Systems, Rain Forests, Soda, Sugar, and Falconing

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Systems, Rain Forests, Soda, Sugar, and Falconing

On Saturday I return to the Philippines for an annual trip with high school students.   Fresh out of grad school I taught there for year in 1981-82, an experience where I formed some of my first ideas about transformational education. Two stories from that time are embedded in my book, The Falconer, and I think they are as valid for teachers and students today as they were more than 30 years ago.  Here is one, from my chapter on “Understanding the System”. Next week we will reprise this same discussion for my students while we sit in a bamboo hut under the canopy of the last bit of remaining rain forest in the Central Philippines. Our global challenge: reprise the same learning without getting on an airplane, or even a bus; the lessons are right outside our doors every day.

The farm college filled a sandy backwater, wedged between the coral sand beach and a wide swath of neatly pruned coconut groves.  The simple concrete buildings had wooden shutters open to the mild sea breezes, and spotless red tile floors that the students kept polished with the split husks of brown coconuts.  The Spartan classrooms held only old wooden desks, colorful calendars and travel posters faded from years of indirect sunlight, and a narrow chalkboard.  Rich smells of decaying rice stalks and manure wafted through the classroom from the livestock pens, along with the contentious clucking of hungry chickens and the anxious grunts of pigs pushing about in the mud.

The students sat at their desks in orderly rows of white smiles, jet-black hair, brown skin, white shirts and blouses, and cleanly pressed pants and skirts.  They smiled eagerly as I entered their room. The chattering quickly died down and changed from a musical mix of Tagalog, Visayan, and Spanish to English.

4937The topic of my guest lecture was deforestation.  We sat in the perfect teaching laboratory for the subject. During the previous ten months, I had climbed steep volcanoes, dragged my way through the mist-shrouded rain forests, surveyed sunny sugarcane fields, and slogged through the lowland rice paddies that cover most of the island.  My faculty hosts and I were studying the relationship of population to land use in a tropical setting of unparalleled fertility and irrepressible poverty.

Deforestation is an issue of evangelical emotion in the environmental community.  Many prominent scientists believe it is the single greatest issue of our time, or should be, and I’m inclined to agree with them.  The threats of global deforestation are equally as ominous as those of nuclear war.  The great tropical rain forests, sources of a large percentage of the oxygen we breathe, are disappearing at a catastrophic rate.  It was an emotional local issue as well. A single generation ago the parents of these students hid from Japanese bayonets and bullets in jungle so dense that a few meters of growth provided an impenetrable green wall.  Now most of those same rugged hillsides and secretive valleys are as clear of trees as a Nebraska plain.  A part of their heritage, culture, economy, and soul has vanished overnight.

First, I asked the students to explain deforestation to me.  The answers were predictable and correct.  The thick, steaming jungles that had once draped the nearby mountainsides had now receded far up the slopes and in many places disappeared altogether. The students witnessed deforestation every day, with far-off smoke plumes marking the day’s toll of slash and burn.

4668I asked the students why the forests had been cut, and the answers were again predictable.  The poor farmers, always in need of new and fresh land on which to grow food, cut the trees and farmed farther and farther up the slopes each year.  The soil’s fertility faded with each month of exposure to the wasting tropical sun.  The farmers moved on and cut more trees, and the forests disappeared.  Always more people, more children, and the beautiful forest, source of water, wood, animals, plants, beauty, and mystique, sacrificed to the inevitable march of time.  If we can teach the peasants to use the forest resources, the students said, instead of destroying them, the problem will be solved.

I asked how many of them wanted to stop deforestation.  They all raised their hands.  I asked how many of them had ever been up to the rain forest, had hiked up the volcano, had talked to the farmers in the hills.  A few raised their hands.  I asked the students how many of them drank Coca-Cola or Pepsi or Fanta, and, puzzled, every one of them raised a hand. “Good,” I said calmly. “Now we have identified the real culprits of deforestation.  It’s all of you sitting in this room, in cooperation with big rich American corporations.”

I had their full attention.

Like most people in the proud countries of the developing world, many Filipinos like Americans as individuals, but they don’t particularly like America as a concept.  I grew up rooting for the San Francisco Giants, and I’m sure I would have liked some of the Los Angeles Dodgers as neighbors, but the institution of the Dodgers was an abomination to me.  I had just accused these fresh-faced students of being covert Dodger lackeys.

“Why do the farmers cut the trees?” I asked.  Because they need to grow food, the students answered.  “Why do they need to grow food on slopes so steep that sometimes they have to tie ropes to themselves to weed their crops?” I asked.  Because no one owns that land up there, no one wants it, the students answered.  “Why can’t the farmers grow their food on the lower slopes, on the broad alluvial fans, and on the flat coastal land, in all of this bountiful, deep volcanic soil that stretches from the sea to the mountains, in soil so fertile that if you plant a nail it’ll grow?” I asked.  Because all of that area is used for growing other crops, they answered, as the beginning of worry crossed their faces.  “What’s the main crop that’s grown on the good land?” I asked.  Sugarcane.  “What’s the main ingredient in Coke and Pepsi and Fanta, besides water?”  Sugar, they answered.  “And where do you think all of the sugar comes from?” I asked.  The students looked at each other; finally one raised her hand.

“If we stopped drinking so much American soda, the landowners wouldn’t grow so much sugar, and the land could be used to grow more food.  The rain forests would stop disappearing,” she said, with a look of wonder and realization.  “It’s us.  We’re causing the forests to be cut.”

All of the students stopped and looked out the window and up the mountain, and no one said anything for a minute.  Some of the boys squared their shoulders and wanted to argue, but they didn’t because they weren’t sure at all who was “right.”  Guilt had just shifted from the farmers, way up on the mountain, into the classroom.

4665We spent the rest of the hour talking about all of the things that affect the forest, not just the easy and obvious ones. We sketched a far-reaching matrix on the old chalkboard showing distant relationships between farmers, landowners, producers, consumers, trees, animals, water, and everything else we could think of that is part of the real rain forest system.  Of course, boycotting Coke would have a miniscule impact on their own rain forest, and by the end of the hour they knew it.  The relationship of ecology to cash crops in the developing countries is hardly a problem that can be addressed in an hour.  But they also understood that the easy and obvious answers are rarely the end of a question.

There are mega-thinking theorists who argue that the beating wings of a butterfly in Canada can affect the onset of a hurricane in the Caribbean.  I don’t know that we will ever address that possibility any more than we can map the direct causal relationship of soda consumption to worldwide deforestation.  But I think that there are about thirty ex-agriculture students somewhere in the humid, rich islands of the southern Philippines who see the complex world of cause and effect more clearly every time they reach into the refrigerator.

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