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Early Lessons: Setting Fire to the Lungs of the World

Parguayan farming family

Doing my laundry in Ybycui, Paraguay in 1998

In 1996, I was standing in the middle of what was formerly a swath of rainforest. The tree trunks smoldered as black, torn limbs protruding from the earth. In college, only months before, hadn't I learned that our rainforests are the "lungs of the earth"? I shook hands with the farmer who had set the forest ablaze.

I was visiting a Peace Corps volunteer as part of my own 3-month in-country Peace Corps training program. I was part of the A-24 group, a subset of volunteers focused on Environmental Education. My host, whose name I forget, was a young man finishing up his Peace Corps service as in agro-forestry. He wore a baseball cap and spoke eloquently in Guarani with a local farmer. (Of course, I don't actually know how eloquent he was. I was amazed he could communicate at all!) And I stood there with a silly grin, feeling dumb and mute for the millionth time, probably nodding and sweating and wondering where the forest had gone.

It had been a several hour ride in the back of a pick-up truck, down a road that was a red streak through a verdant landscape. I had inhaled an impressive amount of dust, to say nothing of my pride.

Scientists say the rainforest is more like an air-conditioner than lungs. An air-conditioner sounded good on a day with temperatures over 100 degrees. The Amazon transforms so much water into clouds, scientists say there is a virtual river above the Amazon which is larger than the famous river that goes through it. When parts of the Amazon are lost, at least three items are added as debits to the ledger: the burned forest emits pollutants including carbon dioxide, the lack of forest cover increases the likelihood of floods, and we lose part of the air-conditioner of the world.

But I still like to think of the Amazon as the lungs of the earth. And I remember thinking, struggling with the thought: "We are not supposed to be burning down the lungs of the earth." It hung in the air like the smell of the burning stumps of ancient trees.

But then it all changed when we went back to the farmer's home.

I met his wife and his children. I saw him providing for his family. I finally saw his calloused feet, strong arms, determined and humble face. I admired his perseverance, his willingness to do whatever it took to care for his family. His kids were adorable. Their faces were healthy and vibrant. I am tall and they looked up at me with some degree of amazement. Not able to speak their language, all I could do was smile and try to make myself smaller by sitting down.

Then the difficult truth poured onto me like the hot, Paraguayan sun. I would do the same thing. So would you. To care for your children? To protect your family? Wouldn't you? I would be the first to burn the lungs down.

This was one of those moments when I first lived the complexity of these issues. Ecology, economy, culture, and politics all swirling together to lure a man into the world's air-conditioning rainforest. With determination to provide for his family, he sets a fire that will release nutrients stored for millenia. The soil will be enriched, if only for a time, and the crops will grow. Nutrition and income will hopefully flow.

The smell of trees burning for me was an acrid, awful smell. It was the smell of a great loss for the world. Some have likened burning the Amazon to setting fire to the Sistine Chapel or to Google's server farms. The Amazon is such a unique creation with a kind of beauty and immensity of information that hosts 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 types of fish, 430 mammals and at least 2.5 million different insects (National Geographic).

But for the farmer, it probably smelled like progress, like life and education for his kids and a prosperous future.

At church the other day, I saw a young girl braiding the hair of another girl whose hair was already in small braids. Braiding together the already braided together. Forests, families, economies, cultures, language, ecology, society, soils and cells. The ecologists and systems thinking proponents call them "nested hierarchies": systems embedded within ever larger (or smaller) systems which share functions, nutrients, elements and destiny.

When I sat in class months before. The Powerpoint and the lecture made it all seem so simple: protecting rainforest GOOD; destroying rainforest BAD.

It is much more complicated than that. Like the young girl's hair, it is all braided together. And John Muir said it all:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

-John Muir

I sure had a lot to learn back then. Still do.

Peace Corps Paraguay circa 1998

Here I am pictured with the founder and staff of TierraNuestra, Paraguay's first environmental education center. I am sure you can spot me. : )

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