Category: Total Liberation


I recently sat down with Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life to talk about my forthcoming book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Here is that video interview:

 

 

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. This concise, jargon-free, and highly readable work is soon to be published in three different languages: first, next month, in German, by Echo Verlag publishers; second, by mid-year, in Italian, by Ortica Editrice; and third, in English toward the end of 2014, by the major American academic press, Palgrave-MacMillan.

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Below is the Table of Contents and the Introduction to the work. Please look for the book soon in German, Italian, or English versions and I will post additional details regarding these and possibly other translated editions of the book as they become available.

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Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century

By

Steven Best

Table of Contents

Introduction: Crisis and the Crossroads of History

 Chapter 1: The Animal Standpoint

Chapter 2: The New Abolitionism: Capitalism, Slavery, and Animal Liberation

Chapter 3: The Paralysis of Pacifism: In Defense of Militant Direct Action

Chapter 4: Rethinking Revolution: Veganism, Animal Liberation, Ecology, and the Left

Chapter 5: Minding the Animals: Cognitive Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism

Chapter 6: Moral Progress and the Struggle for Human Evolution

Conclusion: Reflections on Activism and Hope in a Dying World and Suicidal Culture

 

Introduction: Crisis and the Crossroads of History

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu, sixth century BCE philosopher

In dystopian and apocalyptic times such as ours, one of accelerating global social and ecological crisis, these essays attempt to articulate a revolutionary politics of total liberation for the 21st century.

All political approaches and social movements to date have been fragmentary, weak, and non-inclusive, and regressive in their views toward nonhuman animals. In the last three decades, there have been initial and tentative alliances between social justice and environmental causes, with growing recognition that the assault on people and the environment have common roots in a growth-oriented capitalist system. But, due to neglect on all sides, these alliances did not include vegan and animal rights/liberation movements, which overflow with potential for advancing progressive values (such as peace, justice, rights, equality, and community), creating ecological societies, and overcoming human alienation from other animal species and the earth as a whole.

Alliance politics generally is a challenging issue, as people prefer to focus on their own causes rather than supporting other movements, especially ones they disdain out of ignorance. This has to change and new political ideologies, tactics, and groupings must be formulated, for everything else has failed and the stakes could not be higher. At risk is nothing less than the future of life on a planet that has been pushed beyond all limits to adapt to human existence and is prepared to shake us off entirely and allow the evolutionary process to continue without us. This century, the next decades or even the next years, is decisive, for what we do or fail to do now will determine the fate of species, our own fates, and evolutionary history on this planet for millennia to come. The urgency could not be greater, there is no time to waste, it is now do-or-die.

Although diverse in theme, the essays collected in this book form a coherent whole and address my core concerns as they relate to current crisis conditions. The most promising and relevant politics for this century, I believe, will not focus on class struggle or the fragmented identity politics pursued along single-issue lines concerning race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. It will be, rather, a politics of total liberation that grasps commonalities among various forms of oppression, that recognizes the interdependence and common goals of various liberation movements, and that forges appropriate political alliances.

By “total liberation” I do not mean a metaphysical utopia to be realized in perfect form. I refer, rather, to the process of understanding human, animal, and earth liberation movements in relation to one another and forming alliances around interrelated issues such as democracy and ecology, sustainability and veganism, and social justice and animal rights. To be sure, total liberation is an ideal, a vision, and a goal to strive for, invoking visions of freedom and harmony. But the struggle ahead is a continuous one, conducted within the constraints of human nature and the limits imposed by ecology. Human, animal, and earth liberation movements are different components of one inseparable struggle — against hierarchy, domination, and unsustainable social forms — none of which is possible without the others.

Through predatory behaviors, systems of exploitation, and growth-oriented societies, we have lived in contradiction to one another, other species, and the planet for so long, that we have brought about a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene Era – whose name recognizes our global dominance and severe impact of Homo sapiens on the planet. In this era of runaway climate change, the sixth great extinction crisis in earth’s history, increasing centralization of power, aggressive neoliberalism, global capitalism, rampant militarism, resource scarcity, chronic warfare, economic crashes, and suffering and struggle everywhere, we have come to a historical crossroads where momentous choices have to be made and implemented into action.

The omnicidal regimes of “civilization” and global capitalism have reached their zenith and will end — whether through an ascendant global resistance stronger than this dying world system, or through the cataclysmic adjustments the planet already has initiated, such as ensure its evolution for billions of years to come but create conditions utterly hostile to supporting humans and countless other species.

Anything short of a radical, systemic, and comprehensive change, of a formidable revolutionary movement against global capitalism and hierarchical domination of all kinds will yield useless reforms, pseudo-solutions, false hopes, and protracted suffering. The time for partial visions, separate struggles, and fragmented resistance is over, and the hour of total liberation and revolutionary alliance politics has arrived.

Yet, alarmingly, we have not yet as a species or critical mass awoken to the true gravity of the situation and the magnitude of the challenges we face. The big picture proves elusive, antiquated paradigms prevail, and dogmatism and complacency strangle possibilities from all angles and quarters. Although few realize it, the human, animal, and earth liberation movements desperately need one another, and the weaknesses and limitations of each can only be overcome through the strengths and contributions of the others.

If revolt can mature into revolution, the starting point for social transformation is to join hands across the barricades; to engage in respectful critical dialogue; to communicate, educate, and learn as equals; to overcome partial histories, critiques, and battles for a systemic struggle. A politics of total liberation could forge alliances more powerful than anything yet created. It seeks to emancipate not just one class, interest group, or even the entire human species from the grip of a nihilistic power elite, but also animal communities everywhere, ecosystems worldwide, and the dynamic energies of evolution and speciation currently strangled.

Listening and learning, working united not divided, a unity in difference and a differentiated unity, forging a plurality of critiques and tactics that attack at all points and mobilize resistance from all social quarters – through a politics of total revolution, a politics for the 21st century, a flank of militant groups and positions can drive a battering ram into the structures of domination, unlock every cell and cage, and open the doors to a myriad of possible futures.

