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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Requiem for Nature, by John Terborgh (1999) Washington, DC: Island Press. xii, 234 pp.


Reviewed by Kathryn L. Michaud, Clark University, Worcester, MA.

With tropical deforestation continuing at an alarming rate, work by authors like John Terborgh is needed now more than ever. And general trends in globalization of regional economies and foreign direct investment, by which corporations from industrialized countries often establish plants in developing countries (Encarnation 1995), further heightens the need for specialists to engage the public on the issue of tropical deforestation and habitat destruction.

The disturbance of tropical forest ecosystems is troublesome, of course, for several reasons. Environmental degradation has consequences beyond the local land areas directly disturbed, and the tropics in particular hold the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. The loss of such biodiversity reduces the number of potential sources of medicinal and evolutionary value. The place of indigenous peoples in the shrinking tropics cannot be overlooked either, and the potential for displacement and loss is nowhere more critical than in the deforestationcases that Terborgh explores in his book, Requiem for Nature.

Requiem characterizes the current state of conservation efforts in the tropics, then scantily offers predictions and recommendations for the future. Terborgh professes a strong appreciation for nature since childhood and reports having spent three months a year for the past thirty years in Peru's Manu National Park. In addition, he has visited many other national parks in Africa and Latin America, taken part in numerous research projects in the tropics, and has served on the boards of several international conservation organizations. In his words, "What I have seen convinces me that the conventional wisdom now being applied to the conservation of tropical nature is misguided and doomed to failure" (p. 7).

Perhaps most useful to Terborgh was his experience in Manu National Park, which afforded a chance to observe directly many of the problems plaguing tropical national parks worldwide. Terborgh witnessed the transformation of the Apurimac Valley, where Manu National Park is located, from relatively undisturbed pristine wilderness to an area populated by wealth-seeking settlers and immigrants from the Andean highland encouraged by a government-sponsored land distribution program. Terborgh describes several problems associated with the presence of humans, civilized and indigenous, in this national park. He challenges the prevalent notion that indigenous peoples are inclined to coexist with nature without reducing biodiversity by pointing out that indigenous people are increasingly using technology. He claims that as technology spreads and populations increase, reductions of biodiversity are unavoidable. As a solution, Terborgh recommends a voluntary relocation program that would be sustained by "the desire of contacted indigenous groups to acquire goods and an education for their children and to participate in a money economy" (p.56).
Terborgh describes numerous other problems associated with national parks in the tropics and suggests solutions to several of them. For instance, he describes the lack of staffing and legal enforcement in national parks located in the tropics. In addition, Terborgh describes the fact that many guards in Manu National Park complain of a lack of money, food, and overall attention from the administration of the park. He suggests that these qualities possessed by many tropical national parks are detrimental to the ability of the park to conserve biodiversity. Later, he poses solutions to these problems such as the formation of an international elite corps of rangers and guards and an enforcement service that would support each park. He also suggests an even more radical solution, which is to form an international organization comparable to the Peace Corps that he terms the "Nature Corps," through which all regulation would be implemented and enforced.

Terborgh's solutions for the problems plaguing national parks in the tropics are unsatisfying. In Requiem, several debilitating characteristics of national parks are described and no solutions are offered. In the first chapter he tells us that the central question of his book is, "What can be done to ensure that nature survives the twenty-first century?" (p.9). This gives the impression that the book is focused on determining and describing solutions to the problems associated with the state of conservation in the tropics. While Terborgh mentions several general solutions that would improve conditions in the tropics, such as stabilizing population and attaining a top down approach, the book is short on concrete solutions, and they are late in coming.

In the section titled, "Where Do We Go From Here?", Terborgh divides the tropics into geographic regions and states where he believes the focus of conservation efforts should be placed in each region. In this and many other sections of Requiem few solutions are offered, and those that are tend to be vague. For example, Terborgh argues that West Africa should focus on saving endemic species. However, no suggestions are offered for the implementation of a more effective conservation policy in West Africa or any of the regions discussed.

Terborgh places economics in opposition to environmental protection as a matter of public policy. He regards economic development and conservation of tropical biodiversity as mutually exclusive goals, and in his discussion of sustainable development, economics is addressed as a main player in the fate of the Tropics. "The logic of economics is unassailable, but it is amoral" (p.156), he asserts. An entire chapter is devoted to arguing that tropical forests are unfortunately regarded as being "worth more dead than alive." He suggests that only from an anthropocentric view "wild nature and the biodiversity it perpetuates are not a necessity for humans; they are a luxury" (p.19). Taking this perspective as the dominant viewpoint, he argues that nature must be preserved for its own sake and not for its utilitarian value. His acceptance of this concept strengthens his argument in that it further illustrates his well-rounded approach to the problem of conservation in the Tropics.

Overall, Terborgh does a useful job of describing the current state of conservation in the Tropics. However, a slight shift in focus is called for: the book is long on problems, but short on solutions. The solutions that are presented are mainly at the sloganeering stage. Since these solutions are distinctive and appealing, I believe that he should describe more elaborately the solutions that he does present. Also, several additional solutions regarding other problems mentioned in Requiem should be included. Only then will we be able to gauge whether these ideas have the potential to bring about reform that is both significant and beneficial to the state of conservation in the Tropics.

Reference Cited:

Encarnation, Dennis J.

1995. "Regional Competition for Foreign Direct Investment? Asia and the Global Operations of Multinational Corporations".  Pacific Basin Research Program, Kennedy School, Harvard University. Available