Avatar, Vietnam, and the War on the Trees

  • Published on January 14th, 2010

(Originally appeared at Tenthmil.com)

One thing the blockbuster film “Avatar” showed in glorious, graphic 3D: In war, no matter who wins, the forest nearly always loses.

There goes the neighborhood

In the normal course of life, average folks tend to be conservationists. Why shouldn’t they? Just like the Na’vi of “Avatar”, most human societies throughout history developed systems that enabled people to live on the same patch of ground for generations.

The Bible actually commands: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war… thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them.” This was also the norm in the intercity warfare of classical Greece; The Spartans only cut down Athenian olive trees when their enmity became really nasty. 

Trees are part of that stability, whether it’s olive and fruit trees for food, or other species for lumber, shade, and cover. You plant trees for yourself, and for your children and grandchildren.

 Today we call that “sustainability.”

But in times of war, the timeframe changes: people do what it takes to survive this year, this month, this day. If that meant cutting down a forest, then the forest came down, regardless of the effect it would have on future generations.

 And indeed, that’s what happened as empires arose in the ancient and classical world. First, warfare devastated Mesopotamia – the deserts of Iraq were once rich farmlands, and the brown hills once were covered in forests.

Then the Greeks and Romans waged their wars, and the tree-cutting spread throughout the Mediterranean. Forests came down to build siege engines, for army cookfires, and sometimes to punish enemies.

The war on the forest

But Caesar cut down Gallic forests to prevent his enemies using them for cover; Augustus did the same on the German frontier. That set the stage for the next thousand years of warfare – Henri II of England set fire to the forests of Ireland for the same reason.

And it wasn’t just the forests of the enemy that were decimated. The Phoenicians wiped out their own resource, the storied cedars of Lebanon, to build their fleets. The forests of Spain were leveled to build King Phillip’s Armada; then France’s forests were cut down for ships, and so were England’s – it’s estimated that when Nelson battle Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar, each of his ships had taken about 6,000 mature oaks.

In the modern era, third-world conflicts are often financed by timber sales. The Khmer Rouge Communist insurgency in Cambodia was financed by rainforest destruction; that has since happened in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Indochina, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Central Africa, the Amazon, Colombia, Central America, and New Caledonia.

Wars also create refugees, desperate people struggling to survive far from their native region. Without a stake in the local ecology, and with life and death on the line on a daily basis, they strip the region of food and firewood. During the Rwanda conflict, refugees nearly drove the mountain gorillas to extinction. In the Congo, it was elephants that were nearly destroyed.

And in many cases, ecological destruction leads to war and conflict that in turn leads to more ecological destruction. In Darfur, it was deforestation that led to scarcity, conflict, drought, and a huge refugee crisis… which in turn led to more deforestation and desertification.

We keep pushing the envelope.

The tree-destruction scene in “Avatar” looked like something out of the Vietnam War, for good reason.

In Vietnam, the American Army had Caesar’s problem: the enemy used the forest for cover. But they had a whole new way of dealing with it: Napalm to burn them out, and Agent Orange to defoliate. The jungles of Southeast Asia couldn’t fight back like “Avatar’s” Eywa, and took years to recover. The toxic side effects took their toll on the local ecosystem, as well as the local people, and also the American soldiers who were exposed.

When Saddam Hussein’s army pulled out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, they set fire to the oilfields, creating a whole new kind of environmental devastation. During the most recent Lebanon conflict, Israel bombed a major coastal oil facility, staining 80 miles of coastline with 110,000 barrels of oil. At the same time, Hezbollah rockets fired into Northern Israel set off forest fires, destroying an estimated 600,000 trees.

But there actually is a bright side…

After Gulf War II, the US restored the marshlands of Southern Iraq, bringing back a habitat of 7,000 square miles (twice the size of Rhode Island) that had been turned to desert by Sadam Hussein in retaliation for an uprising of Shia Arabs.

During the Guatemalan Civil War, the Peten District became such a dangerous place (more than 100,000 people were killed) that tree-cutting effectively ended, leaving it today as one of the largest surviving stands of virgin tropical rainforest north of the Amazon.

There’s an international movement to create peace parks along international borders that have suffered ecological upheavals, such as the eastern Congo.

And there’s the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Picture a pristine environment.

Forests of Mongolian Oaks full of birds; streams full of fish; coastlands with rare birds like Manchurian Cranes and Siberian Herons. Endangered species like the sak wildcat and the Asiatic black bear.

And no people – no people at all.

The Korean DMZ is a narrow ribbon of land 150 miles long and two and a half miles wide. The DMZ was created in 1953 at the end of the Korean War to keep the two Koreas, North and South, from shooting each other.

For more than 50 years, thousands of nervous, trigger-happy troops patrolled along the DMZ, but never ventured across the barricades and barbed wire. And so, inadvertently, it became a refuge. As Korea industrialized, its population boomed and its industry drove countless species into decline and extinction, the DMZ remained untouched.

Not quite as lush as Pandora, the zone still manages to cover an amazing range of environments, including wetlands, forests, estuaries, mountains, coastal islands, and riparian valleys. Waterfowl love it – it’s the wintering ground for two of the world’s most endangered birds, the white-naped crane and the red-crowned crane.

Still waiting for formal protection, the biggest threat to this accidental preserve would be peace. With the South Korean capital, Seoul, just 20 miles to the south, there will be heavy pressure to develop the region for condos and office parks if there is ever a peace treaty between the North and the South.

Perhaps the local waterfowl and small animals are secretly praying for us crazy humans to stay at war with each other….

All images copyright 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.