But humans will awake, if ever, late in the process of advanced crisis and decay. Nothing guarantees we will succeed rather than fail. But pessimism is suicide, despair is surrender, the stakes are too high, and our responsibilities are too great. Despite our violent history as a predatory and colonizing species, what humanity can and cannot achieve is still unknown. Our capacities and limits are still being worked out in the laboratory of history and political struggle, as this evolutionary experiment nonetheless might soon end in extinction. Let us not only hope, but also struggle, for a different outcome.

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“For at least the last half century, a biocentric revolution has been unfolding against the destructive tyranny of anthropocentrism — a revolution guided by the natural laws of ecology against the unnatural diminishment of nature at the hands of “civilized” man. In this bold, brilliant, and timely book, Steven Best writes from, and has documented, the evolution of this universal revolution, as he gives us a glimpse into the catastrophic consequences should this revolution fail.”  —  Captain Paul Watson

This is the second talk I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, on September 14 2013, regarding the need for an alliance politics that transcends the rigid divisions among the animal/human/environmental liberation movements.

Author’s Preface: What follows are notes I prepared to address the media in a press conference in South Africa, as I began the first of 3 three week-long speaking tours, talking about veganism, animal rights, and total liberation across that beautiful but deeply troubled nation in 2006. This essay was originally commissioned by, and published for, my friend Adam Powell, in his blog OccupyEassys. This is the first of two unusually personal posts I will make to my blog, the second one being a postscript to follow soon. This post is dedicated to all those who think they know me.

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Prologue

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the very last people who should be standing on this stage in front of you, in the capacity of being a scholar, writer, activist, and world citizen.

In my youth, I was seemingly headed toward blue-collar work at a factory, to prison, or to an early grave, but profound changes in my life set me in different directions. A major theme of my talk tonight is change, growth, development, and evolution. Indeed, as a species, if we are to avert total disaster, we need to take a quantum leap in our moral and social evolution, as the global crises in capitalism and ecology portend catastrophic change and a dystopian future.

The Lost Years

My life got off to a rocky start. As a young child, asthma almost killed me. My father died when I was five years old. My oldest brother, a father figure to me, died at age 24 in a plane crash that I also was involved in. Only 11 years old, I was not expected to survive, but I did, broken into pieces, but alive. Despite two remaining older brothers and one sister, I had no positive inspirations or mentorship whatsoever in my life. I was a latchkey kid; I grew up solely on my own devices, making mistake after mistake, barreling down the wrong road at the speed of light.

To quote Malcolm X, “I was born in trouble.” Beginning in kindergarten, I was kicked out of school more than I was allowed in. In high school, after playing on the basketball team my freshman year, I had gravitated to the habit of consuming copious amounts of mind-altering substances and the next three years of high school were passed in a perpetual fog. In my senior year, quite deservedly, I was expelled from school, and from there I graduated to stints in and out of local county jails. My biggest fuck up occurred at age 17, and almost earned me 2-4 years in the notorious Cook County Jail in Chicago, but with a good lawyer and a handsome fee, I got off on 5 years probation.

Looking back on it, that was the best thing that happened to me and it provided the wake-up call I needed to turn my life around. I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I will say I had some life experiences in these troubled times that added piss, fire, and depth to my character. I drove trucks, delivered newspapers, worked in factories, shot pool, drank beer and whiskey, fought in bars, and chased women. I was one step away from 4 divorces, 5 kids, 7 bad tattoos, and living in a two-bit trailer.

I found my first love – jazz and classical guitar – and practiced relentlessly and played open mike nights throughout the Chicago area. This lasted until I blew out the tendons in my right hand at age 21. In deep despair and confusion, the only identity and purpose I ever had stripped away from me with a frozen wrist, I decided to get my high school equivalency degree and begin anew by enrolling in a Chicago area community college. Almost 22, I told the student counselor I had no idea what to do and was not interested in anything but what I just lost. The man suggested I begin with humanities and liberal arts courses, and so I signed up for a plate full. After the first class, a switch turned on; I went to the library and checked out a 4 foot-high stack of books and began to read seriously for the first time in my life.

Quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with reading and learning. Working full-time as a bartender at night, during the day I took courses in film, television production, radio, theater, literature, history, art, and philosophy. I graduated with a degree in television production and film directing, and at age 24 I travelled south to the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) to pursue a Masters of Arts degree in theater direction. The indifferent or hostile faculty I encountered there, however, led me to switch majors to philosophy, in which I subsequently earned my Bachelors of Arts (UICU, 1984), Master’s (University of Chicago, 1987) and Doctorate (University of Texas-Austin, 1993) degrees. Despite a standard paternalistic warning by faculty to reconsider pursuing advanced study in philosophy due to dismal job prospects, I lunged forward because by then I knew nothing but to pursue what I loved and the path of creative thinking. Ultimately, this also led me to study message therapy, meditation, and herbal medicine; to pursue a teaching certificate in yoga; and to earn a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do while studying numerous other martial arts (including Judo, Tai-Chi, Aikido, and Filipino stick-fighting).

Epiphany #1

Little did I realize that only the first few layers of change were peeling off my encrusted psyche and soul. At the University of Illinois, I studied radical thinkers like Nietzsche, as well as the revolutionary political traditions of Marxism, anarchism, and critical theory. I became intensely interested in politics, and I joined some left-wing campus groups. I was learning about capitalism and the injustices of imperialism and racism, about the lies I was spoon-fed regarding my “great” country and its mission of spreading “democracy and freedom” throughout the world. I wanted to smash the capitalist system and I became intimate with my hidden affinities for the oppressed and those who suffer injustice or pain in any way.

