Imagine a small Peruvian farming community where people still live as their ancestors have for countless generations. Now imagine the change that would come from placing a busy international airport directly next to this town. Each morning, instead of farm animals welcoming the sun, it is jumbo jets full of international tourists.
How would you feel if you lived in this town?
How would your personal personal health and traditions change?
These are the questions facing the people of Chinchero, the ancient Andean community that our team recently visited.
Our experience in Chinchero was one of traditional weaving, impressive Incan ruins, and the wild ambience of the Andes mountains. If we were to return to Chinchero in a few years, our tourist experience will be much different, but more importantly, by this time, the people who live here will know what it means to sacrifice for their country. The fate of Chinchero’s residents is just one example that cuts at the heart of the vexing question facing the developing world in the 21st century: Progress, but at what cost?
As the Forest Online team journeys through Peru this January, the questionable value of progress is recurrent. We face this question again and again, as like most developing countries around the world, Peru is undergoing rapid industrialization and modernization. In particular, the near universal desire of Peruvians for progress, i.e., economic growth and development, is being answered with new dams, highways, and the loss of natural species and ecosystems to new farms and communities. The benefits of Peru’s progress are often great for the majority of its citizens–better health, wealth, and the many other benefits that come from living a modern 21st century lifestyle. On the flip side, as economists often say, “there is no free lunch.”
Someone must pay for this progress.
In many cases, that “someone” is poor communities, minorities, and the many other species we share the planet with.
This story of Peru’s progress is being replayed over and over across developing Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As a scientist and conservationist, I’ve seen this consistent reality as I travel to the earth’s last forest frontiers. Witnessing these changes unfold firsthand via rainforest destruction and species loss is heartbreaking. At the same time, I am not interested in relegating nations or people to permanent poverty. They want to live how we do in the United States.
Who can blame them?
I often wonder, is there no better way? Must we destroy all that is wild and beautiful so that one of earth’s species can live better? Must progress trump the multitude of values intact ecosystems and ancient cultures provide?
Ideally, we can find a middle path where development and conservation coexist and mutually benefit each other. This outcome is not impossible.
In fact, we see the middle path being played out around the world. For example, in Costa Rica, a vast eco-tourism industry has lead to national prosperity and increased protection of its tropical forests. And in Mexico, local governments are paying poor farmers to preserve their forests to protect national water supplies. Yet, in many cases we must be honest and accept that a middle path may not exist. Some places must be left undeveloped to maintain their natural integrity and other places must be destroyed for the urgent needs of people.
In cases where win-win outcomes are not possible, the question becomes how to decide the fate of species and people? What are the variables we should consider? How do we place a value on species and cultures that may be lost in our pursuit of progress? Who should decide? As we journey deeper into the Amazon these questions will increasingly confront our team through the lens of local people with names and children to feed. With species that are among the last of their kind. And through wild rainforests that are extremely rare and only increasingly so.
In short, the true cost of progress–and whether it is worthwhile–will be continually in our faces, in our hearts, and in our minds. We look forward to continue examining this question as a class. I trust we will all get closer to an individual understanding of the true cost of progress. Our answers may be too late to find a better solution for Chinchero, but perhaps some day down the line we will have learned from this journey–and it will allow us to play a part in advancing true progress.
And per the design of the course, we believe this learning can lead to personal action, and that our stories can be a powerful force to change the world.