If a Tree Falls in a National Park …

Activists, journalists, and even Michael Bloomberg have been agitating for Peru to finally make Sierra del Divisor a national park. But would it really save this endangered chunk of the Amazon?


On the one hand, the delay is inexplicable. For the last nine years, indigenous and conservation organizations have pressured the Peruvian government to create a new national park in the wild reaches of the Sierra del Divisor, in Peru’s far eastern rainforest. The Sierra del Divisor is a mountain range rising from the lowlands of the central Amazon, home to a wealth of indigenous cultures, flora, and fauna. Here is a partial catalog, courtesy of the Guardian’s David Hill, of species endemic to the region: “Giant armadillos, jaguars, cougars, Acre antshrikes, curl-crested aracaris, blue-throated piping guans and various kinds of monkeys.” Some 230,000 people depend on the region for their food, water, and livelihood, according to Peruvian environmental NGOs.

It will surely come as no surprise that the Sierra del Divisor, like much of the backland Amazon, is under grave threat: its trees targeted for the illegal lumber trade, its rivers mined for gold, its paths and waterways used by armed drug traffickers. I spent the Northern Hemisphere summer reporting in the Peruvian Amazon, from the high jungle to the valley floor, which are under what amounts to a determined, all-points assault. I saw big corporate mining in the mountain headwaters of the Marañón, a main tributary of the Amazon. In Madre de Dios, wildcat mining along the rivers and forests has left fields of craters and little else, poisoning the region with mercury.

If approved, the Sierra del Divisor would become Peru’s 13th national park; NGOs focusing on environmental and indigenous rights point to “park status” as a vital step in protecting its great biodiversity. So far more than 31,000 people have signed a petition urging President Ollanta Humala to turn the area into a national park, which “would mark a milestone and allow the strengthening of Peru in the international battle against climate change.”

So why the delay for the Sierra del Divisor? For the last three years, all that has remained to transform the area into Peru’s newest national park has been the approval of Humala. Matters reached a head in May; the Humala administration agreed to sign the forms creating the park. Yet for almost five months, his government has declined to complete the final step of putting the park on the agenda and signing the paperwork. Hill published his Guardian article on July 29 in an attempt to resolve a sort of bureaucratic mystery. In it, he considers the possibility of pressure from various interest groups: the oil sector, which is opposed to a park; the agriculture sector, which has a long history of supporting deforestation in Peru; even a Chinese railway firm considering a transcontinental route across the Amazon. All this is speculation, but it was enough to inspire New York oligarch and ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg to take to Twitter, announcing his support of a national park: “After 20 years of delays, Peru’s vital #SierradelDivisor mountain range must be protected for future generations.”

Twitter is, of course, not a medium that encourages deep reflection. But there is a striking unstated assumption, both in Bloomberg’s tweet and in Hill’s longer piece: that the creation of a national park, by fiat of the central government in Lima, will equal greater protection on the ground. This is an assumption worth examining because it illustrates a place where people in the United States and Europe have some difficulty grappling with Latin American realities. And that requires us to go back to the U.S. roots of the world’s national park systems to ask a fundamental question about what a national park is. From that perspective, it’s not so clear on the ground how much this inexplicable delay matters.

If you open a map and look at the American West, you will see great swaths of green that represent national parks — part of a system that, beginning with Yellowstone in 1872, established the international legal construct that indigenous and conservation activists hope to extend to Peru’s Sierra del Divisor. Looking at that map, Americans intuitively know certain things about the land those green spaces describe: that they are, to use a term of art, “wild.” To wit: The land will suffer virtually no human interference or commercial exploitation, and the dominant forces on the landscape will be natural. As John Muir, patron saint of the National Park Service, explained it, “Wilderness is not only a haven for native plants and animals but it is also a refuge from society.” This idea that wilderness is something apart from human society got enshrined into the 1964 Wilderness Act under President Lyndon B. Johnson. According to the poetic language of that act, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

This is a beautiful line. It’s also utter hogwash. First, historically, because “man and his works” have been trammeling the woods of the Americas for a very long time. Recent research suggests that the empty woods that so impacted Muir were empty not because that was their default state but because the vast majority of North America’s native inhabitants had died in the previous several hundred years. The romantic notion of wilderness also misses how integral is the power of a strong state in keeping vast swaths of arable land, full of valuable lumber and animals, from being despoiled by hungry humans.

There is a useful idea, named in the 1930s by the Polish-American scientist Alfred Korzybski, of the “map-territory relation”: that is, the idea that there is a difference between the real flesh-and-blood world and its happenings and the formal world that describes it. In the world we live in, organized through writing, stories, equations, mapmaking, and bureaucracies, both are necessary — but as Korzybski noted, trouble arises when we begin to confuse the two, treating the formal world as the real one. For example, the Wilderness Act, and the act establishing the Sierra del Divisor, are changes to the “map” — they create new legal concepts and new laws, provide bureaucratic means for certain actions, and lay a conceptual groundwork for a new way of organizational behavior. But they do not, by themselves, protect anything. What protects the wilderness, in the United States, is federal power in the form of a small, committed force of armed and almost religiously committed forest police (“park rangers”) who patrol the woods, keeping people out.

This force is organizationally facilitated by laws. But where the paperwork exists and the protective force does not — or where it is insufficiently committed or is not under the full control of the center that makes the laws — protection doesn’t exist. In the Robin Hood legends, the forest is the abode of outlaws, and throughout much of the world that is still true. I spent the last year, as a fellow for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the environmental news service Mongabay, traveling along the frontiers of wilderness in Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and the Peruvian Amazon. In those countries, the forest is not always a safe place to go hiking because, unlike in the United States, the state does not have a monopoly of force there; the state shares it with narcos, loggers, miners, and rebels. Even where there exist ranger companies, they are under constant threat — not only from outlaw guns, but from corrupting flows of money that can lead, as I saw in Cambodia and Indonesia, the soldiers and police in charge of protecting forests to be the very ones selling it off.

As I traveled through the tropics, there was a Chinese political aphorism from the days of Mongol rule that was never far from my thought: shan gao, huangdi yuan. “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Lima, which maintains a tight, overcentralized grip on the rest of the country, lies thousands of miles of mediocre roads from the Peruvian Amazon, on the other side of a wall of mountains two miles tall. The proposition that it can effectively enforce its power there seems to me to be begging the question, as does the idea that it really wants to. The Humala administration — as I saw while working for Al Jazeera covering the government’s treatment of the informal gold mining that is devastating the southern Amazon — suffers from a virulent case of map-territory confusion, asserting from the capital that because the law is the law, it must be, and will be, followed in the provinces. In its campaigns against mining, it has seemed much more interested in shortsighted media-friendly, headline-ready moves (such as blowing up mining equipment) than in actually solving the structural problems leading to pollution and deforestation. Indeed, Peru continues building highways to the borders of protected regions, despite abundant evidence that it cannot then keep its poorest citizens from using those highways to move in, clear land, and set up shop. The emperor yells in Lima, but out past the mountains it sounds like a whisper.

None of this is to negate the importance of establishing a park in the Sierra del Divisor or the shame of its stalling on Humala’s desk. We live in organized societies run by bureaucracies, and the world of bureaucracy is the formal world of maps and legal documents. For there to be effective on-the-ground control in the Sierra del Divisor by an American-style ranger force, someone has to do the paperwork. (The question of whether such a force is the proper means of protection at all, as opposed to arming and empowering the local communities already there, is a separate one.) But we should not assume, as Bloomberg seems to, that the mere establishment of a park by a government in Lima will protect anything for future generations at all.

This article was supported by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

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