I immersed myself in organizing support for Central American nations then under relentless attack by Ronald Reagan and US-sponsored and trained juntas and death squads. I led action groups, helped provide shelter for illegal refugees from El Salvador, and organized film festivals to send medical funds to Nicaragua. I was also involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and with local environmental groups. With an appetite for creative writing and theatre still burning inside me, I was regularly writing and performing political-conceptual art, street theatre, experimenting with the political–artistic possibilities of Surrealism and Dadaism, and generally trying to foment subversive thinking and practices of multiple kinds.

Epiphany #2

My second epiphany happened at age 25, now more than 30 years ago, and it led me down the path of veganism and animal rights. I experienced something sacred within the bowels of the profane. I was in Chicago, driving about 2 am, half-drunk and goddamn hungry. I pulled into a White Castle fast food restaurant and ordered a double cheeseburger. As I always was content with a mere single cheeseburger, I found the double cheese and meat patties to be so excessive, so over the top, so gross, so saturated with blood and gore, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life, in a total vacuum of information, I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. I suddenly saw something that came from a slaughterhouse, not a supermarket.

With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I spit the vile flesh out of my mouth in utter revulsion. I stumbled around in a dietary no-man’s-land for two months, not knowing what to eat, not wanting this consciousness but unable to shake it. I felt perhaps I had been abducted by aliens who rewired my thinking in mischievous ways. Fortuitously, I met some vegetarians who assured me of the value of my new consciousness, mentored me, and pointed me in the right direction.

From a Marxist-humanist-carnivore to a health-oriented vegetarian, I evolved to veganism, and doubled back to mediate these concerns with radical politics and social revolution “by any means necessary” as Malcolm so perfectly put it.

Although alert to the health impact of meat and dairy products, I had no clue about the innumerable barbaric ways human beings exploit animals. Even while researching the evils of juntas, death squads, genocide, fascism, and imperialism, my picture of humanity and the world was still too rosy.

Epiphany #3

That changed in the midst of a third stunning epiphany in 1987 when I read Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. Like so many people, that book changed my life in an instant. I became ill from the emotional stress of what I was learning about the unconscionable exploitation of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other human-manufactured hellholes.

Once I recovered from the shock, I morphed into a very different person. Realizing that animals suffered far more than human beings in the quantity and quality of their pain, suffering, and death, I shifted from human rights to animal rights activism. Whereas most human beings have at least some rights, no animals have the most basic right to life and bodily integrity and they needed representation and alliance more than any oppressed human group. When I studied the impact of meat production on world hunger and the environment, I realized that by promoting veganism and animal rights I would also be helping humans in the most productive way possible. I saw veganism and animal rights as the most radical, complete, and holistic forms of activism, having a powerful and positive impact on the crises in human health, world hunger, food shortages, environmental devastation, ubiquitous violence, and the deep and troubling alienation of humanity from the natural world and other life forms.

Many think, for instance, that people should help humans as our first priority and relegate animals to an afterthought at best. They think humans suffer more than animals, which is not true. They think that activism is a zero-sum game, such that one group (humans) gains only if another (all other animal species) loses, which is a capitalist ideology belied by the deep interconnectedness of all life and the natural world. One of the most profound truths I have learned in my life is that the fate of all species stands or falls together, that what we do to the animals we do to ourselves and to the earth, and that promoting animal rights and respect for all life has direct benefits to human society and the environment

Yet I also found my political commitments ridiculed far more than ever before, as animal rights provokes hostility from the arrogant people who enjoy power over animals, from the insecure who boost themselves by demeaning and exploiting animals, and from the guilty who do not want to confront their ignorance and implication in violence against animals. I took heart in the words of Emile Zola: “The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”

The ridicule I received for defending veganism and animal rights was particularly harsh from the radical and Left communities. For leftists have completely assimilated the anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies of agricultural society, Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, modern science, the Enlightenment, and Marxist and anarchist humanism. I grew tired of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Over and over again, I listened to humanists, “progressives,” “radicals,” and “peace and justice” activists rail against capitalism, exploitation, and injustice, while devouring the tortured and dismembered bodies of cows, chickens, pigs, and other sentient beings and fellow animals who were brutally exploited and killed in the industrial capitalist institutions of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Champions of holistic theorizing and systemic analysis, one-dimensional leftists completely miss the origins of hierarchy, slavery, war, racism, environmental ruination, and other profound crises requiring urgent attention, all related to speciesism and interconnected by the hideous chains linking animal exploitation to human exploitation and environmental devastation.

Epiphany #4

I realized that the “radical” traditions in no way are a liberating philosophy or politics from the standpoint of animals and the environment. I saw Leftism as merely another form of Stalinism toward animals. The Left doesn’t grasp the deep roots of human power pathologies and would only replace capitalist anthropocentrism with socialist anthropocentrism, and could never resolve key social and ecological problems. They operate with pre-scientific, mechanistic models of understanding animal behavior, still cling to dualist oppositions separating humans and animals with an ontological chasm rather than evolutionary continuity, and to this day they are mired in the Dark Ages, the philosophical (animal rights) and scientific (cognitive ethology) revolutions having completely passed them by as new paradigms emerge vital for salvaging the wreckage of psychologically stunted humanity and the metastasizing cancer of “civilization.”

I came to the conclusion that a truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the Earth itself. I rejected the humanist cliché — “We Are All One Race, the Human Race” – for a broader vision: “We Are One Community, the Biocommunity.” I saw that all forms of oppression were interrelated, that they were all facets of one odious system of hierarchy with deep roots in speciesism and the domestication of animals that commenced with agricultural society ten thousand years ago. From animal liberation, I evolved to a politics of total liberation, abandoning single-issue approaches in favor of linking human, animal, and earth liberation struggles. Total liberation involves a dialectical theory of interrelated oppression and an alliance politics deeper and more inclusive than anything yet imagines. Its ultimate goal is to revolutionize global capitalism, reconstruct society along anarchist lines, and harmonize the social world with the natural world and respect the autonomy and equal interests nonhuman animals share with us in freedom from exploitation and suffering and freedom to self-determination in their natural habitat and with their own families and communities.

