Salon's "How the World Works" is carrying an intriguing story covered on Rhett Butler's Mongabay that speaks to some of our more hidden assumptions when it comes to rainforest destruction. However, there are numerous responses that can spin off as a result of an article like this so I'll try and parse it without gravitating toward wild conjectures and unqualified statements.
Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America. This evidence further supports other research that suggests the impact indigenous populations had on tropical forests before European arrival.
Even more interesting is her claim that there is a clearly defined "forest resurgence" upon the arrival of European explorers and conquistadors due to the "terrible decimation" they caused indigenous peoples through disease, warfare and slavery. Piperno goes on to say that had Europeans not arrived on the scene 500 years ago, the forests of Central and South America would bear little resemblance to what we see today making the point that the continued impacts of indigenous populations could have severely altered the forests in ways we will never know.
On first analysis, it's easy to write this off as utter balderdash...at least thats the initial response for me. Could it be that we, one of the most materialistic societies the earth has ever known, are superseded in rainforest destruction only by indigenous populations from centuries ago? That's the initial response. In a different way it's easy to jump to the island of self-justification: "See! I knew our culture wasn't the only one screwing the earth!" Suddenly, I feel as though I can let go of any guilt I may harbor for the depletion of the rainforests, or other ecological wonders, in my time. If we aren't the only ones doing it, who cares? Just as misery loves company, guilt can't stand to be left alone.
Let's dive a little deeper. What does this really mean? To me, it begins with recognizing the potential of our time, the energy of this moment. To write off or ignore this study is to dodge responsibility. To justify our way around it with comparisons to cultures long dead and gone that survived a level or two above hunter-gatherers, is to ignore our progressive history as a human species and to sell ourselves short when it comes to our potential.
It doesn't really matter to me whether or not past cultures, centuries ago, removed more trees than we previously thought. What matters to me is that we have an opportunity to change our own actions, actions we know to be harmful to a necessary ecological resource. We are the culture of now, and we can choose to do something about it, or stand by and become another pillar in history that future civilizations will read about and wonder why we weren't smart enough or organized enough to stop the train of destruction before it was too late. Indeed, Piperno says it best at the close of her research:
"As with the forces associated with 'development' today, these prehistoric advances probably came with negative consequences for the native flora and fauna. Profound human alteration of the tropical landscape with substantial loss of biodiversity is hardly new, but we are the first societies with the wherewithal to do something about it."
On a more basic level this article and Piperno's research does achieve its intended means: to break the scarlet-hued vision of conservationists everywhere who fail to acknowledge the impacts of indigenous people's pasts on the land. The danger of this message, however, is the ease in which we, in an effort to justify our own actions, ignore the much greater impacts of ourselves on this earth. While Piperno enlightens our understanding of the historical indigenous impacts on Central and South American tropical forests, she does not vindicate the current impacts of forest clearing and destruction. If anything, she empowers us to do something about it.