Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sparkles yay!

“Look Lorax,” I said. “There’s no cause for alarm. I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm. I’m being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed. A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that. You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets! Or curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!”
The Lorax said, “Sir! You are crazy with greed. There is no one on earth who would buy that fool Thneed!”
~Dr Seuss “The Lorax”

A metal so soft it bends to your bite, so hard to find you must dig until night.
Who would want such a metal that’s as soft as a petal? That can’t even be used for a pan or a kettle?
Who would search and dig and sift for these tiny pieces so fine? But look! When it’s polished then oh how it shines, we’ll make a fine sheet and darn all our shrines. Our ears, and our necks, and our fingers and hands will all twinkle and sparkle with this metal that’s grand.

I recently spent some time in the forest, helping a fellow volunteer gather information for his master’s thesis as well as for Conservation International. He interviewed families about how they use the forest while I ventured out on their foot paths to see what they’re actually doing. In order to get to these towns, though, we had to drive in a bush taxi 40 km on a gravel road (bumpy), and then walk 25km on an extremely muddy road that has been destroyed by semi trucks that transported hardwoods years ago. That was all to get to our base point, a town called Raboana, from which we would then trek another few hours on foot to the starting point of our forest walks. These families are pretty darn remote. As such, they’re the ones that should know the laws of forest use best-they’re the ones actually using it- but are often the least informed or just confused by being half-informed.
It was extremely challenging work, physically and mentally. Trudging through fallow rice fields while my Malagasy counterparts just seemed to flit right over the mud was really emotionally straining too. But we encountered something that I had never seen before; gold excavation sites. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in nature.
Let’s set up the scene.

Covered in fresh scrapes from slashing through forest that slashes right back at you, we catch glimpses of an odd change in the forest floor ahead. A small hole appears and lifting my eyes from the constant vigil of my feet, I realize the ground in front of me has been ravaged. Where ground thick with forest humus used to be, there are only holes as far as you can see. The biggest holes are 3 meters deep and 2 meters wide. Some are connected by tunnels, others are smaller holes dug underneath weak palms miraculously still upright. Small streams nearby are milky with sediment, and cluttered with hastily discarded shovels, buckets, and sieves. “How many holes do you think there are?” I ask our local guide. “There’s no counting them. Maybe a hectare of land is wrecked at this site. There are older sites like this near-by,” he responds.
There are hundreds of gold sites like this one (we stumbled upon two more the next day, and often passed random holes where someone tested their luck to no avail) throughout the rainforest here. I’m not one for anthropomorphizing, animals or plants, but I’ve never seen something so brutal looking as that; the ground was masticated and the rivers bled.

I’d like to think I’m not na├»ve, at least not as much anymore. People like gold. I have worn gold in my life. I will probably again; it’s just so pretty.
I also know that the people that discover the gold are extremely poor (economically) and earn pittance for what they find. It’s enough to buy the few things they need money for; tools, salt, a new shirt, a “glucose biscuit” for their child. How can we tell people that have no other option (seemingly) to earn money that they have to stop providing for their families in order to save some trees and a few lemurs. Explaining the extreme endemism of their forests doesn’t work. The carbon cycle is pretty complicated to grasp as well. Forget even trying to use climate change as a reason. There’s the added problem that trying to get sustainably produced crops to market (without spoiling or damaging) is not just limited by the time it takes to get to markets, but as well by the amount they can transport. A kilogram of rice doesn’t rake in nearly the amount of dough as a kilogram of gold. It’s the same amount of weight in your backpack on that 25 kilometer walk out of the forest though. An additional tragedy is that the people that dig and destroy the forest looking for this gold get a fraction of a percent of the money that gold will eventually garner when the jeweler sells it to you in all its 24 karat glory. But that’s a whole other quandary I’m not going to delve into now.

Life is full of many such quandaries. I have no answers. I wish I could patch the forest back up. I wish I could change societal desires for pretty things, rare things, precious things. I wish the 300 year old hardwoods would be left to feed the lemurs and house the birds. I wish the rivers would run crystalline, clean, and full of fish. Wishing just doesn’t cut it.

This entry, my first in a while, is not meant to be a downer. It’s not meant to scold or guilt. I’m simply sharing my thoughts with you all (whoever you may be). These are issues that affect us all, whether we care to stop and think about it for a moment.

Also, go read “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss.

Peace and mirary soa.
Until next time...