Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Researchers argue that it’s time to see beyond the “myth of the pristine forest”—to gain a truer understanding of humankind’s interactions with the natural landscape.

By Richard Mertens
Photography by Dan Dry

When Susanna Hecht went to El Salvador in 1999 to help the government with long-range environmental planning, officials at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources told her there were no forests left in the country. To Hecht, AB’72, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on tropical development, the claim came as no surprise. El Salvador was notorious for population growth and ecological degradation. The most crowded country in Latin America, during the 1960s and ’70s it had suffered severe deforestation with the expansion of livestock and sugar-cane farming. In 1999, the same year Hecht arrived, the tropical ecologist John Terborgh declared that in El Salvador, “nature has been extinguished.”

But as she drove around the country, Hecht noticed plenty of trees. Some were remnants of old forests, but she also saw hedgerows, backyard orchards, coffee groves, trees growing along rivers and streams, cashew and palm plantations, saplings sprouting in abandoned fields, and heavily wooded grassland. Almost every village abounded with trees—“like a big jungle forest,” she said. Rather than no trees, she saw them everywhere. Nature was far from extinguished; it was thriving.

Hecht called these woodlands El Salvador’s “secret forests.” In a country only recently deforested, trees were coming back. And El Salvador was not alone. For many reasons, trees were resurgent throughout Latin America, including Honduras, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and in parts of the Amazon. But because scientists and policy-makers were preoccupied with tropical deforestation, Hecht said, they had been slow to take notice.
In another sense, she said, they didn’t see El Salvador’s forests because of an old bias toward so-called “pristine” forests—primitive and untouched—and against “anthropogenic” forests, those created by humans or shaped by human activities like burning, grazing, farming, and logging. It was these anthropogenic landscapes, which Hecht called “peasant” or “working” forests, that were reclaiming El Salvador. They were a secret in plain view. But whether you saw them depended on how you counted.


“A great deal of it looked like forest,” Hecht recalled. “If you start saying anthropogenic forests are OK, the place goes from having no forest to tons of forest.”

Many experts believe it’s time to take a closer look, and not just in El Salvador. Despite assumptions that globalization is destroying forests, these researchers argue that in many parts of the world globalization and the policies that go along with it are in fact helping to create them. Migration from rural areas to cities or other countries, new markets for forest commodities, and even war are helping in some places to bring trees back. In other places the demand for diverse and far-flung products like rubber, tea, and açaí fruit, for example, is transforming existing forests and the lives that depend on them, often in unexpected ways. Perhaps most surprisingly, archaeologists and ecologists have discovered growing evidence that many forests once considered pristine, including much of the Amazon, have long been marked by human activity.

Resurgent forests, changing forests, forests bearing the marks of ancient inhabitants: findings like these have made researchers reexamine how human activity has shaped forests in the past and is shaping them today. They have also forced researchers to revisit ideas that have long colored Western thinking, casting fresh doubt on what researchers call the “myth of the pristine” and suggesting that untouched forests may be more an invention of the Western mind than something found in the real world. Research also has challenged the assumption that human activity destroys biodiversity; in some circumstances, researchers say, it can increase biodiversity. Thus, rethinking forests carries powerful implications for conservation policy—it may require, for example, a greater appreciation for working forests. And rethinking forests leads to fundamental questions about the vexed relationship between nature and culture.

“Do human activities improve nature or diminish it?” asked Roderick Neumann, a geographer at Florida International University. “What is the relative weight of natural and social forces in shaping the patterns of flora and fauna that we observe?” Such questions, said Neumann, remain unresolved.

Neumann and Hecht were among a group of geographers, anthropologists, ecologists, and others who gathered at the University this May for a conference titled “The Social Life of Forests.” The conference, the first organized by Chicago’s Program on the Global Environment, drew attention to examples of forest resurgence around the world and raised questions about what these examples, and others from far deeper in the past, reveal about how forests change. A more basic conference goal was simply to insert forests back into history and assert that they have social lives after all—that almost all have been affected in some way by human deeds and imaginations. “Forests,” Hecht argued, “are as much historical and social entities as they are biotic ones.”

Hecht traces some of the confusion over El Salvador’s secret forests back to Thomas Malthus, the English political economist who in 1798 predicted that population growth would eventually outstrip the earth’s productive capacity, resulting in environmental destruction and starvation. His thinking helped inspire Darwin; it also lurks behind the idea that humans and human thriving are inevitably harmful to nature.

