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The Great Monoculture
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
A tribal chief of Papua New Guinea

Dr. Edmund O. Wilson, the Harvard-based biologist and bio-diversity expert once said that he didn't believe that mass extinction of the world's species would necessarily lead to an ecological catastrophe that would sweep away humanity in an apocalyptic swipe. No, this more likely scenario would be the result: Household pets, rats and cockroaches would become the extent to which posterity would experience any remaining "wildlife," and the world would become a much more humdrum kind of place. The greater loss- other than to the extinct species themselves- would be to humanity's sense of the world as a place of diverse wonder. It would be more an aesthetic and spiritual loss than a terminal matter of humanity's survival.

There are other losses to consider as well.

The loss of bio-diversity across the globe is trumpeted by clarion calls from many corners, and the blare or warning and lament numbs as well as inspires. As added to humankind's ever growing list of planetary worries, global warming is now smugly accepted as status quo reality and ranks in inevitability with death, taxes, and corruption.

But where one web of life is wiped out, another necessarily takes it place, however less rich and complex. Even if a patch of clear-cut forest gives rise to a wind swept desert, some new ecological habitat emerges, however less satisfying to our senses. On that score, one thing is startling clear as deforestation continues unabated in South East Asia. Especially as seen in Indonesia and Malaysia, a great monoculture is taking the place of the once bio-diverse rainforests that blanketed the peninsulas and islands that stretch from the Malaysia all the way to the far eastern shores of Papua and Papua New Guinea.

In terms of plant life, the thousands of species of flora being decimated in slash-and-burn agriculture most egregiously practiced in places such as Sumatra are being replaced by essentially one "commodity" of importance- the palm oil plantation. As a valued alternative to fossil fuel, palm oil seems to hold out the promise to certain South East nations that sugar cane has for Brazil. Brazil is now the standard bearer for agriculturally-rich third world countries, proving how one such nation could vault out of poverty through "growing" their own fuel. Indonesia and Malaysia are now eagerly following Brazil's example.

One doesn't have to go trekking far from the beaten path to see just how pervasive palm oil cultivation has become in parts of South East Asia. Returning from a recent trip to America, I took the KLIA express train that links Kuala Lumpur's distant international airport with the city's downtown hub. Where there wasn't the Malaysian-style suburban sprawl of towering apartment complexes, stretching from horizon to horizon there were only palm oil trees to be seen.

The international press is primed and quick to report on the threatened wildlife fleeing this agricultural onslaught. Reports on displaced wild elephants being poisoned after running amok in farmer's fields or tigers killing illegal loggers in dwindling rain forests are common reports coming out of Sumatra.

But the loss of diversity is not only felt in the larger world of the biosphere. The artifacts of human culture are no less vulnerable. What currently appears less reported on in greater South East Asia has to do with the effects of the encroaching monoculture of palm oil plantations on the region's indigenous peoples. Many of the few remaining tribal groups that still cling precariously to their traditional life style of living off the land are systematically losing their hunting grounds in large part to giant agri-businesses who have appropriated their lands for palm oil development. Through eminent domain or other manipulated instruments of state, government bodies can simply contract-out or sell outright a country's undeveloped rainforests to agricultural interests. Tribal peoples stand little if no chance in fighting such land-grabs. Few of these groups hold actual title to these communal lands, as they have simply used the heretofore untouched lands surrounding where they live for hunting and food gathering (and in some cases for nomadic agricultural practices) for sometimes hundreds or thousands of years.

The Semai people of Malaysia a few hours north of Kuala Lumpur are one such group. The surrounding lands around their villages have been their traditional hunting grounds, and are now giving way to palm oil development. The Semai (or Senoi, as they call themselves) still hunt monkeys in the rain forest with blow pipes and poisoned darts, and as the habitat for the primates diminishes, it won't be long before concerned ecologists will press to protect what remains of the monkey populations as well. The logical conclusion may not be foregone but can be calculated in all probability. Given the politics of the modern world, most likely both government and agribusiness interests would rather make concessions with green lobbyists and gain positive press by agreeing to set aside token hectares of protected rainforest in order to save a species of primate before considering the case of a small, indigenous tribal group's hunting rights. Monkey meat is a staple of the Semai diet. It appears that in the tussle between agribusiness, government agencies, and the green community, the Semai will be the losers and have to give up their age-old hunting culture.

The greater loss to their culture can be easily imagined. The loss of hunting lands means the loss of the rites of passage for young boys who become men in part through the hunting ritual. The Semai will somehow have to replace or reinvent this critical aspect of their culture. Deprived of this time-honored dynamic key to cultural stability, the extinction of a proper passage into manhood for a small tribal group will often result in the ravages of alcohol abuse and domestic violence against women one still sees on Native American reservations in the United States.

Similar conflicts are occurring all over the globe. For many years now some Eskimo settlements of the Canadian Arctic have been pressured to give up their low-impact, seasonal hunting of whales. If rogue nations such as Japan didn't flaunt their practice of large scale illegal whaling, it is doubtful small Eskimo tribes would be asked to sacrifice something that would strike hard at the spiritual heart of their society. The current tragedy involving Peruvian Indian groups of the Amazon is a most current case in point. One international human rights group claims half of Peru's Amazon region has been added to oil maps in the last three years. In such countries as Peru, weak environmental regulations allow contracted oil companies to dispose of their toxic wastes negligently, poisoning the rain forest lands, the Indian's crops, and causing a public health crisis amongst the Indian people. Predictably, companies such as Texaco Oil who have been accused of similar polluting of the Amazon drainage systems and aquifers in neighboring Ecuador deny culpability for Indian children coming down with cancer.

The fall-out of rampant industrial and agricultural development as practiced by large national and multi-national corporations is all around us and has persisted as long as there has been industrialized society. In the hands of a democracy or either a left or right-wing dictatorship, all results tend to be equal. The results are not only wide-scale pollution and a diminishing of ever-threatened species such as the Sumatran tiger, but a tolling of the bell as per the survival of traditional peoples.

Monoculture as practiced by agribusiness in essence promotes monoculture in human society. Traditional peoples who are forced off their lands through land grabs, deforestation or pollution will inevitably migrate into already over-populated urban areas in their desperation to look for work and a way to survive. In doing so, vital aspects to their culture will necessarily disappear as these links are inextricably linked to the land and their specific relationship to the environment.

If the tragic history of North America's Native peoples provides any reliable template, the fate of South East Asia's indigenous peoples will see them most likely survive in population, and some aspects of their culture and former ways of life will live on as well. But most of who they once were will become more memory than living reality. The trend in the world today is towards cultural homogeneity. Popular culture, corporate domination of economics, and instant communications aside, monoculture is what results when the diversity of ways humankind interacts with the environment are made extinct along with the massive wave of species extinction now in full swing on planet earth.

It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of monocultures' vulnerabilities. As documented in agribusiness, all that is needed is one monumental disease or insect infestation and an entire crop will be destroyed.

Never put all your eggs in one basket. Put into monocultural parlance, both nature and humankind's portfolio is better for its health if properly diversified.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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