Thus, I evolved from vegetarianism to veganism, and from animal welfarism to animal rights then to animal liberation to total liberation and to defense of militant direct action as a legitimate and necessary tactic in the larger struggle for revolutionary change. At this stop in my journey, I abandoned the baggage of pacifism and lent philosophical and political support to the most dynamic and threatening resistance movements of the last few decades, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Parallel groups that emerged in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, both are organized in decentralized cells, operate underground and anonymous to the public and to one another, and carry out the mission of inflicting maximal harm on exploitative industries through destroying property and liberating animal slaves. Their actions were bold, constant, and effective enough to cost industries hundreds of millions of dollars, to liberate hundreds of animals at a time, and to shut down many operations altogether. After 9/11, the FBI elevated them to the nation’s top two “domestic terrorist” groups in the US.

The UTEP Years

I landed a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at the University of Texas, El Paso in 1993, and found myself stranded in a geographical and cultural desert. But I immediately set to work waking up the huge but sleepy and benighted town. I taught radical topics in my classes, involved my students in protests, and engaged in civil disobedience. For 15 intense years, I was Vice President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso; I led a dynamic animal rights group that was the political epicenter of the area; and I was debating, speaking, and intervening on local radio, TV, and print media on a daily basis. I started my own animal rights radio show, managed it for 4 years, and it continues to this day. I spearheaded a successful drive to free a badly beaten elephant from the El Paso Zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee. I fought for a new animal shelter, free spay and neutering for low-income families, and aggressive adoption practices. I lobbied the city council and successfully won a vote which made EL Paso the 300th city in the US to declare the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional — all the while fending off attacks from colleagues, cops, right-wing media, and politicians.

Unlike the vast majority of academics, I believe that teaching and research should be linked to activism and the urgent issues of the day. It is appalling to me that in the midst of global social and environmental crisis, most academics pursue abstract, arcane, and opportunist lines of research, typically behind the facade of “neutrality” and with sublime detachment from a world spiraling out of control. Just as I believe scientists should commit positively to the politics of climate change (such as James Hansen admirably has), I think that academics and theorists ought to work as organic intellectuals in social movements and communities, using their skills to help understand and transform the dynamics and causes of domination, hierarchy, increasing concentrations of wealth and power among power elites, the ongoing animal holocaust, and planetary ecological meltdown.

As an educator and activist in numerous movements for over thirty years, I can say with confidence that there are few, if any, topics as heated and controversial as animal liberation and veganism, both of which push primordial buttons. Although I have taught radical subjects such as Marxism, anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, anti-globalization, post-colonialism, critical race theory, and deep ecology, it was only my discussions of animal liberation and veganism that aroused the ire of colleagues and administrators and provoked intense student interest and debate.

The police chief wrote letters to the university president against my protest and demonstration actions. I was mocked on local right-wing radio. Resentful professors phoned in anonymous complaints based on lies and third-hand rumors. Senior colleagues and administrators admonished me that teaching animal rights was not appropriate (!) for humanities or philosophy. I shot them all down and pumped up the volume.

In 2005, things heated up considerably. In June, a notorious right-wing US Senator, James Inhofe (R-Okl.) sent letters to me, my department, the university president, and the entire Texas Board of Regents, pressuring me to testify before Senate eco-terrorism hearings due to my open support for and writings on the Animal Liberation Front. Almost subpoenaed, I refused to legitimate this McCarthyesque witch-hunt. The hearings went on without me and were broadcast on C-Span Live before an international audience and an audience packed with top lawmakers and FBI Brass. David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a corporate and agribusiness front group, delivered a twenty-minute harangue that denounced me as “the leader of the Animal Liberation Front” and a “truly dangerous individual.” He went on to accuse me of recruiting students into the ALF. These were most amusing charges. For there is no leader in a decentralized movement and it certainly was not me. Moreover, I found it challenging to persuade students to attend vegan potluck dinners, let alone to risk a ten-year prison term to join me in alleged criminal underground adventures!

In July, after a series of speeches in England on animal liberation, the British Home Office banned me from the entire UK for life, deeming me a “threat to the public order.” My status was elevated from domestic terrorist to international terrorist, and I can never thank them enough for raising my profile. I subsequently suffered political repression from my own university, however, which inspired me to introduce and edit a 600 page volume history and analysis of academic repression and the corporatization of the university in the post-9/11 era. In Academic Repression: Reflections From the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010), I exposed the myth of free speech in “higher education” and featured numerous cases studies of repression, persecution, and firing professors for their political beliefs and activism. Despite having written over a dozen books and some two hundred articles and essays, despite excellent teaching evaluations, and despite intensive work in the community, I was denied promotion to full professor for clearly political reasons.

The Specter of Animal Liberation

But long before this turbulent time, I began to wonder: Why are people who show compassion to animals mocked and derided? Why are we considered psychologically abnormal or morally flawed? Why are we called everything from bunny huggers to misanthropes to terrorists? Why are the topics of veganism and animal rights so controversial? Why does animal liberation touch a primal and raw nerve in the human psyche and provoke resistance from others and fierce repression from the state? Why is it so threatening?

I concluded that animal rights is subversive and revolutionary on many levels, but to understand this point, one has to appreciate the difference between animal welfare – which every exploiter and speciesist claims to respect – and animal rights, which prohibits any exploitative use of animals and which all parties reject as extremist. Whereas welfarism never challenges the assumption that animals are resources and property for human use, animal rights explodes the prejudices underpinning the hierarchical system of speciesism to insist on equal consideration for the interests of all sentient life. Animal welfare doesn’t change the vast system of animal exploitation that slaughters over one hundred billion innocents every year, it only regulates minor technical and administrative details to “reduce suffering” and kill the endless procession of animals “humanely.” Enlightened people did not ask for a more “humane” Auschwitz, nor did the 19th century abolitionist movement ask for better treatment of the slaves. One does not regulate evil, one abolishes it completely, and the only “humane” way to treat a slave is to free it!