El Salvador once seemed a good example of such logic. Observers referred to the country as a “Malthusian nightmare.” This simplistic thinking, Hecht said, ignored key social and political factors, including the land conflicts that in 1980 led to civil war. When the war ended in 1991, El Salvador’s peasantry quickly began to defy Malthus.

The war broke up large holdings, reduced forest clearing, and prompted many Salvadorians to flee the country. This out-migration was decisive. While it didn’t lower rural populations significantly, it did create an important source of new income for Salvadorian families in the form of remittances, or money sent home by emigrants working abroad. At the same time, free-trade policies championed in Washington cut global prices for agricultural commodities. Peasants found it cheaper to buy grain than grow it. So they used their land for other purposes than annual cropping, allowing the forest to grow back.

Examples of reforestation go well beyond Latin America. Researchers studying the African Sahel, the band of semi-arid tropical savanna just south of the Sahara Desert, say that over the past two decades peasant farmers in Niger have brought about a regreening of their country. Like a number of nations, Niger’s central government shifted authority over natural resources to local communities, giving farmers rights to their own trees. The newly empowered peasants resolved to “fight the Sahara”—the dust and sandstorms that sweep off the desert. They did so by carefully tending and protecting trees that sprang up naturally—by 2007 more than 7.4 million acres had been newly tree-covered.

Many consequences followed, said Chris Reij of the Center for International Cooperation at VU University Amsterdam. More trees made farming systems more productive. Families had more to eat. Women spent less time gathering firewood. The trees reduced the amount of windblown sand and dust and helped the land retain water, increasing resistance to drought. And with more fodder available from more trees, farmers and herders had less reason to quarrel.

Niger’s example, Reij argued, has far-reaching implications. It suggests that forestry agencies in other countries could promote reforestation by giving local communities control. “The foresters have the idea that they have to protect trees from farmers,” he said. “Our own view is that forests have to be protected from foresters.”

And yet the regreening of the Sahel has attracted little notice, Reij said. He and other critics of contemporary conservation efforts say that conservation groups and many scientists have neglected forested landscapes where people live and work because they are more interested in large parks and preserves. Kathleen Morrison, an anthropologist who directs the University’s Center for International Studies and was a conference organizer, studies dry forests in southern India. She said that such forests, with drought seasons that last several months, once covered more than half the world’s tropics and subtropics but receive far less study than tropical rainforests, “perhaps in part because of their entanglements with human histories.” Her own research attempts to reconstruct that entanglement over many millennia, as forests in southern India waxed and waned in response to the rise and fall of cities and the country’s shifting culinary habits. 

Trees are thriving in the Nigerian Sahel because of changing government policy and the decisions of small communities. In other places, like El Salvador, global economic forces are also shaping local forests. Over the past decade a growing U.S. enthusiasm for the health benefits of açaí fruit in juices and smoothies has inspired residents of the lower Amazon to plant more açaí palms. The appeal of “green” products with a distinctive cultural heritage is helping Chinese minorities once considered backward for clinging to their tradition of growing tea plants under the forest canopy. Today Peet’s Coffee and Tea markets such tea as “Ancient Trees Organic Pu-erh” and sells it for $5 an ounce, explaining that it has been picked by local inhabitants “for many generations” from “semi-wild tea plants, many of them centuries old and as tall as trees.”

Not all of these changes are, of course, for the good. Across the mountains of Laos, Thailand, and China, state policy and a growing demand for rubber are turning a mixed landscape of tropical forest, rice paddies, and swidden agriculture into what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center described as “an unbroken carpet” of rubber-tree plantations.

Still, “working” landscapes have become major areas of reforestation the world over, Hecht said. Often dismissed as pyromaniacs and forest clearers, peasants are now seen as creators. Understanding the social dynamics that initiate and sustain the new landscapes is critical for conservation: “Looking at these social relations gives us much more of an idea of how we can support processes that produce forest and diminish processes that don’t.”


To understand how Westerners think about forests, and especially how they misunderstand them, many researchers look to the Amazon. For several decades now, archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and others have been rewriting its forests’ history. Or rather, they’ve been showing that Amazonian forests have histories to begin with. Scholars say the myth of the pristine has proven particularly tenacious there. The Amazon of the Western imagination, they say, is a place hardly touched by history or humanity. For colonists and entrepreneurs of various centuries it was both useful and profitable to see the forests as wilderness and to overlook the people who lived or had lived in them. The idea of pure and untrammeled nature has also served a more spiritual purpose, preserving the image of an unfallen world, untainted by war, industrialism, and other afflictions of civilization. To some an empty land ripe for exploitation, to others a lost Eden, the Amazon has seemed a forest out of time, inhabited, if at all, by Stone Age tribes living in harmony with nature, greeting helicopters with volleys of poison-tipped arrows.

