor at the National Agrarian University in Lima who is now with the World Bank’s Latin American environmental division. In a report released by the U.S. State Department, Dourojeanni says that no crop except coffee is planted so extensively. He maintains that coca farms–together with “exhausted lands abandoned by the growers; areas used by peasants who have fled regions dominated by narcotics traffickers and terrorists; land used by coca growers fleeing police repression; and areas deforested for clandestine landing strips, camps, and laboratories”–account directly or indirectly for the deforestation of some 1.7 million acres of jungle in the Peruvian Amazon. That adds up to roughly 10 percent of the total rainforest destruction in Peru this century.

Dourojeanni, in agreement with most Peruvian agronomists, considers the Upper Huallaga Valley ideal for forestry and for wildlife reserves, but poorly suited to agriculture. Situated in a mountainous region, the valley receives heavy rainfall, and has the nutrient-poor soils associated with tropical forests. Farmers do manage to eke out livings by cultivating cassava, banana, corn, and yucca. Because these plantations are widely dispersed and relatively small, their presence has so far had little impact on the landscape. In contrast, the loss of ground cover to coca cultivation, especially on hilltops and steep hillsides, has led to massive erosion.

“No other crop in the world causes similar levels of erosion,” Dourojeanni says. As a result, “thousands of people have . . . died in floods and landslides in the montane jungle region of Peru.”
Dourojeanni is concerned about the effect of the herbicides used to control weeds on coca plantations: “Because the crop is so profitable, and the growers generally very ignorant, agrochemicals are applied in overdoses.” Most common among the agrochemicals used in enormous quantities in coca plantations are Tiodan, Malathion, Sevidan, and Taman– all of which, Dourojeanni says, leach out of the soil and into the waterways, where they “almost certainly” are causing damage.

But deforestation, erosion, and chemical dumping are not the whole problem, Dourojeanni says. “The coca zones are a no man’s land where the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of anarchy. Logging, hunting, and fishing are completely uncontrolled. The few protected areas that have been established to preserve the ecosystems of the region cannot be developed; worse still, they are being invaded by drug traffickers and coca growers. The most pathetic example, Tingo María National Park, was invaded in 1972.”

“Gold rushers” is what Ambassador Alexander F. Watson calls the Upper Huallaga Valley’s new immigrants. From his heavily guarded embassy on Avenue Garcilaso de la Vega in downtown Lima, Watson maintains a close watch on Peru’s anti-drug operations, and has been instrumental in providing U.S. assistance to the anti-drug police. He strongly advocates the use of Spike or some other herbicide for eradicating coca fields in the Huallaga Valley.

“These people know they’re engaged in an illicit enterprise,” Watson tells journalists at an embassy press conference. “They’re not traditional farmers. They’re not growing other crops.” Nor, he adds, are they traditional coca users–as are some 2 million Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians who live on the high plains of the the Andes and chew coca leaf for its mildly stimulating effect. Coca has played an integral role in Andean cultures for thousands of years.

“They’re a different kind of person,” says Watson of the newcomers, and for this reason he has few qualms about wiping out their coca crops. Enough coca would continue to be produced legally in the country– under the auspices of the National Coca Enterprise (Empresa Nacional de la Coca)– to continue supplying the leaf to traditional users.

Watson believes weakening the hugely profitable cocaine-trafficking organizations, which are dominated by Colombians, is a necessary step toward reducing the demand for coca. Those are the organizations that pay Peruvian farmers the equivalent of $3.60 for each kilogram of coca–$3 more than the government pays. “If you have less of a demand,” Watson says, “then the price drops, and some sort of alternative economic endeavors become more attractive.”

Watson’s briefing is followed by an invitation to a cocktail gathering that evening hosted by the embassy’s deputy chief of mission. His home in the upscale district of San Isidro is surrounded by a high wall and guarded by security guards. We are chauffeured there in an embassy van that is protected against terrorist gunshots by inch-thick plexiglass panels bolted to the interior walls, covering all the windows.

After hors d’oeuvres and several pisco sours–the traditional Andean cocktail– one State Department official presses me for my opinion about coca growing and the destruction of rainforest. I have no doubt, I say, that the issues are inextricably linked. But, I ask him, isn’t the only real solution to curb demand for cocaine in North America and Europe? Yes, he says, but since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, it is essential in the interim to stem the supply of cocaine from Peru and Bolivia. As we pursue these themes, a tall, imposing gentleman strides directly toward me. “Are you the man from the Sierra Club?” he interrupts.

