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Severe Deforestation

Yes, it's time for yet another Arts & Culture Card in Conquest of Paradise! We continue the theme begun last week (and ending this week!) of looking at the lousy cards in the game. These cards focus more on unfortunate side effects of the Polynesian experience, rather than notable achievements. So for today we have the Severe Deforestation card.

Polynesians, like people everywhere, "prospered by disturbing the natural order", as Carl Sauer said. The explorers of Polynesia found islands almost entirely covered by a mosaic of natural forest types. As the islands were occupied, the newly arrived colonists cleared forest for gardens, and established orchards, or stands of useful trees, that provided many valuable foods and materials. People also opened forest land to provide materials and space for houses. They used fire to clear agricultural land and for hunting; it was a major tool in the change from forest to more open landscapes.

These activities modified the natural landscape, creating a human habitat that was more congenial to occupation and much more productive of food than were the closed native forests. But as Sauer went on to say, human beings often overreach themselves, and the new order they introduce may contain the seeds of disaster.

Deforestation caused many kinds of degradation; it has been prevalent in Pacific history. Repeated burning has been responsible for the evolution of fire-climax forests, grassland savannas, and degraded fern and scrub lands. For example, such a process has undoubtedly been the main cause of the extensive saafa (Panicum maximum) grasslands of Tongatapu in Tonga.

Deforestation has led to severe erosion in the Cook Islands, the Society Islands, and Hawaii, where most of the indigenous forest has been removed, leaving degraded fern lands and grasslands no longer suitable for agriculture. Deforestation was responsible for the collapse of the Polynesian culture on Easter Island, where there was a radical reduction of forest, shrub, and grassland communities, following over-exploitation and misuse by man. Similarly, drastic deforestation of the central plateau on the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, because of shifting cultivation and increasing population pressure, led to a dramatic population crash and the total abandonment of the interior of the island.

It is clear that the Pacific Islands' early inhabitants did not avidly practice a conservation ethic that preserved their habitat as an unchanging paradise until Europeans brought major disturbances and degradation. The first settlers caused many extinctions (notably of birds), reduced forest cover, initiated massive soil erosion, and created or extended degraded grasslands, and silted-over coral reefs and productive fishing areas. In short, they did what all peoples, especially pioneers, do in their efforts to make a living: they actively manipulated, modified, and at times degraded the ecosystems in which they lived.

In game terms, the Severe Deforestation card does not (of course) provide a victory point for its owner. However, it does allow the owner to remove one village (worth one victory point) from each of his opponents. The worst effects of deforestation occurred after the time frame simulated in Conquest of Paradise, so the damage is limited to the longest-occupied islands: the players' home islands. The player with this card may even choose to hold his card face-down until the last moment: when someone else has declared victory. This card might actually negate the other player's victory, and force the game to continue for another turn!

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