Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests narrates about indigenous forest management written by a scientist who has spent thirty years working closely with rural communities in tropical forests. With few exceptions, the communities depend on a variety of forest plants for their livelihood. These may be timber trees, edible fruits, spiny vines, barks for paper, or even the leaf bases of certain agaves that can be fermented to produce an alcoholic beverage. The relationships developed between the people in the community and the plants in the forest are subtle, yet surprisingly complex, and in the narratives offered here, the author describes a dimension of tropical forest use that has rarely been presented.
The conventional view in industrialized countries holds that native populations have been exploiting local forest resources with little regard for the future, cutting and burning large areas of tropical forest, and depleting innumerable tropical plant resources. But such actions represent only one aspect of the interaction of communities with local forests. In every tropical region of the world, communities also work to plant trees, select favourable genotypes, weed, thin, and manage forests and do their best to control harvesting to conform to the rate at which a given resource is produced. These are the activities the author focus on in this book.
As an ecologist and a forester, the author has been most impressed during his fieldwork by how much villagers know about the properties and uses of local plants and the intricacies of what needs to be done to promote the regeneration and growth of a particular species in the forest. Their application of this knowledge, year after year for hundreds of years, has changed the structure and composition of tropical forests, but these interventions can be hard to discern. Because outsiders frequently do not recognize the imprint of local management—and because they are often unwilling to ask the people doing the managing—they might assume that nothing purposeful is being done to sustain local forests. The author has had the good fortune to learn, and in some cases to be part of, the backstory of a number of positive interactions between a community and a tropical forest.
The author has compiled these narratives here to offer a different perspective on what happens when human beings and tropical forest interact. Using examples from Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, the author focuses primarily on his collaborations with different communities to manage tropical forests sustainably, as well as his work documenting ways communities were already doing this. The author conducted household surveys, ran inventory transects, counted and measured thousands of trees, quantified annual growth, and sampled an inestimable number of native fruits, but most of all he asked a lot of questions—and he listened. This is how the author found most of his stories.
The author wrote this book for people who would like to know more about how indigenous communities that have lived in a tropical forest for hundreds of years manage to do so without depleting their resource base; for those who are interested in what happens when colonists move into a new area of forest and wish to exploit it commercially, and for readers who are curious about the incredible variety of different fruits and fibers and timbers and oleo-resins and latexes and medicinal plants that are produced in tropical forests. The author aims as well to show policymakers, resource managers, and conservation advocates the potential benefits of giving communities a more prominent role in the conservation of local tropical forests.
Forest dwellers have been exploiting plant resources in tropical forests at varying intensities for thousands of years; the author has spent the past three decades looking into the nuances of this interaction. He has found that different communities do different things, that they do these things for their own reasons, and that some of their interactions with the forest are both skillful and sophisticated beneficial to the community with minimal long-term impact on the forest. The current understanding that many in the industrial West hold of tropical forests seem to be largely defined by the tension created between the concepts of wild and managed. There is a tendency to think, “If it’s wild, we should probably keep everybody out,” and to deny the management they cannot recognize. The author hopes here to help resolve, or at least explore, this tension, and add useful new details to the world’s understanding of forest use in the tropics.