A rosewood coffin

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

“They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

The tragedy is not just that a couple of hired pistolieros killed a nun — shot her in the face as she defended herself by reading the Bible, in an act of terrorism that no one calls terrorism, or that her murder was only one among hundreds in recent years, most of them unsolved, in the region of Brazil’s state of Para known as the “Gaza Strip.” The tragedy is how small the crime is in the context of planetary suicide.

You might say we’re burying ourselves in a rosewood coffin. As a symbol of the irrationality of the global economic forces that are resulting in the destruction of the Amazon and other rainforests at the rate, by some estimates, of 78 million acres a year, it’s as good as any.

On Feb. 12, the sinister local manifestation of these global forces killed Sister Dorothy Stang. The 73-year-old nun from Dayton, Ohio, had spent the last half of her life in Brazil and the last 22 years around the town of Anapu, deep in the Amazon rainforest, where she worked with local peasant farmers and was helping to set up a sustainable farming project.

She was a fierce opponent of the region’s moneyed interests — the loggers, ranchers and land speculators, who are accustomed to acting with impunity in this remote place — and she had no illusions about the danger she was in. She had told friends, as well as government officials, that there was a price on her head.

In terms of global outrage, her murder is being compared to the 1988 slaying of legendary rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes. Both deaths focused world attention not merely on the desperate plight of a people being pushed off their land by greedy developers, but on the plight of the rainforest itself, the planet’s lungs and its deepest mystery.

This complex, fragile and unimaginably diverse ecosystem — “a single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all of Europe’s rivers,” writes Leslie Taylor — is being sacrificed to short-term profit and Third World debt relief at a rate too dizzying to contemplate. And when it’s gone it’s gone for good. Rainforests took millions of years to evolve; once they’ve been logged out, they don’t come back. What’s left has only a limited life even as farmland before rain washes away the thin layer of topsoil.

“The biodiversity of the tropical rainforest is so immense that less than 1 percent of its millions of species have been studied by scientists for their active constituents and their possible uses,” Taylor writes in “The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs” (she is quoted on rain-tree.com).

“When an acre of topical rainforest is lost” — an acre! — “the impact on the number of plant and animal species lost and their possible uses is staggering,” she continues. “Scientists estimate that we are losing more than 137 species of plants and animals every single day because of rainforest deforestation.”

Taylor quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson, who describes “the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats” as the worst of all possible catastrophes for the human race, worse even than economic collapse or limited nuclear war, because it will take millions of years to correct. “This is the folly,” he writes, “that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for.”

They can’t see the forest for the trees, says Taylor. What happens is that Third World governments on the brink of debt default begin cannibalizing their natural resources to raise cash. They’ve been known to sell off rainforest land to logging and other interests for as little as $2 an acre. A few people get wealthy, an untapped treasure trove of biodiversity millions of years in the making — nature’s creative font, humanity’s ongoing source of life-saving medicinal plants, among much else — gets converted to pulp, toothpicks, coffins and Big Macs.

Consider that, among the myriad uses we in the United States find for the hardwood we import from Brazil — the teak, mahogany, rosewood — is the manufacture of coffins that, as Taylor gasps incredulously, “are then buried or burned.”

This, then, is the context of Dorothy Stang’s death. As an advocate of sustainable development in the Amazon rainforest — “profit without plunder” — she put her life on the line to stop the madness and unconscionable waste, the government-sanctioned ignorance in the service of profit, the global conspiracy to sell off humanity’s future.