“Yes, I am,” I reply. “I write for Sierra magazine.”

“Do you think,” he asks accusingly, “that you can be objective when the State Department is paying your way here?”

The man’s straightforwardness puts me in an awkward position. Alone among the news organizations present, Sierra alone chose to rely on State Department funding to cover its reporter’s travel expenses.

I respond as simply as I can: “I’m trying to do my best.” But now I’m puzzled. I had assumed that all the officials at the cocktail gathering–the ambassador included–were interested in convincing the visiting press of the necessity of using Spike or some other herbicide to eliminate coca. Clearly this man has other ideas.

He introduces himself as the chief of programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Peru. In exchange for President García’s cooperation in eradicating coca leaf, his agency supplies training and credit to Huallaga Valley farmers, helping them develop markets for coffee, palm oil, yucca flour, and forestry products. The Peruvian government is eager for this type of economic help, because such agroindustrial products require farm machinery, chemicals, and management services that are in short supply in Peru.

“We’re spending too much money on this coca-eradication thing,” he says. “We should start spending money to stop rainforest destruction in other parts of Peru where it’s happening on a much greater scale.”

I look around to see if anyone listening to this apparent heresy is about to grab this man and quiet him. But no one seems particularly concerned, and he continues uninterrupted.

The State Department is pumping money into the anti-cocaine effort in the Upper Huallaga Valley, he explains. Eighteen million dollars were budgeted for the effort this year. By itself, AID spent almost $4 million in fiscal 1987 to develop agriculture and employment in the valley. These efforts, the program chief hopes, will ease the peasant community out of coca-growing without causing economic chaos.

“Is your program working?” I ask.

He shakes his head, looking doubtful. It is going slowly, he admits. Because Sendero Luminoso has rallied public opinion against U.S.-sponsored programs of any kind, the valley’s farmers tend to resist US-AID’s development efforts, even though they are aimed at improving the valley’s economic welfare.


“TODAY AT 7 A.M. we had good luck finding a laboratory,” the police commander at Tingo María announces on the second morning of our press tour. “Our men are in the jungle, securing the area now. We are going to take you there so you can see how the narcotraficantes produce the base paste that is used in processing cocaine.”

This is a surprise. The itinerary for our tour of the Huallaga did not include a trek into the jungle. But our arrival in Tingo María coincides with a bustling of police activity related to the lab discovery, and the day’s activities promise to be enlightening.

The frontier town of Tingo María is on the Huallaga River some 17 hours from Lima by bus along Peru’s Central Highway. In esthetic terms, the town is fortunate: It sits in a beautiful tropical niche at the base of the Andes, and is the gateway to Tingo María National Park.

In economic terms, though, Tingo María’s blessings have been mixed at best. Colonized in the mid-1930s, the town was a sawmill, wood-processing, and distilling center into the late 1960s. Then came the cocaine boom in North America and Europe, and Tingo María’s economy blossomed. Farmers began clearing jungle land, planting coca, and selling the dried leaves to cocaine producers. In return, they received far more cash than they could earn for coffee or cacao, two of the more profitable crops competing with coca leaf for the farmer’s attention. As word of the boom spread throughout Peru, laborers from as far away as Lima and Arequipa moved into the valley, clearing more land, planting more coca. In the process, Tingo María acquired a nickname, “Little Chicago,” reflecting the violence that came as capitalist drug barons jockeyed for control of the region’s coca commerce, eventually pitting themselves against the puritanical Maoists of Sendero Luminoso.

In the late 1980s the town’s character has changed again: Civilian government has been suspended and administrative control assumed by the military. Even more of a headache for coca growers, the 64th Command of the Civil Guard, the “anti-drug police,” bases its operations here. A combat-zone tenseness envelops the town. Tourists visiting the national park are warned not to take photographs of the bridge across the Huallaga River, “for security reasons.” One reporter who points a camera at an air force helicopter is warned away at gunpoint by a nervous young soldier standing sentinel on the grassy landing strip outside the civilian flight terminal.

