A walk in the woods: think global, act local
March 21, 2023 is recognised internationally as, among other things, the International Day of Forests.
The theme for this year is “forests and health”, noting the importance of forests in the water cycle, reducing air pollution, capturing carbon, providing food, medicines and other ecosystem goods and services, including the benefits they provide for human physical and mental health.
Today, Bermuda has limited forest cover; however, that is mostly a phenomenon dating only to the 1950s. Even at that late a date in our history, Bermuda was relatively heavily forested, dominated by cedar forests. Our spatial development at that time was largely concentrated in a more traditional urban and rural system — most people lived in the City of Hamilton, the Town of St George, Somerset Village, North Village and Flatts. This all changed with the construction of the airport in the 1940s and the dismantling of the railway, leading to the dominance of motorcars.
With the construction of the airport came the cedar scale, imported on ornamental junipers. Our endemic cedars had little immunity, and within a decade almost all — about 95 per cent — of the cedar forests were dead. At the same time, the motorcar changed the rhythm of everyday life, allowing for greater commuting freedom.
Concurrently, in the United States, the state-pioneered suburbs — in part to isolate workers and mitigate the risk of radical class consciousness — and the suburban dream was transplanted to Bermuda. With the cedar forests dead, land was cleared and the suburban Bermuda that we know today was born — albeit within the confines of spatial segregation, which still finds echoes today. What’s left of woodland in Bermuda are largely invasive species such as Brazil pepper, Surinam Cherry and fiddlewood.
There is an activist saying from the 1970s: “Think global, act local”. We see today very commendable actions in the microforest initiative being pioneered by the Bermuda Zoological Society, as well as its ecological restoration efforts at Trunk Island in Harrington Sound, inspired by the success of Nonsuch Island.
In fact, the efforts of David Wingate in the ecological restoration of Nonsuch have played an important role developing the field of restoration ecology, helping to inspire similar efforts throughout the world. These are, indeed, commendable efforts, and ones we should all collectively support. But are they enough?
Outside of outright climate deniers, the importance of forests — especially in the tropics — for mitigating climate change is clear. They provide major carbon sinks, not to mention key parts of Earth’s biosphere and complex food webs, as well as homes for hunter-gatherer societies around the world. Additionally, while when left alone they exist as self-sustaining habitats, once they suffer catastrophic damage through clearing, it is extremely difficult for them to recolonise the land owing to multiple factors, including the loss of critical nutrients.
Tropical forests see their resources exported first in the form of timber, with what is left behind often burnt. The resulting soil is often highly productive for a couple of years, but the nutrients are exported out through industrial agriculture — especially soybeans and cattle, also palm oil. After a few short years of productivity, the resulting land is essentially a dust bowl, and the logic of capital moves on to fresh forest for conquest in an inexorable pattern of destruction. All this contributes to a growing metabolic rift between nature and the capitalist system.
This process of converting living forest into dead commodities for the sake of profit is driving mass extinctions, contributing to the biodiversity crisis of our time, along with expediting climate change and leaving death, destruction and poverty in its wake, while padding the bank accounts of the rich, who are safe in their gated communities thousands of miles away.
There is no doubt that there are small things individuals can do — switch to fair-trade and organic products (albeit at increased cost); switch to a more vegetarian diet based on local food production; reject capitalist standards of beauty (collagen production for beauty products is a large driver of deforestation). Some can even “buy” an acre of rainforest to protect it, or donate to environmental charities. These are all well and good; however, they are mere drops in the bucket.
It is at the larger, structural level that change needs to happen. Yes, this means organising collectively and applying pressure to use state power to address the logic of capital that is driving this relentless deforestation. It is, after all, the actions of state power that has facilitated much of this — through financialisation of capital in the West, through to the role of the state in providing infrastructure and violence to support timber companies and agricultural conglomerates to execute this environmental holocaust. One need only look at Brazil under the fascist former president Jair Bolsonaro, with his use of state power to wage genocide on Indigenous peoples and ramp up deforestation. Similarly, we see the involvement of the state and multinationals in the murder of environmentalists throughout Latin America and Africa.
All very tragic, you may agree. But what does that have to do with us in Bermuda, in terms of acting local? Well, of the world’s 13 major companies responsible for deforestation, several, if not all, have connections to Bermuda. A 2018 article in Nature, “Tax havens and global environmental degradation” provides further interesting reading.
There is plenty food for thought for us all to consider the saying of “think global, act local” on this International Day of Forests.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University
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