Because animal rights is abolitionist rather than welfarist in logic, it poses two different threats to humans and their societies: first a material or economic threat, and second a psychological threat. Animal rights is a potentially serious economic threat in its goal to eliminate every form of animal exploitation it can bring down, and thereby to end the vast system of animal slavery which is crucial to the growth of the global capitalist machine. In the UK, for instance, where pharmaceutical corporations are the third most important contributor to the economy, activists have shut down numerous breeders, liberated thousands of research animals, attacked multiple laboratories, stopped production of a biomedical facility at Cambridge University, and seriously thwarted plans to build a research complex at Oxford University.

This is very serious indeed, but the psychological threat is deeper. People throughout society are threatened by animal liberation, whether or not they have a direct economic interest in exploiting animals, because it means profound changes in their identities, values, interpersonal relations, and everyday lives. Animal liberation transgresses an inviolable boundary, as deeply rooted and universal as the prohibition against incest. It is considered taboo to challenge the distinction between human and non-human nature. Throughout the entire history of Western civilization, thinkers have built an elaborate lie that reduces animals to machines or things, falsely separates us from the animal kingdom, and arrogantly establishes us as the end to which all other beings are mere means. Animal rights forces us to confront the lies we have told about animals and ourselves.

Whereas prior liberation movements addressed sectors of humanity who were specific oppressors dominating distinct oppressed groups, animal liberation sees all humanity as oppressors; it attacks not just white supremacy or male supremacy, but the larger phenomenon of human supremacy, a universal ideology and everyday practice that cuts across class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nation, and other boundaries. Nobel Prize winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, stated that, in relation to animals, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Animal liberation is revolutionary in that it demands a complete reorganization of our social and psychological realities. It demands a fundamentally different economy, mode of science, worldview, culture, rituals, social practices, and identities. It rejects the conceptual map humanity (Western society in particular) has developed over the last ten thousand years throughout the reign of “civilization.” Indeed, the identities and traditions animal liberation challenges go back over two million years, with the emergence of the Homo genus and the coeval rise in meat consumption and development of the tools and fire used to hunt, kill, and consume animals.

Animal liberation is the next necessary and logical development in moral evolution and political struggle, whereby humans learn that animals deserve fundamental rights, grant them these rights, and change their social institutions, practices, and mentalities accordingly. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies including speciesism. Martin Luther King’s paradigmatic humanist vision of a “worldhouse” devoid of violence and divisions, however laudable, remains a blood-soaked slaughterhouse until the values of peace and equality are extended to all animal species.

Thus, the revolutionary implications of animal liberation explain the intense resistance to it on all fronts.

Animal liberation is not a sufficient condition for avoiding the impending nightmare of ecological catastrophe, for it needs to be articulated with social justice, peace, rights, autonomy, and ecological movements. But it is a necessary condition of revolutionary change, and our attitudes toward animals stand as a litmus test to whether or not we ourselves will survive in viable and desirable form.

Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for humane slavemasters. Animal liberation advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not our food, clothing, resources, or objects of entertainment; they exist for their own purposes, not ours.  Although humanists scorn and reject the concept of animal rights on grounds such as that they allegedly lack reason, language, and culture; that only beings who can enter into social contracts can have rights and the responsibilities that go alone with them — all these objections are completely beside the main point. Animals have rights not in relation to one another, but against human beings and their violent and predatory actions.

Every justice struggle up to now was has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard. Speciesism is primordial and universal; it is arguably the first of any form of domination or hierarchy and it has spread like a deadly virus throughout the entire planet and all of human history. The problem is not limited to Western culture or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or radical alternative to recover. The problem is the human species itself, which but for rare exceptions is violent, destructive, and imperialistic. Universally, humans have vested interests in exploiting animals and think they have a God-given right to do so. To change these attitudes is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness.

That is the task of the worldwide animal liberation movement – no more and no less.

The Aftermath

The net result of my unrestrained passions, relentless critiques, and highly controversial activism is that my academic career is over, frozen at the level of Associate Professor and blacklisted on the national hiring market. But there are no apologies and no regrets. I am one of those rare academics whose primary ambition was never to obey, conform, and promote careerist goals, but rather to make philosophy dangerous again, to be a controversial public intellectual, and to use critical theory and political engagement toward a revolutionary transformation of all psychological, social, and economic structures which have brought us to this critical crossroads in human evolution and the history of the earth itself.

In a world of environmental ruination, species extinction, human overpopulation, predatory global capitalism, resource scarcity, runaway climate change, and an ever-growing animal Holocaust, academics should not have the luxury to pursue abstract issues unrelated to the urgent need for systemic change at all levels. They ought, rather, to abandon petty ego obsessions and narcissistic careerism in order to help clarify and change the causes of social and ecological breakdown, which demands a break from the ten thousand-year reign of dominator cultures and the much longer tyranny of Homo rapiens.

My life is the story of principled commitment, endless self-overcoming, and ceaseless struggle: the struggle for truth, enlightenment, justice, and peace; a struggle to bring change to myself, to others, and to this world. The struggle goes on, it will never stop. It provides the continuity and coherence for my ever-changing life.

Indeed after 40 years of non-stop intensive work, a new crossroads and novel challenges lay before me, once again, right now.

To be continued……

 Steven Best

(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)

“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.

Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.

 There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.

 Out of Africa and Out of Control

Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.

 There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?[1]

 Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.

Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.  Continue reading

The nature of evolution is speciation — to produce diversity of life, even in the harshest and most challenging conditions. Indeed, after the five previous major extinctions events on earth, nature responded not only by restabilizing ecological dynamics, but by proliferating even more life and enhancing biodiversity such as happened during the Cambrian Explosion.

The diversity of life involves not only the proliferation of plant and animal species, but also of unique human cultures and languages. At all levels, we are currently losing the rich diversity of biological, cultural, and linguistic forms; in a profound sense, we can no longer speak of “evolution” but rather must understand that planet earth is undergoing a profound devolutionary process in the sense that diversity of all kinds is rapidly receding not advancing.