From this command base, the police pressure coca growers and narcotics traffickers throughout the valley. Downriver at Santa Lucía, some 50 miles north of Tingo María as the parrot flies, a collection of red-roofed barracks and huts houses the 462-man Special Project for Control and Eradication of Coca in the Upper Huallaga (CORAH). These workers have the unenviable task of destroying coca crops by uprooting the bushes by hand. Not only is their job tedious and low-paying (each man earns about 15,000 Intis–about $73–per month), it is exceedingly dangerous. In the past two years, 34 CORAH workers have been murdered by drug traffickers and both Sendero and MRTA guerrillas. Reportedly the situation in the Huallaga is so tense that police no longer travel by road, preferring instead to patrol the area in the relative safety of helicopters.

We are soon on our way across the valley to see the laboratory the police have discovered. High above the forest canopy, I sit unharnessed on the slick metal floor of one of the State Department helicopters, inches from the side opening. The serpentine Huallaga River winds through the rainforest below, curling back on itself, crisscrossing, forming white-sand beaches under overhanging palms. A powerfully built young man with a very large gun resting across his knees sits opposite me, his face serious, his eyes scanning the jungle canopy. The thwack-thwack of the blades is deafening. A second helicopter shadows us: They fly only in pairs in order to support one another.

General Zárate, wearing his cap and dark glasses, sits in the center of the cabin, wearing headphones. He somehow manages to appear calm, even though a helicopter he once was flying in was shot down by a rifle grenade, after which he spent days in the jungle evading armed drug traffickers.

Now he receives a message from the pilot, nods, and says something into his microphone. Immediately the helicopter banks sharply. I find myself looking straight down into the jungle, certain that any slight jar would send me overboard into a free fall–but I have been told beforehand not to worry, because centrifugal force will keep me in the machine. I am not altogether convinced.

The rainforest below looks soft and inviting. Its smooth, green expanse is shiny in places where the sunlight glances off it at a favorable angle.

We circle above a long, narrow gash in the forest, a clearing that looks incongruously like a neatly trimmed, grassy mall. Zárate explains that this was recently a clandestine landing strip, one of many such runways used by the narcotraficantes. The strips are just large enough to accommodate small aircraft such as single-engine Cessna 206s. The planes bring chemicals and equipment to supply rustic labs ensconced in the jungle, then fly coca-base paste out of Peru into isolated border areas of Colombia, Brazil, or Ecuador. There larger, more sophisticated labs are thriving, producing freebase cocaine, which forms in chunks, and cocaine hydrochloride, the white powder so pervasive in North America and Europe.

When an airstrip is first constructed, Zárate explains, many large trees are left standing along its edges, their overhanging crowns helping to conceal the cut from police and military surveillance aircraft. Only hours before a plane is due to land are the trees cut down and cleared away.

“Since 1985 we have discovered 179 landing strips,” says the General. “We destroy them with explosives, and they rebuild them.”

This runway has been bombed by Zárate’s forces, and is now clearly unusable. Its otherwise manicured surface is punctuated by three enormous, water-filled holes.

One end of the landing strip is pointed at a large hill rising sharply from the jungle floor, dripping with foliage. Northward, the rainforest stretches for miles along the flat river corridor, disappearing into the smokey haze on the horizon. So many fires burn across the valley, so much of the terrain has been ravaged, that the region resembles a scene from the Vietnam war.

Everywhere I see coca fields carved into the jungle, newly felled logs lying on the ground like so many pick-up sticks. Almost invariably, near the center of each coca field, a small hut has been built. On the ground near each of these, amid the dark green of mature coca shrubs, there usually appears a square patch of light green: coca leaves drying in the sun.


“THE PRODUCTION CAPABILITY of this lab,” says General Zárate once we arrive at our destination, “is about 4,000 kilos [8,820 lbs.] of coca base paste per month.” He walks casually across the wooden structure’s rough floor, gesturing as he approaches what look like two large, wooden crates. Both are open at the top and lined with heavy, clear plastic.

“There are always two pits,” Zárate says. “In one you put the leaves, then you add chemicals: sulfuric acid, kerosene, ammonia.” He demonstrates how someone would stomp–barefoot–on the toxic mixture. Then, he says, “you wait 48 hours. The leaf will release the liquid alkaloid, which flows into the second pit.” He passes his hand through the air, then pantomimes someone pouring a bucket. “Now you add carbonates, a suspension element. It floats.” Finally he cups his hand: “You scoop that up and it is now base cocaine paste.”

