Rainforests, National Security and Tomorrow’s Economy
By Bill Moore
If Hugo Chavez plays his cards right, Venezuela's future is secure. It has huge reserves of crude oil and even larger reserves of extra heavy crude and bitumen deposits. It also holds the second largest reservoir of natural gas in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States(1).
But more importantly to his nation's future, half of the country's 890,000 square miles are covered in tropical rainforest. Typically, just two and half acres (one hectare) of old growth, "frontier" forest will contain 750 different species of trees and 1,500 different types of higher plants.
In fact, at least 80% of the food consumed in the world originated in the world's lush equatorial belt. Name it and it probably came out of the world's rainforests: avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes. Vegetables such as corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams came from the rainforests of Africa, Asia and South America. Fabulous fortunes have been made throughout history importing rainforest spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, coffee and vanilla.
Rainforests are also the world's medicine chest from which are derived a host of life-saving drugs, as well as life-destroying narcotics. 25% of the West's pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients. Of the 3000 plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as being chemically active against cancer cells, 70% are found in the rainforest. Yet, only 1% of the cataloged plants found in rainforests have been tested by scientists.
But the real treasures of the rainforest may not be their oil, timber, fruits or spices, but their incalculable and totally irreplaceable library of genetic material; genes for developing new drugs, industrial chemicals and bio-energy resources.
Writing in Defense Horizons, a publication of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, Robert E. Armstrong reasons that, "In a biobased world, our relations with Ecuador (to use a representative country that takes its very name from the equator) will be more important than those with Saudi Arabia".
Armstrong's October 2002 essay foresees a world transitioning beyond its dependence on petroleum to one where "agriculture will become increasingly important as part of the Nation's industrial base, as it offers the most economical way to produce large quantities of biological materials. Homeland defense will have to consider heartland defense, as agricultural fields will assume the same significance as oil fields".
That strategic shift is likely to impose an entirely new set of scientific, political and military dynamics on not only the United States and Western World, but also the developing world, often the unwitting custodians of this genetic treasure trove.
Viewed in this context, the destruction of the world's rainforests can no longer simply be framed as an emotionally-driven, liberal, "tree-hugger" issue. It is now one with serious national security and economic growth implications.
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