Michael Heckenberger understands the myth’s attraction. An anthropologist from the University of Florida, he has studied indigenous people who live in the forests of the upper Xingu River, in southern Brazil. Here, in what was once among the least accessible regions of the Amazon, a large reserve has been set aside for the use of native tribes. In recent years, mile-wide soybean fields have been encroaching upon the forest. Entering the reserve from the kingdom of soybeans could not be more startling.

“It’s like driving through the gates of Jurassic Park,” Heckenberger said. “You feel like you’re going back into time into some primordial landscape.” A 2007 National Geographic article, “Last of the Amazon,” records a similar reaction. Recounting a trip to the upper Xingu, writer Scott Wallace describes his visit to “the very core of an ancient primeval forest” and “the green cathedral that towered above us.”

Heckenberger and others call such impressions misleading. The forests are not nearly as ancient or primeval as they seem. In fact, before Europeans arrived at the New World’s doorstep, bringing disease and destruction, the Amazon was well settled: “There ain’t no part of it,” he said with folksy emphasis, “that wasn’t touched by human hands in one form or another.”

Heckenberger began studying the people of the upper Xingu almost two decades ago. He first visited the region in 1993, when he spent a year living in a Kuikuro village. (He was eventually adopted into the tribe.) As an anthropologist he wanted to experience life in a non-Western culture. He also wanted to investigate the extent of the demographic collapse that struck the Amazon after 1492. Historical records and archaeological evidence had demonstrated massive depopulation along the river’s major tributaries. He hoped to determine if the same thing had happened in more remote parts of the basin.

What he found in the forest were the remains of a much larger and more complex society than he had expected. With the help of the Kuikuro people, a remnant of those pre-Columbians, he has mapped the outlines of a “hyper-self-organized society” that inhabited the upper Xingu as far back as 800 ad. These tribes lived mainly by fishing and growing manioc, a staple in the tropics whose starchy root is boiled, fried, and pounded into the flour known as tapioca. They built walled settlements, fish weirs, canals, bridges, raised causeways, and an elaborate system of paths across the landscape. Heckenberger and his colleagues have found 19 different settlements, organized in two clusters, in a region the size of Belgium. These settlements, he argues, were not isolated communities but rather components of regional polities that rivaled the cities of ancient Greece in extent, population, and political and social organization. And their inhabitants carefully engineered and tended the countryside around them, creating a mosaic of fields, trees, and waterways. Although smallpox and other diseases probably decimated the population in the years after European contact, their ancestors still used some of the ancient earthworks. “Not only is no part of this forest natural,” Heckenberger said, “but no part of this forest is not planned, either.”

Researchers studying other parts of the Amazon have reached similar conclusions. Far to the northwest, on a flat plain beneath the Andes, Clark Erickson and colleagues have documented even more extensive land use. In northeastern Bolivia they have mapped ancient, abandoned, raised fields and other earthworks on the savanna that covers much of the Department of the Beni. They have found an estimated 1,000 settlement mounds, along with causeways, canals, forest islands, fish weirs, reservoirs, and ditches—a whole regional hydrologic system, Erickson said. They also have found mounds up to 80 kilometers away, “in what everyone assumed was pristine forest that has never been touched.”

Erickson, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ancient inhabitants of the Beni, as in much of the Amazon, were canoe-faring people who could travel and transport goods over long distances using canals and rivers as their highways. They built the earthworks as far back as 3,000 years ago, using them on and off until just before Columbus’s arrival.

Such findings have transformed how scholars read the history of the Amazon. In the middle of the last century, Erickson said, they saw the past as “relatively flat and shallow,” with little cultural variation. That view began to change in the 1970s. Archaeologists confirmed the reports of early European travelers that large populations once lived in the Amazonian bottomland and along its tributaries. The discovery of “dark earths”—plots of highly fertile soil—attested not only to long periods of intensive cultivation in the region but also to the skill and ingenuity with which early inhabitants improved the soil.