Thus, in the midst of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of this planet that is currently underway, we are also witness to the precipitous loss of cultural and linguistic diversity as well, as we leave the prior Holocene epoch and enter the new Anthropocene era. This new and emergent geological epoch is  defined by the dominant role played by humans, not the natural world, in altering the planet, and clearly not in desirable ways. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the combined forces of the modernization, the Industrial Revolution, fossil-fuel addiction, a grow-or-die metastasizing system of global capitalism, the spread of agribusiness and rising world meat consumption, human overpopulation, mass culture, rampant consumerism, and other forces have brought about habitat loss, rainforest destruction, desertification, climate change, and species extinction.

In fact since the emergence of agricultural society 10-15,000 years ago, the now dominant mode of production began a war of extermination against hunting and gathering tribes that preserved traditional nomadic and non-hierarchical life ways, as opposed to the growth-oriented, hierarchical farming societies based on domesticating nature and animals, obsessive concerns with control, expansion, war, and conquest.

The war still being waged against indigenous peoples, first nations, and other non-modern/non-Western cultures certainly fully advanced with colonialism five centuries ago, but ultimately is a continuation of the exterminism agricultural society launched against all peoples who did not conform to the pathological imperatives of “civilization” and “progress.”

While from the standpoint of the earth and nonhuman animal species, the ideal would be for Homo rapiens as a whole to die off as rapidly as possible. But the alternative to what most humans find repugnant and nauseating, for those who believe we still have a right to inhabit this planet even if we prove we do not have the ability to harmonize our societies with animal communities and the natural world as a whole, is to do everything possible to resist global capitalism and its war against tribal and indigenous peoples everywhere.

For not only is it vital that indigenous peoples and ancient lifeways be preserved in their own right against the genocidal onslaught of global capitalism, and that we have more diverse languages, cultures, and lifeways than market societies and forces of cultural homogenization will tolerate. It is also crucial, if we want to preserve what biodiversity is left, that we protect and preserve premodern and non-traditional peoples.

One obvious reason — although this has often been overstated in romanticized ways — is that they retain a more reverential ethic toward the earth, they have a far deeper connectedness to life and land, they value tradition over novelty and create far more sustainable cultures, and that they are far more capable of caring for the earth and animals that predatory and rapacious capitalist societies.

Despite the fact that indigenous peoples (such as the Clovis Indians who first inhabited North America) have often throughout history overshot ecological limits and driven animals into extinction, they nonetheless are clearly more suited “custodians” of the earth than the IMF, World Bank, WTO, ExxonMobil, Shell, Monsanto, Cargill, Maxxam, Du Pont, Japanese whalers, NGOs, ignorant narcissistic Western consumers, and so on. 

As the essay below makes clear, the areas now highest in biodiversity are the same areas inhabited by indigeous peoples (and this is partly so because plant and animal species are struggling to adjust to escape the ravages of climate change). Thus, the key to preserving what biodiversity remains amidst the rapidly unfolding sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet is to preserve the remaining cultural and linguistic diversity — to support, help defend, and sustain the indigenous peoples inhabiting the areas with the most dense and diverse plant and animal species.

Thus, here we see yet another vivid example of the politics of total liberation, and how the multiple struggles to save humans, animals, and nature from the devastating effects of the capitalist-dominated Anthropocene era are ultimately one struggle ad must be formulated in theory and practice accordingly.

So there are two main options to save biodiversity: either through the collapse of “civilization” and the extinction of the human species, or through advancing the only politics suitable for the twenty-first century and era of global social and ecological crisis — a politics of total liberation that preserves biodiversity by preserving cultural and linguistic diversity. And this, unavoidably, demands a total war against global capitalism and the sundry institutions and forces of destruction bound up with advanced market societies and this nihilistic world system.

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By  NEWS JUNKIE POST, Oct 11, 2012

An unprecedented study of global biological and cultural diversity paints a dire picture of the state of our species.

Like the amphibians that climb to ever tinier areas at higher altitudes to avoid being extinguished by global warming, most of the world’s species currently huddle in a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface, and most human cultural diversity — as measured by the number of languages — occupies essentially the same tiny fraction of the planet.

We are dying.

A scientist would never say it quite this way. Instead, he would tell you that the world’s animal and plant species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than ever in recorded history. He might add that some areas of the world have lost 60% of their languages since the mid-1970’s, and 90% of the world’s languages are expected to vanish by the year 2099.

In Haitian Creole, we would yell “Amwe!” (Help!), and this would be right and proper.

As ever, the best scientific studies merely quantify what everybody has known all along. Life, in general, has suffered horribly from the runaway spread of European values and the notions of progress that began with the Industrial Revolution. A sharp bit of mathematics finally brings forth the maps that expose the poverty of the world’s major carbon emitters and the little wealth that remains in those parts of the world where the indigenous are making their final stand.

High-biodiversity wilderness areas

There currently exist very few places on Earth that could be considered intact. The researchers found only five such areas, which are numbered 36-40 on the biodiversity map and colored in shades of green.

These are, by number: 36: Amazonia; 37: Congo Forests; 38: Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Savannas; 39: New Guinea; 40: North American Deserts.

Together these intact spots amounted to only about six percent of the terrestrial surface but were home to 17 percent of vascular plants and eight percent of vertebrates that could not be found anywhere else. The same areas were the refuge for 1,622 of the world’s 6,900 languages, with little New Guinea topping the chart at 976 tongues.

The only glimmer of hope from the study was the discovery that, contrary to what conservationists might presume, a place does not have to be untouched by humans to serve as a refuge for the world’s plants and animals. Instead, habitats must be handled in the right way, and more than anything, they must be protected from the kinds of blows dealt by industrialization.

Biodiversity hotspots

The researchers additionally identified 35 “biodiversity hotspots” (numbered 1-35 and colored in shades of yellow to red on the biodiversity map), defined as places with a high density of endemic species despite having lost over 70% of natural habitat.

