Devastating the Earth

In 1960, I began my study of chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in what is now Tanzania. At that time chimpanzee habitat stretched for miles, fringing the lake from Burundi to Zambia in the south. From the hills of Gombe national park one could see the forest stretching away inland, interrupted only by a few villages with their fields of crops. Today, the scene is very different: Cultivated land crowds up to the boundaries of the park, the trees have gone, peasants are trying to grow crops on the steep rocky hillsides, causing terrible erosion, the soil is losing its fertility, the forest animals have gone, and the human population is struggling to survive.


cow tank
Dying cows in the burning oilfields of Kuwait, 1991.
Photograph Steve McCurry/Magnum.



What has caused this devastation? Partly, of course, the same kind of population growth that we have seen around the world since 1960. But the situation has been made infinitely worse by the vast numbers of refugees fleeing the wars ravaging Burundi, to the north, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the other side of the lake, to the east.

Refugees in Africa as they trudge towards some place of safety -- usually one of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) camps -- have a terrible struggle to survive. They cut down trees for temporary shelter and for firewood, gather every kind of edible plant, and hunt wildlife for food. Sometimes entire populations flee into formerly uninhabited -- even protected -- areas where they must exploit the land to survive. And even when they are located in UNHCR camps, the young men, who are usually not allowed to work, go on illegal hunting trips in an ever increasing radius from their camp. Sometimes they do this to supplement their rations when, due to shortage of funds, the food supply to the camps is cut. This fuels tensions between the local people and the refugees. Scarcity of natural resources can actually trigger conflicts as well as prolonging existing wars.

Wild animals (as well as livestock) are often direct casualities of war. Soldiers as well as refugees hunt wildlife for food. According to the Biodiversity Support Program, war in the DRC in 1996 and 1997 led to an escalation in poaching in one area that reduced the elephant population by half, buffalo by two-thirds, and hippo by three-quarters. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, already seriously endangered by the commercial bush meat trade, were also affected.

Not only do landmines maim innocent humans, hundreds of animals are also affected, and vast areas of farmland are made useless so that increased destruction of wilderness areas results. The instability caused by conflict enables people to take advantage of the situation to mine diamonds and other commercially valuable resources illegally, even in protected areas -- where they destroy the environment and kill all available wildlife for food.

Other insults to the environment are more sinister. Defoliants, like the infamous Agent Orange, destroyed vast areas of forest in Vietnam to provide the us and South Vietnamese armed forces with improved visibility. Eleven million gallons of this chemical were used, and it is still active in the environment today. Countless children exposed to Agent Orange have suffered birth defects, and Vietnamese researchers believe that between 800,000 and one million Vietnamese people suffer health problems related to the use of the chemical. The US government questions these statistics -- yet nevertheless it is finally compensating its veterans for a variety of health conditions apparently related to their time in Vietnam, and even compensating their children who suffer from spina bifida and other such diseases, often from contaminated sperm.

More recently, countless people have been exposed to depleted uranium shells as used in the Gulf War and Kosovo. The nature of Gulf War Syndrome, which has incapacitated numerous veterans of that war, is still being investigated. Huge areas of land will remain contaminated far into the future. Toxic chemicals are regularly used for fumigation as part of the war on drugs in Columbia; these too will remain to contaminate the environment and threaten human and animal health for years to come.

And then there are the weapons of mass destruction. The environment has not recovered from the atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. People living in these areas are still suffering from increased rates of cancer and other diseases. That such weapons were ever created is an evil stain on human history. That governments have continued to develop and test nuclear bombs -- along with chemical and biological weapons -- is a crime against humanity that surely can never be justified. The sale of traditional weapons by the developed world to enable developing countries to fight each other is bad enough; selling weapons of mass destruction is infinitely worse. And, as an aside, billions of animals are tortured by scientists in the pay of the military during the development of these weapons; and who knows how many human beings, along with animals and the environment, have been affected by nuclear tests?

Much has been written about the crumbling nuclear arsenal of post-Cold-War Russia and the millions of dollars required to contain the deadly leakage. Nuclear waste from World War II was dumped in the oceans of the world. Scientists suspect that many of the containers will soon leak if they are not leaking already -- but the precise location of some of them seems not to be known. Additional hazardous waste is accumulating all the time.

Another world war has been ignited, and the effect on all living things is likely to be catastrophic. Indeed, it is possible that the environment, already stressed in many places close to the point of no return, will be unable to recover. And the situation is made even worse when governments in the developed world, when preparing for war, themselves violate environmental regulations -- as in exploiting protected wilderness areas for oil -- persuading their citizens that such operations are to increase national safety and must therefore take priority over any concern for the environment. Our reckless burning of fossil fuel contributes to global climate change even in times of peace -- imagine the monstrous increase in CO2 emissions that would be generated by modern warfare around the globe.

It is desperately important that the general public should have access to the facts. Unfortunately, a common response is to shy away from such knowledge. People prefer not to know, not to think about such things but rather, like some gigantic flock of ostriches, bury their heads in the sand. As more and more of that sand becomes contaminated as a result of war and the preparations for war, the outlook for the ostriches -- and for all life on Earth -- will become increasingly desolate.

Jane Goodall is founder of Roots And Shoots, an environmental and humanitarian program for young people.
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