Zarate’s policemen, guns at the ready, stand alert around the lab’s perimeter. The structure, supporting a peaked roof, is open to the forest on all sides. Some of the police keep watch from under the roof; others thread their way through the damp vegetation, alert for any movement; two stand with their automatic rifles leveled at a prisoner–a young man found carrying a chainsaw in the vicinity. A giant blue butterfly wafts by just inches above the forest floor, not far from the prisoner’s feet.

Zárate cannot say how recently cocaine traffickers built this lab, obscuring it beneath the dense jungle canopy. We reached it by tramping some 300 yards through a muddy stream that flows out of the jungle and into a major tributary of the Huallaga River. Fishtail palms, birds of paradise, bromeliads, orchids, bamboos, and the towering buttresses of rainforest trees lined our watery pathway.

The police begin dismantling the lab, slowly unscrewing the circular, flourescent light fixtures attached to beams under the ceiling. As they proceed, the rest of us are asked to return to the helicopter waiting by the riverbank. The police, we are told, are going to destroy the lab by setting it on fire.

Sure enough, not more than a half hour later, as we stand by the riverbank at the edge of the jungle, we hear a loud “whoosh” and see a column of black smoke rise from the jungle.

Something about this scene is odd, though. I recall Zárate telling us earlier that after his men uncover a site, a judge is brought in to make a legal accounting of its contents. And the most valuable equipment, including plastic receptacles, is gathered and brought into Tingo María or some other police station. But no judge is present here today, and, except for two small generators, no equipment is brought to the helicopters.


AT THE COCKTAIL PARTY we attended our first night in Lima, an American freelance journalist had suggested I let him arrange a meeting between myself and member of the “opposition”–someone he vaguely described as being interested in stopping the government from using herbicides on coca fields.

I remain uncertain about much that I’ve seen–for all I know, especially given the absent judge, the lab burning was a deception staged purely to create a sensation for the benefit of visiting journalists. One of my companions among the journalists felt this was so (though he later reported the burning as fact). I’m no stranger to Peru, having lived and studied in Lima throughout 1980, but I’m eager to run a reality check on some of my suspicions with someone who’s been in the country on a more permanent basis.

When I telephone the journalist upon my return from the jungle lab, and ask him to arrange the meeting, he tells me the “opposition” member is in fact his wife, also an American journalist. I do not back out of the meeting, but I’m disappointed. I had hoped to talk to a leader of Sendero Luminoso, or a narcotraficante, or at least a coca grower.

After hanging up, I begin to get a queasy feeling. The meeting place we had decided on is a popular café, the Haiti, on a roundabout called the Ovalo in the wealthy Lima suburb of Miraflores. I remember a State Department travel advisory: “U.S. citizens are advised that terrorism is a serious problem in many parts of Peru.” As a result, U.S. government employees are prohibited from visiting the Ovalo after dark– and my meeting is to take place at dusk.

Imagining small headlines on the back page of my hometown paper (“Sierra Club Journalist Target of Terrorist Attack”), I place a call to the press officer at the U.S. embassy to confirm that the man who arranged the meeting is not by some chance in league with Sendero Luminoso. That group has, after all, waged a bloody guerrilla war in Peru since 1980, and I once knew a Canadian journalist who secretly helped organize the Peruvian leftist revolutionary movement.

“Oh, he’s a good friend of mine,” the press officer says when I ask her about my new acquaintance. “You can trust him.”

By extension, presumably, I can also trust his wife. She arrives at the café shortly after the waiter brings my capuccino, and places a stack of documents on the table.

“These were given to me by confidential U.S. government sources who are dissatisfied with the State Department’s tebuthiruon testing program,” she says. “You’re welcome to make copies of them.”

The fattest document is the half-inch-thick Labat-Anderson study. It is useful, but not something the Sierra Club couldn’t obtain simply by asking the State Department for a copy.

Nonetheless, as we discuss the plan to use herbicides on coca, she makes a point I had not previously considered. “Sure, the government is playing this up as a no-win situation,” she says, alluding to the argument that the rainforests of the Huallaga Valley will suffer as surely from continued coca production as from the the effects of the chemical eradication program. “But consider this: If you kill the crops with Spike, what happens?” The answer is that peasants will move to new areas and start over again, clearing even more rainforest. “They’re highly mobile,” she says. “There’s no way of stopping them.” Like spraying oil to put out a fire, the eradication efforts will only cause mountainous rainforests throughout Peru to be destroyed more rapidly.