These were, by number: 1: Atlantic Forest; 2: California Floristic Province; 3: Cape Floristic Region; 4: Caribbean Islands; 5: Caucasus; 6: Cerrado; 7: Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests; 8: Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa; 9: East Melanesian Islands; 10: Eastern Afromontane; 11: Forests of East Australia; 12: Guinean Forests of West Africa; 13: Himalaya; 14: Horn of Africa; 15: Indo-Burma; 16: Irano-Anatolian; 17: Japan; 18: Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands; 19: Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands; 20: Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany; 21: Mediterranean Basin; 22: Mesoamerica; 23: Mountains of Central Asia; 24: Mountains of Southwest China; 25: New Caledonia; 26: New Zealand; 27: Philippines; 28: Polynesia-Micronesia; 29: Southwest Australia; 30: Succulent Karoo; 31: Sundaland; 32: Tropical Andes; 33: Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena; 34: Wallacea; 35: Western Ghats and Sri Lanka.

The biodiversity hotspots amounted only to about two percent of the Earth’s surface, but they were home to a whopping 50% of plant species and 43% of vertebrates that could be found nowhere else. Again, there was a stunning correlation of biodiversity with culture, with the hotspots being home to 3,202 of the world’s languages.

Biodiversity is being lost, but what’s far worse is that the ability to express this loss is vanishing. For example, 1,553 of the languages in hotspots were spoken by only 10,000 or fewer people, and 544 were spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Ironically, the American researchers who did this study are now regarded as experts on biodiversity, although the only real experts on how to maintain biodiversity in places occupied by humans are the world’s indigenous.

The logical conclusion to take from this study is that modern science, with all its sophisticated technology, is completely trumped by the thousands of years of experimentation by the world’s indigenous, although their findings have been transmitted by oral tradition and other simple means. To be fair, it isn’t so much the fault of modern science as the fault of the industrialized world, which worships power, greed, and the absurdity of exponential growth.

One cannot disdain all other living beings, grind mountains to extract minerals, build roads without a thought for habitat fragmentation, design gardens to please only human aesthetics, or harvest monocultures that serve solely human needs, and expect one’s world to continue for long. There is room for humans at Earth’s banquet, but only those who have lived in place long enough to have learned the contours of their terrain, the language of their plant and animal neighbors and, more than anything, the needs of non humans.

When a shaman leaves a lock of his hair where he has uprooted a medicinal cactus, it is not a bit of imbecility, but a humble acknowledgement that, for each living thing taken, one must give a bit of oneself, however small. For centuries humans have spilled their most beloved animals’ blood to the earth to acknowledge the cyclical aspects of life in preparation for battle and celebration of life’s milestones. These are not concepts that a pharmaceutical corporation could ever understand.

As for every other scientific report, this one concludes that yet more study will be needed, but what is needed, and urgently so, is more humility, because as the world’s indigenous cultures go, so does all humanity.

A vivid example of how the politics of nature – relating to the struggles to preserve animals, biodiversity, and ecosystems — has become at least as important as any social movement struggle. Of course, the article shows that the two political struggles are hardly inseparable, and that if we want to preserve biodiversity and ecological integrity, then we must also preserve the existence and rights of indigenous peoples. Because sure as hell, global corporations, bankers, dictators, imperialists, militarists, and mercenaries exist only to rob and destroy, not protect and disturb. Yet another example of how we need to speak of total liberation, or don’t speak of liberation at all.

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William Allen, Yale Environment 360, October 8, 2012

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

Conservation groups are helping restore scarlet macaw populations in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

But this magnificent creature and others that inhabit the reserve — jaguars, pumas, Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Baird’s tapirs — are being pressured not just by the standard threats common to tropical regions, such as illegal logging, fires, and commercial hunting. Even more virulent forces are gnawing away at the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including Mexican drug cartels that cut into the forest to build airstrips to transport drugs, Salvadoran gangs that carve out huge cattle ranches to launder drug money, and Chinese organized crime groups moving their illegal logging network toward the reserve to supply Asian markets with prime tropical hardwoods.

As a result, this natural and cultural treasure — the heart of the Selva Maya, a forest spanning the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize — has in recent years effectively been cut in two. The western side, which includes two of the reserve’s five national parks and is bordered on the west and the north by Mexico, is under siege, according to Guatemalan park officials. The eastern part of the reserve, where Tikal rises above the jungle canopy and which borders Belize, is lush and intact.

“The story of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has increasingly become a tale of two reserves — one of conservation successes and one of failures,” says Roan McNab, director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Guatemala program. McNab is a pivotal figure in a coalition of Guatemalan and foreign conservation groups battling to preserve the eastern half of the reserve and claw back some of the denuded lands of the western sector.

Much is at stake, as the reserve and the surrounding Selva Maya are the largest block of intact forest north of the Amazon Basin. The reserve supports 513 of Guatemala’s bird species (71 percent of the national total), 122 mammal species (64 percent), 95 reptile species (39 percent), and more than 80 species of neotropical migrant birds from North America. It enshrouds Tikal, a national park and World Heritage Site, and hundreds of other vestiges of Mayan civilization.

The international coalition struggling to preserve the heart of the reserve has enjoyed some important successes. Scarlet macaws are making a comeback thanks to intensive restoration efforts. The presence of the civilian government and military has grown. Prosecution of environmental crimes is up, albeit slightly. And community-based forest concessions have brought some rural Guatemalans sustainable income and empowered them in managing parts of the reserve.

“There’s a greater social awareness now of the importance of preserving environmental stability,” says Rolman Hernandez, director of the Petén region of Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), the Guatemalan park service. The reserve covers more than half of the Petén, the largest and northernmost of Guatemala’s 22 departments, or provinces.

