If a tree falls, John Seed hears it

JOHN SEED won't eat Whoppers. Not because he doesn't like them. He just doesn't believe in them. He boycotts these burgers, strangely enough, because he wants to save the world's rain forests. Mr. Seed points out that a portion of Burger King's beef is imported from Costa Rica, where rain forests are denuded to create cattle pastures. And even though this fast-food chain recently buckled to environmental pressures, promising a phase-out of Central American beef, Seed prefers to wait for the fait accompli. Then he'll bite into this burger.

The burger boycott is just one facet of Seed's crusade to preserve rain forests, which are slipping from the earth's surface like melting snow. Since 1979 this full-time activist from Australia has traveled more than 100,000 miles and spoken millions of words in defense of these ecological treasures.

He has also lain prone in the paths of loggers' bulldozers, faced attack dogs, and been arrested for civil disobedience. Between protests, this self-appointed sentinel directs the Rain Forest Information Centre in his hometown of Lismore, New South Wales, and edits the World Rain Forest Report.

``People have always been prepared to sacrifice, even their own lives, in order to defend things they've been conditioned to identify with - a country, a belief system, a religion,'' says Seed. ``And here, in our own lifetime, we see threatened the very biological foundation of all countries, all religions, all belief systems. I'm surprised there aren't more people prepared to protect the rain forests.''

Hence Seed's alarm-clock tactics for wakening up the world to the rain forest issue.

``John Seed is a tremendous example of what a person without strong professional training in ecology can do by becoming informed - and then becoming an activist,'' says Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist and co-author with his wife, Anne, of ``The Population Bomb'' and ``Extinction.''

``I think a lot of scientists like me depend upon John's bulletin for information on what's happening,'' Dr. Ehrlich says. ``It's very difficult for professionals to keep track of all the details in the vast array of atrocities committed on our rain forests. He's become sort of a central figure in keeping people up to date.''

Indeed, Seed has become the town crier of the global village, spreading the word for biologists, who generally agree that a perhaps as much as 50 percent of the planet's species of plants and animals live in the rain forests, which cover only 7 percent of the earth's land surface. And these species are in danger.

Each year, an area of rain forest the size of West Virginia is destroyed for agricultural purposes, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which warns that the data are undoubtedly understated. Counting logging, which ``disturbs'' rather than destroys, the figure climbs to an area the size of Pennsylvania.

``As soon as we start to interfere on any scale whatsoever, the crisis of degradation proceeds,'' Seed cautions. ``That's because so many species are interconnected in such complex ways.''

Seed works at the grass-roots level to bring the rain forest's value to the doorsteps of the anybodies, anywhere. He translates ``biological diversity'' into everyday terms, telling people that rain forests are nature's gigantic warehouse of potential food and pharmaceutical products for present and future generations. The forest's organisms are a mighty pillar in Earth's ecological system, which in turn supports economic systems.

``I understand what Paul Ehrlich meant when he said, `We're sawing off the branch we're sitting on,''' says Seed.

Seed doesn't have a string of biology degrees behind his name. In fact, his college degree from Sydney University, Australia, records majors far afield: psychology and philosophy. But he has studied everything in sight on tropical deforestation since being pulled into the fight ``quite by accident,'' when Australia's rain forests seemed doomed in 1979.

He recently produced a film recounting the struggles to save these Australian forests. After showing this to audiences, Seed generally opens a battered guitar case and sings of earth and galaxies unknown, the toes in his sandals keeping time. His recent six-week stint in the United States was sponsored by Earth First, an environmental group with about two dozen chapters in the US (some of which use highly controversial protest tactics, such as driving metal spikes in trees to prevent logging).

With a watchful eye on Burger King, Seed isn't about to let Coca-Cola slip by unnoticed, either. Its subsidiary, Minute Maid, has earmarked up to 25,000 acres for orange groves in Belize, also in Central America. The project is now on hold until completion of an environmental-impact study, according to Alice Brink, a spokewoman for Coca-Cola foods. ``But,'' says Ms. Brink, ``the land to be cleared isn't rain forest. It's subtropical moist and tropical dry forest.''

``That's playing with words,'' says Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist. ``Those lands are still in the tropical forest category. And the tropical dry forest is the most threatened of all. They're still planning to destroy treasure houses of biological diversity.''

These companies aren't the only ones to blame, however. During an interview in Madison, Seed set up this scenario: ``Say the Brazilian government gets a loan for millions from the World Bank [or some other multinational development institution] to build a road 1,000 miles up the Amazon. Armies of people [the destitute and landless] are then shifted into the area, and they start to slash and burn the rain forests along the roadside.

``The paradox about rain forests is that, in spite of their luxuriant growth, the soil underneath isn't that fertile. Nutrients are locked aboveground, so to say, in the living biomass of trees, plants, and animals. You can get two or three years of crops from the ash left after the slash and burn. And after that, the land can support pasture for cattle for a few years. Then it's over. You've gone from the crown of creation, the most diverse and complex ecosystem on earth, to a wasteland - and all in such a short time. So what do the shifted people do? They move up the road and do the same thing,'' Seed explains.

``For a project that's ostensibly humanitarian, there's tremendous suffering for these people.''

Seed admits that at one time he ``referred to rain forests rather contemptuously as scrub.'' That was back when the sculptor-turned-farmer was living an idyllic life amid his macadamia nuts and avocados. Then friends asked him to help save a rain forest near his home in New South Wales. ``I found myself, just out of neighborliness, becoming involved.''

That grass-roots movement mushroomed into a national issue. Seed later joined a dozen others to spearhead a campaign to save another forest in Tasmania. The triumph came when both forests were not only spared but were listed with UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, along with the Grand Canyon and Mt. Everest. Areas on this list are deemed essential to mankind as a whole.

To compare a man named John Seed with the legendary Johnny Appleseed borders on the corny. But then, Seed and friends did just plant trees back home - more than 1,000 of them, representing 100 tropical species.

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