In this light, the State Department’s plan to eradicate coca crops chemically begins to strike me as untenable. The question I mull over during the long taxi ride back to my hotel in downtown Lima is whether the application of Spike or any other concoction on coca plants can solve a problem that begins with drug consumers. The demand for cocaine emanates from people traveling in the fast lanes–or, as the case may be, the breakdown lanes–of industrial society. The drug’s users can be found in North America’s and Europe’s corporate boardrooms, high-society bedrooms, professional sports locker rooms, ghetto apartments, government corridors, fashionable nightclubs, and college dormitories, among other locales. The success of any government’s war on cocaine, it seems to me, depends to a large extent on that government’s ability to foster drug-education and social-reform programs–something to nurture a cultural and economic environment within which people can effectively reconsider their habits.

The taxi passes by the U.S. embassy. As usual, Peruvian police patrol the sidewalk in front of the embassy’s wrought-iron fence. They face the avenue, toward its crush of smog-spewing traffic, and warily scan the steady stream of pedestrians walking by under a canopy of trees and the glow of streetlamps. This corner of the dusty old City of Kings is almost attractive–it’s less gray, and a little tidier, than most sections of Lima.

There is a certain incongruity here, between the powerful image the embassy projects and the seeming helplessness of the U.S. government to stem the tide of cocaine use among its people at home. The situation is made all the more ironic by the economic gulf separating the two American nations. The first, materially wealthy, has a society so weakened by drugs that its government, grasping for solutions, seeks to wage a chemical war in somebody else’s backyard. The second, fortunate in that very few of its people are habituated to cocaine, is nonetheless impoverished and reliant on the goodwill of the wealthier nation, and so agrees to bear the brunt of a war it did not start.

In this dynamic, only the rainforest is neutral– and, as so often happens in war, the innocent bystander is the big loser.


1997 UPDATE:

Since the article’s appearance, political regimes in Peru and the United States have changed considerably, yet the situation in the coca-growing region of Peru remains remarkably as it was in 1988. The Peruvian military and police continue to wage an all-out war on coca growers in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the world’s chief coca-growing region. The United States under Clinton continues to back Peru in this effort. Anti-drug helicopters, funded by the U.S., continue to patrol the Huallaga Valley, though their base has shifted 200 miles to the east, from Santa Lucía to the riverside town of Pucallpa, once a prime tourist destination.

Nonetheless, several key changes in the nature of this war have occurred, owing to political shifts. The Clinton administration steadfastly supports the drug war of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who was democratically elected in 1990 but who assumed dictatorial powers in 1992. Under Fujimori, the drug war has become little more than a cover for war on Shining Path and other Maoist revolutionaries in Peru–a war that has led to what Amnesty International terms “widespread and gross human rights violations,” involving “at least 5,000 cases of disappearance and extrajudicial executions”, and the massacres of at least 500 people by the Peruvian military.

The most significant change in U.S. involvement in the drug war has been the ascention of the CIA as the lead anti-narcotics agency, and the consequent downgrading of the DEA to second-string status. This shift was instigated by Fujimori’s Interior Minister, Vladimiro Montesinos, who upon assuming office purged the military police of its top anti-narcotics officers, including General Juan Zárate Gambini, who figures prominently in “The Big Push”.

Zárate, whether for good or ill, had proved highly effective at eradicating illicit coca crops and destroying clandestine cocaine-base-paste labs. He was, however, strongly backed by the DEA, whose agents in Lima in turn distrusted Montesinos because of his well-known ties with traffickers. The CIA, for its particular purposes, sought cooperation rather than confrontation with the new government, preferring to ignore Montesinos’ shady connections and thereby gaining the Interior Minister’s favor.

But with the CIA heading up the U.S. side of the drug war, military actions in the Huallaga Valley are now directed less at interdicting illicit drugs and more at suppressing insurrection by disenfranchised campesinos. The result has been the sharp rise in human rights atrocities.

Jesus People Against Pollution

“The issue is justice.”

Poor and minority communities throughout the South are in pain, victims not only of social prejudice, but of economic discrimination by multinational corporations seeking cheap, easy places to site their toxics-producing incinerators, landfills, and factories. Finally, in Mississippi, one African American community is fighting back. 


