The People of the Forest Will Save the Forest

The movie, A Fierce Green Fire, presented at the Country Store by SustainFloyd recounts the history of the “environmental movement.” Appropriately, the director’s wide-ranging lens focused momentarily on the impact of globalization on the third world environment.

Here it told the story of marginalized rubber tappers in their struggle against land barons on plantations in Brazil. It particularly highlighted the grassroots rebellion to protect the trees and way of life, lead by Chico Mendes, who was ultimately murdered by loggers in 1988.

At the conclusion of this segment that ended in victory by the rubber tappers to protect land they valued but did not own, the narrator made the comment that “It is the people who live in the forest that will save the forest.”

Photo by Fred First, a short walk from his front door: the forest he lives in.

The wider significance of “belonging to the forest” seems to tell me that there may be hope here at the 11th hour for re-empowered stewardship of our environment — to the extent that we rekindle a relationship to place and to the natural world.

For those Brazilians who resisted the despoliation of their forest surroundings, it was far more than just their houses that they fought to save. Their lives were totally embedded in and dependent on the soil, air, water, the vegetation and the natural cycles around them.

The bond to their “environment” is a value and right for which they sacrifice, and even die to protect. Life worth living cannot go on apart from that place. They know that because, in a sense, they ARE the forest. There is no divide between the land and those living there.

We will give and sacrifice and struggle and labor perhaps more for something to which we belong than for something that belongs to us. Those Brazilians do not own the forest, but they belong there as a people. Their STORY is in and IS that environment.

Where is our story as Americans? What mark does this land — what you see out your window right now — make on you to shape your identity? Think about this from whatever rectangle contains you at the moment.

What gives you your character, orients your preferences, tells others who you are and what you are about? Is it the professional team sport that is your religion? The kind of car you drive or labels you wear? The “side of town” you live on? Your favorites on Dancing With the Stars?

If “who we are” comes from transient, superficial bought stuff, then that is where our hearts will be; that is what we will care about, talk about, dream about. That is the shopping life we will vote to protect.

Americans have, by and large, become a displaced — or at least an unplaced — people. We belong to no forests.

Wendell Berry has said “What I stand ON is what I stand FOR.” He also said “ If you don’t know WHERE you are, you can’t know WHO you are.”

The people of the Brazilian forests know where they are. They know the ground they stand on, and they stand for the forest. Their sense of place embeds their story generation after generation within their environment. They know the value of nature. And their story is allegory.

Mendes said “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

The cloistered, isolated, people of the American cities and burbs may not care enough about “the environment” to save the forest. Today’s children who don’t know a monarch butterfly or a Christmas fern and never held a cricket in their hands won’t save the forest.

Repairing broken relationships to nature (the environment) and to place are crucial if, in the short window ahead, we are to do right by the “environment” — the very places where we live. We are all of us stakeholders in this investment.

We inhabit and are inhabited by the forests of the Southern Appalachians. What choices will we make to stand up for the priceless services given by the wooded lands we stand on? The consequences of this choice matter, ultimately, more to people and planet than to those who only see forests-for-profit.