Archaeological and historical evidence now show that the humans who shaped the land were not the “one-size fits all Amazonian Indian” of the popular imagination, Heckenberger said. “There were indeed small-scale groups, probably very similar to some of the ones we know today. There were also some very large groups that covered very large regions and that were integrated across large regions. Combined, you had a network of societies across the Amazon.”
Old notions about tropical forests die hard, however—and not just in the popular mind. Even today, researchers complain, academic specialization hinders a truer understanding of the relationship between forests and people, as ecologists, archaeologists, and other experts often communicate poorly across disciplinary boundaries. Robin Chazdon, a University of Connecticut ecologist who studies how humans influenced “successional pathways” in Costa Rica’s lowland forests, admitted that it has taken time for her discipline to accept the view that human societies have had a large role in shaping forests. “There is slowly a revolution happening in the conservation world,” she said. But while many ecologists and conservationists are now “very cognizant of large-scale human impacts in tropical forests,” when she cites such effects in her papers, “I get reviews back saying [not all forests] have been occupied by humans. I dance around that. So there is resistance to the idea.”

One way to see the contradictions that still cloud Western thinking about forests, Roderick Neumann suggested, is to contrast conservation philosophy and practice in Europe and Africa. Neumann began his career studying protected areas in Tanzania. Both Selous Game Preserve (opened in 1905) and Arusha National Park (opened in 1960), he argued, are typical examples of “fortress conservation” in Africa. In each case, preserving nature has meant excluding humans. Under the influence of 19th- and early 20th-century German forestry, he said, colonial and postcolonial authorities drove the local people, the Meru, out of Arusha National Park, arguing that they were “mismanaging the forest and were ignorant of its conservation value.” Acting by the same principles, Tanzanian authorities later made Selous Game Reserve the second-largest protected area in Africa, home to elephants, lions, and black rhinoceroses, by expelling 40,000 people.

“Typically these evictions are based on neo-Malthusian concerns of overpopulation and claims of irrational and sustainable resource use,” Neumann said. “And these ideas continue in conservation initiatives today.”

The European Union turns the logic of African fortress conservation on its head, he said. Rather than preserving biodiversity by forcing people out of protected areas, its policies work to keep rural people in place. The EU pays farmers, herders, and others to carry on their traditional uses of the land. Officials justify these policies by contending that human activity has increased biodiversity in Europe rather than diminished it, while scientists discuss “coevolution” between nature and culture, suggesting that it has gone on for many millennia. According to both policy and science, nature and culture are too closely intermingled to be separated.

“I’ve found no such discussion for Africa among foresters and conservationists,” Neumann said. “The continent is the source of all human evolution. Would not the same process of coevolution hold in Africa as well? And if not, why not?”

Writing the social life of forests yields stories of enormous complexity, even paradox. The farther back you look in time, Kathleen Morrison said, the harder it becomes to separate people and forests. “When you take a longer-term view of things, what we think of as nature and culture is blurred. The problem always gets blurry when you add history.” Likewise, the whole question of what a forest is becomes difficult to answer, as it was with El Salvador’s secret forests. Language itself begins to slip: “What you mean by forest is not a fixed, unambiguous category.”

These issues also raise difficult but practical and urgent questions about conservation policy. Many researchers at the conference took pains to emphasize that recognizing humans’ long and widespread influence on forests does not justify the ecosystems’ wholesale destruction. Rather, Michael Heckenberger said, the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Brazil’s upper Xingu created diverse landscapes that could offer clues for sustainable development in today’s Amazon.

“They were not the ancestors of chain saw–wielding clear cutters. There is nothing more foreign in the mind of the indigenous people that I work with than barren landscapes. Their grandfather was a jaguar.”

Peter Crane, a former director of England’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and now a professor of geophysical sciences at Chicago, suggested that people should think of themselves as the gardeners of forests, mimicking the processes of nature. Other participants saw evidence of extraordinary “ecological resilience” in the many accounts of reforestation. One of the most exciting implications of this research, argued Morrison, is the discovery that “the dominant story that humans are always bad for forests isn’t always true.”

“Forests are coming back,” she said. “The question is why and how. If we can understand the processes of forestation and deforestation, we’re in much better shape. … If the story hasn’t always been a story of degradation, then there’s hope for the future. It’s better to face up to the complexities and move ahead in an informed way. It doesn’t mean that anything goes. But the idea that humans are always destructive is not very valuable.”

It turns out that forests are not just nature, but culture too. As an indigenous friend once told Susanna Hecht, “A forest is one big thing. It has plants and it has animals—and it has people.”

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