Some disasters aren't so 'natural'

When mudslides struck his country last year, killing thousands, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez complained: "Isn't nature awful?"

But "natural" disasters aren't all that natural, researchers say. Humanity often plays a hidden role in making them worse. By studying the interplay of man and the environment, researchers hope to discover the changing relationships between man and nature.

"We talk about nature and society as two separate things," says Stuart McCook, a history professor at The College of New Jersey in Ewing. But "society and nature are interlocking parts of a whole, whose relationship changes over time."

More than a century before Venezuela mudslides, around the 1860s, a coffee rust destroyed most of the commercial plantations in Africa and sub-continental Asia. Latin American farmers, particularly in Brazil, seized the opportunity, cleared land, and captured the coffee-export market. In two generations, nearly the entire Brazilian Atlantic Forest gave way to plantations. And in neighboring Venezuela, around Caracas, farmers hewed out coffee plantations from the mountain forests. The area began to see huge water runoff during rainy periods.

The plantations prospered until an economic depression hit the industrialized world in the 1920s and 1930s. Prices collapsed for agricultural commodities. With nothing to fall back on, rural residents flooded into the cities in search of jobs.

The newcomers cleared vegetation on the hillsides and built slums. And because Venezuela continued to rely on the boom-and-bust oil industry, the process continued through the 1990s. By the time the heavy rains came last December, deforestation and lack of urban planning had made millions of Venezuelans, especially the poor, far more vulnerable to mudslides than their ancestors. The disaster, one of the worst in the 20th century, caused some 30,000 to 50,000 fatalities.

"This was a disaster foretold," Professor McCook says. "You can start to see all of these things as social processes." But here and there, he sees progress.

For example, when Hurricane Floyd hit Manville, N.J., a year ago, some 250 homeowners and business owners asked the federal government to buy them out rather than rebuild in the vulnerable flood plain. "What I'm starting to see is a paradigm shift from dominating to managing" nature, McCook says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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