Have you seen the new BBC documentary series called I Bought a Rainforest?
I’ve watched the first two episodes. It’s about a wildlife photographer called Charlie who spontaneously buys 100 acres of the Amazon, in Peru, in order to protect it from illegal loggers. His patch is strategically placed next to a national park, at the end of the only road for many miles. Loggers are felling trees in the national park, despite it being a protected area. Charlie plans to stop them.
So far, so simple, right? The animal-loving camera-man is the goodie and the illegal loggers who are killing the rainforest – the lungs of the planet and one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world – are undoubtedly the baddies.
But no. It would be very naive to assume real life is like a story of good vs evil. Much to Charlie’s dismay, it turns out the nasty loggers decimating the protected forest are really just cripplingly poor locals who have no other way to feed their families. One of them has a disabled daughter who isn’t getting the care she needs and can’t go to school.
Realising he needs to understand the lives of the local people so he can protect the area, Charlie spends most of episode two with local loggers and gold miners. The miners are in an even worse situation than the loggers, because they’re finding so little gold they’re not even turning a profit any more. To make matters worse, the process uses mercury which causes illness and miscarriage in the workers and is dumped in the environment, polluting the forest.
All of the people Charlie meets express a deep fondness of the forest, and one guy even says “thank you Earth Mother” when he settles down to have a drink of fizzy pop. They say they love the rainforest but they have no choice – they need to live.
As he gets to understand the people more, Charlie is torn between protecting his piece of forest and the national park, and allowing these people to make their living. He seems determined to put the forest first, until he meets the logger’s little disabled daughter, which throws him completely off course because he had thought she was a made-up sob story.
What I was confused about was why it had to be an either or. Surely, in a sane world, one that we do not live in, everyone would be able to feed their families without needing to destroy ancient biodiverse habitat that regulates the global climate. The local people were very clear: they were only doing the logging and mining because they had no other option and were desperate. What they really needed was an alternative way to make a living. But that brings the question of the Peruvian economy into the equation. Why isn’t it providing secure, safe and environmentally sound jobs for it’s citizens? Well, I’m not expert on economics or Peru. But my guess is: because Peru is a poor country, and it’s economy relies on exploiting it’s rich natural resources.
Which brings me to my other point of confusion: where are the logging companies?
The documentary paints a picture where the whole of the Amazon is just being plagued by these pesky locals. But in actual fact, the vast majority of the extraction (of both timber and gold) is carried out on a much larger more industrial scale by big foreign companies and corporations. The reason that’s not the case in Charlie’s neck of the woods, is because of the protected national park. I guess a couple of guys with a chainsaw can go unnoticed by the too-few guards, but a company wouldn’t get away with a full scale operation in that area. But I don’t like the way they’re totally absent from the documentary, it seems to let them off the hook somehow. Blaming local people for environmental degradation smacks of neocolonialism and I really don’t like the angle.
But despite the few gripes, I’m incredibly happy the BBC are broadcasting an intelligent documentary series about the rainforest and the need to protect it. I’m surprised, to be honest. But it’s definitely a good thing, and I will be watching the next episodes with interest, hoping to see bolder and more holistic ideas for solutions.