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The tropical rainforests are unique treasure troves for many biologists and geologists. This biome is the most biologically diverse ecosystem in the world, home to 50% of the world’s species and contains a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It is largely unexplored in scientific terms, and the great diversity of life found within these areas holds great interest with members of the scientific community, particularly with regard to the research of medical sciences. Despite this, tropical rainforests are disappearing at an exponential rate. Human activity has reduced global coverage from 18 million km2 to less than 10. km2. Much of the worlds tropical rainforest is found in less economically developed countries (LEDC’s).

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These countries are willing to exploit the natural world and its resources in their struggle to develop. There are a number of factors that lead to or add to the destruction of the rainforests, many of these issues are interlinked, lead to other problems or simply create a vicious cycle. LEDC’s desperate to pay off international debts use the natural resource to develop a base for industry whether it be the timber industry, clearing an area for cash crops for exportation or grazing land

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As the tropical rainforest has evolved to a point where it is in equilibrium with its environment, a term noted as climatic climax, any change in either would result in consequences to the other, even more so in the case of the tropical rainforest since it covers such a vast area. Changes in a biome that once covered an area so large may result in consequences that stretch across the globe, affecting global weather patterns. The Brazilian rainforest is currently being destroyed at a rate of 2 million hectares per year.

Scientists are losing a valuable source of information, Brazil is losing its main source of income and most importantly, and tragically, indigenous peoples are losing their home. The Huaorani are an example of such a tribe. Found living in rainforest on the eastern side of the Andes mountain range these people had very little contact with the outside world until recently. Primarily a hunter-gatherer tribe, the Huaorani also employed small-scale farming techniques. The indigenous people of the Ecuadorian rainforest describe their home as ‘a mother’.

The rainforest supplies all that they need to live, the Huaorani take advantage of this but in such a way as not to upset the equilibrium of their surroundings. Unfortunately the Huaorani are not the only people interested in the bounties of the rainforest. Ecuador is an LEDC. It faces many social problems, one of the foremost being to house and feed its fast growing population. To do this it needs to develop its fledgling industry. The Ecuadorian government believes that the rainforest within its borders are the answer to its problem. Vast quantities of oil have been discovered beneath the rainforest.

In 1981 three thousand barrels of the black gold were extracted, in less than a decade production had increased by 10,000%. The extraction instantly resulted in major problems. Accidents released at least 18 million gallons of oil into the Ecuadorian Amazon region since production first began. The chemicals inadvertently introduced into the water decimated many aquatic ecosystems, systems/ that the natives relied on for food. The damage did not stop there. Secondary affects threatened not only the Huaorani’s home, but also their culture.

To increase efficient export of oil, a vast project was introduced to improve infrastructure. This involved the construction of roads deep into areas of untouched rainforest. Not only did this result in destruction of yet more rainforest, it also allowed increased opportunities for settlers to colonise virgin forest. With extra settlers, yet more space was needed for farms. 35,000 hectares of rainforest was cleared for these settlers. Any Huaorani that were in the way were ‘escorted’ to alternative sites, with little regard for their well being.

Settled in their new home the Huaorani heritage was slowly leached out of their lives. Christian missionaries used the opportunity to recruit more bodies to their cause. The remaining generation of Huaorani lost the knowledge of their motherland that their ancestors had passed down from generation to generation, and with little knowledge of sustainable methods of farming, soon struggled. Businessmen who were already exploiting the rainforest for space for cash crops turned their eyes to the natives who had been plunged unwittingly into the western world.

The Huaorani were ideal for cheap labour, and so they were exploited as well. Some Huaorani followed in the avaricious businessmen’s footsteps and also began to exploit the rainforest, by committing such acts as removing native animals from their habitat for illegal sale on the black market. The Ecuadorian rainforests, like many other rainforests in the world were slowly being consumed, replaced with plantations of cash crops. The disruption to the nutrient cycle meant that growing cash crops was not sustainable for prolonged periods of time.

With less litter putting nutrients back into the soil, yields began to decrease and after a few seasons, the formerly densely vegetated land was only fit for cattle rearing. The story of the Huaorani took a twist after interest from environmental organisations pressured the oil companies that were the roots of the Huaorani’s problems to respect the native’s land rights. Local authorities established a pseudo governmental body within the tribe (An alien idea to the Huaorani) to negotiate with the oil companies.

The executives of these companies were easily able to dupe the Huaorani into an unfair deal but further global appeal forced the Ecuadorian government to return 607,000 hectares of land back to the Huaorani, as long as oil extraction could continue in order to help re-pay their international debt, which had accumulated, to 12 billion US dollars. The Ecuadorian government chose to ignore the fact that they were building on a United Nations designated natural reserve.

With land reclaimed, some Huaorani adopted their previous lifestyle. The oil companies/settlers and cash crop barons were encouraged to implement new methods of farming, in particular the idea of permaculture, whereby farming has minimal affect on the environment by keeping the changes in microclimate at minimal levels. This is achieved in the rainforest by maintaining the canopy of trees over cash crops. This reduces the leaching of nutrients from the soils, thereby increasing the sustainability of the soil.

Meanwhile, the Huaorani promote awareness of the importance of the environment by ecotours. In this situation the conflict of interests has come to an acceptable compromise, although the damage to the rainforest and the Huaorani people’s culture cannot be undone. In many cases, other peoples indigenous to the tropical rainforests of the world were not so lucky, their home and culture was stripped away from them as people of the developed world turned a blind eye as they drank coffee in their mahogany furnished living rooms.

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Kylie Garcia

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