Charlotte Keys of Jesus People Against Pollution.

One by one on a recent muggy afternoon in rural Columbia, Mississippi — in the blessedly cool interior of a gymnasium-size meeting hall — members of Jesus People Against Pollution rose to bear witness to the misery wrought in their lives by hazardous wastes.

“In January I lost my son,” one middle-aged woman said grimly, gripping a facecloth as she stood in her summer dress in the center of a circle of people seated on folding chairs. “Then in February I lost my husband. In March I lost my brother. My older sister started breakin’ out in pimples, then a sore started takin’ over her nose until finally she died. She paused a moment to scan her audience before letting her anguish explode: “Why did they die? I believe it’s a chemical that’s takin’ my family from me, and I feel like somebody should know, and somebody should pay.”

Listening intently were activists from throughout the Southeast, including more than 20 delegates from the Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee (GCRCC) representing the Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Delta (Louisiana), Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennesssee, and Lone Star (Texas) chapters of the Sierra Club. Four years ago, the GCRCC began reaching out to grassroots minority groups to assist them in winning environmental justice. Since then, committee organizers and activists have been lending a hand to minority communities throughout the South and across North America that struggle to protect local residents against toxic threats.

The GCRCC’s presence in Columbia was one example of the organization’s concerted effort on behalf of people of color. Organizers came to the community to reaffirm a commitment they had made to Jesus People Against Pollution (JPAP, pronounced “JayPap”) a year earlier, when Sierra Club President J. Robert Cox and others vowed to assist the group in freeing the town’s mostly African American, politically disenfranchised citizens from the yoke of a hazardous-waste site that had been strangling them for 17 years.

Evidence of their suffering was plain to see from the ugly rashes that covered many people’s swolen arms, legs, and torsos. Locals told of themselves or family members being stricken with cancer, nervous disorders, chronic nosebleeds, breathing problems, birth defects, and miscarriages.

“The dump in our community has brought on a major health crisis that a lot of us do not know how to deal with,” said JPAP President Charlotte Keys. “The people of Columbia need help for relocation and medical treatment. I know that God has doctors who know how to treat patients exposed to toxins. But we don’t have them here in Columbia, Mississippi. We’re looking forward to getting them.”

“The issue here is justice — the lack of justice,” said one activist.

The plight of Columbia’s residents began in 1977, when the nearly new Reichhold Chemical Company plant near downtown Columbia exploded and caught fire. The accident destroyed the operation, but left behind more than 4,500 drums of chemicals, which Reichhold subsequently interred in an 81-acre field at the site.

Unbeknownst to the residents, the drums were leaking, allowing chemicals to seep into the groundwater supplying Columbia’s artesian wells. Over the next several years, a series of floods flushed toxins from the site and spread them into surrounding farmlands, rivers, swimming holes, and streets.

In 1984 the Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the site, and two years later placed it on the Superfund priority list for hazardous-waste cleanup. Then came workers, decked out in protective clothing, to perform the arduous task of removing the barrels and decontaminating the immediate area.

With that mission now accomplished, the EPA has indicated it will soon take the site off the Superfund list — a move JPAP says is premature. To prove the point, JPAP members led GCRCC delegates to a nearby farm where some two dozen drums reeking of chemicals — the remainder of a 150-drum lot sold dirt cheap in 1978 to a farmer who used the unidentified contents as bush killer — lie strewn on a hill next to a county road.

“Why is the EPA about to delist the Reichhold site,” asks Cox, “when barrels like these are still lying around, leaking stuff labeled dangerous, flammable, and corrosive?” He and the GCRCC delegates are calling for the EPA to conduct expanded cleanup efforts in the area, and have asked the agency to provide mobile medical testing units for the community.

“I strongly believe we’re being tested here,” said John McCown, who successfully campaigned against the siting of hazardous-waste facilities in his hometown of Sparta, Georgia, and whose father was a prominent civil-rights leader in the deep South. “For so long we’ve allowed industry to divide us on the basis of race and class. We’re going to have to come together as brothers and sisters — as human beings — to stop this problem of environmental injustice.

“As John Muir said, there’s a connectedness between all things. If people in Columbia, Mississippi, are suffering, then something is ailing European Americans from North Carolina to California as well.”