Tikal

The World Heritage site at Tikal is among hundreds of historic Mayan sites in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The region that became the Maya Biosphere Reserve was once a vast mix of lowland rainforest, wetlands, lagoons, lakes, rivers, and mangrove forests. As many as 2 million people lived here at the peak of Mayan civilization, around 800 A.D., archeologists estimate. Then came the Mayan decline and Spanish conquest.

Until the 1960s, the region consisted of a few isolated forest villages. Then roads, built mainly to access oil and timber, opened the the area to illegal colonization and slash-and-burn agriculture. The reserve was created in 1990 to help control deforestation, but CONAP, financially strapped and often overruled by government officials friendly to the ranchers, has been hampered in its attempts to control the wave of destruction, McNab and others say. Today the human population is 118,000, with most living in poverty.

Criminal activity in the area began to intensify a decade ago, further accelerating the destruction of the western half of the reserve. An important factor is that northern Guatemala is ideally situated to refuel drug aircraft flying from South America and transfer narcotics to trucks for the easy drive to Mexico. The cartels operated in a “climate of impunity” since the army and police lacked the power to take them on, McNab says. The ranchers built dozens of airstrips, including one dubbed the “international airport,” which had three runways and more than a dozen abandoned aircraft. The result was a loss of 40,000 hectares of forest.

Guatemalans have developed a new term for what’s happening in the region: narcoganaderia, a combination of the Spanish words for drugs and cattle ranching. The cartels launder drug money by investing in cattle production and reaping profits from cattle sales in Mexican markets.

CONAP officials say evidence of the work of Chinese-backed criminal groups lies in the yard behind the agency’s Petén headquarters, in San Benito. The yard is crowded with timber and confiscated vehicles. Victor Penados, CONAP’s coordinator of control and vigilance for the reserve, points to a pile of rosewood confiscated from suppliers to Chinese criminal groups. The wood comes from one of several recent timber-smuggling busts by the government reported in national news media. This pile, confiscated from a truck delivering the wood to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto San Tomas de Castillo for shipment to China, has a market value of $125,000, Penados estimates.

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging just south of the reserve, according to CONAP. McNab fears it won’t be long before the Chinese-backed groups start cutting inside the reserve itself and then turn to intensive jaguar poaching for body parts to serve a Chinese market that is already driving Asian big cats toward extinction.

This conservation drama is playing out under extreme conditions. CONAP and WCS staffers have been threatened many times. Some have been taken hostage, while others have had to “disappear” for several weeks after raids to reclaim illegally acquired ranchland. McNab himself was held at gunpoint by two looters of a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. I was accompanied into the forest with as many as five armed security guards as we traveled near cartel ranches. Always in the back of my mind were the nation’s poverty, corruption, history of dictatorship, lawlessness, and 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

The influence of illegal logging and ranching in the reserve is evident in a series of three CONAP land-use maps showing a wave of fires and land clearing that gobbled up large green swaths of forest from 2000 to 2011, especially in the western section. McNab warns that if law enforcement does not improve, the reserve faces a “chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala’s border with Belize.”

Maya Biosphere Map

The 2.1 million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve covers 19 percent of Guatemala.

Nowhere is the tale of two reserves more visible than at the Guacamayas Biological Station in Laguna del Tigre National Park. To the south, across the Rio San Pedro and beyond, stretches a vast plain of ranchland, the raw result of deforestation. To the north, the rainforest canopy rolls untattered all the way to the border with Mexico. In 2008, scientists discovered a 1,100-hectare clear-cut smack in the middle of that expanse. It turned out to be a large cattle ranch linked to a Salvadoran gang involved in drug trafficking.

Such forest destruction has in recent decades reduced by 75 percent the habitat of the region’s scarlet macaws, a subspecies of the scarlet macaws found farther south in Latin America and the last remaining macaws in the wild in Guatemala. By 2000, scarlet macaws had nearly been extirpated in the reserve. A 2003 WCS study estimated that the population, mostly centered in the forest to the east of Laguna del Tigre park, had dropped to 200 birds. That year, the researchers monitored 15 nests, but only one chick successfully fledged.

But a program of predator control, environmental education in local schools, and hand-rearing by veterinarians brought the number of successful macaw fledglings to 29 in 2011 and 49 for this year’s nesting season. Says McNab, “We feel pretty good about adding that number of birds to the population. That’s big in terms of saving the species.”

To halt continuing deforestation, CONAP and its allies have established what they call “the Shield” — a lattice of trails running along the eastern border of Laguna del Tigre park, anchored by three major bases for patrols by CONAP, the army, national police, and others. Patrols and arrests have risen steadily over the past four years.

If the success or failure of the Shield will determine whether the western front of the reserve holds, what happens in villages like Uaxactún will decide whether the eastern part will avoid destruction from within.

Uaxactún, population 280, is one of 14 villages awarded government concessions more than a decade ago as part of an experiment in community-based forest management. The concessions, covering nearly one-fourth of the reserve, require residents to protect the forest ecosystems and manage its wood and other resources sustainably.

The villagers must refrain from poaching, intensive logging, slash-and-burn farming, and other unsustainable practices, as well as patrol for and report any such illegal activity. In return, CONAP, WCS, and other groups provide technical and financial support for forest-product ventures. Dozens of residents now work in sustainable harvesting of timber, date palm fronds, chicle for chewing gum, and other non-timber products from the forest. Others work in the village sawmill and woodworking shop.

Village leaders say the concession is working well. But not all the concessions have been so successful, according to a study published in March in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Among reasons for the problems were limited funding, the low CONAP budget, pressure from illegal ranching, and land speculation.

The effort in the village of Cruce a la Colorada was one of the failures. In 2010, disputes between ranchers and concession managers became so heated that concession members received death threats. A community leader was assassinated. In the ensuing climate of fear, the project collapsed.

But the conservation groups remain hopeful.

“You can grapple with these governance issues and you can have success,” McNab says. “It takes an integrated strategy working with a huge suite of partners, but it can be done.”

Recorded in Barcelona, Spain, September 2012

Recorded in Barcelona, Spain, September 2012

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