September 19, 2017

Tropical forests: a plan for action

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The world’s tropical forests are being destroyed at the rate of 100 acres every minute of the day. Their destruction has variously been described as “the greatest natural calamity since the Ice Age” [1], “the greatest biological disaster ever perpetrated by man” [2] and “a threat to civilisation second only to thermonuclear war”. [3]

Editorial article published in The Ecologist Vol. 17 No. 4–5, June 1987. Co-authored by Peter Bunyard & Nicholas Hildyard.


The consequences of our continued destruction of the world’s tropical forests are devastating. Thus, deforestation spells cultural death for the millions of tribal peoples who depend on the forests for their livelihood. It threatens to condemn to extinction 50 to 90 percent of the world’s species of plants, animals and insects.

It is causing widespread erosion and transforming huge areas of the world into desert or scrub. It is causing springs and streams to dry up, depriving tens of millions of people of drinking water. It will further increase the massive damage caused every year through floods in the Third World. It is already altering local climate, causing the desiccation of lands downwind of deforested areas. And, in the words of five of the world’s leading climatologists, it will cause “a global climatic catastrophe”, rendering a considerable proportion of our planet uninhabitable for complex forms of life.

Moreover, the time available to prevent an irreversible disaster at a global level is minimal. Within 30 years, there will be few areas of undamaged forest left, and within 50 years all the world’s tropical forests will have disappeared. Already the signs of global climatic destabilisation are apparent and they are becoming more so every day.

The official proposals put forward for dealing with the problem are, above all, designed to accommodate present political and economic priorities. As a result, they are grossly inadequate. Indeed, if implemented, they would simply exacerbate the problem.

In this issue of The Ecologist, we propose the outline of a more realistic plan. What is more, in view of the extreme gravity and urgency of the problem, we are launching a campaign calling for an Emergency Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the plan, to work out its details, and to persuade the specialised UN agencies and member nations to implement it.

The rate of destruction

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 100,000 square kilometres of tropical forests are lost every year. That figure, however, does not take into account those forests which have been cleared and have regrown into degraded forests. In a report to the US National Academy of sciences, Norman Myers, author of The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future, puts the total figure for the amount of primary forest cleared or degraded every year at 200,000 square kilometres. If the destruction continues unchecked, the world’s virgin tropical forests will have been annihilated within 50 years – well within the lifetime of a child born today.

It is essential to realise that the great bulk of forest destruction has taken place since World War II, hence coinciding with the massive acceleration of economic development within the Third World. Indeed, many countries which are now almost stripped of their forests – Sri Lanka for example – were 40 percent or more forested prior to 1945.

In spite of the growing concern over the effects of deforestation, the rate of destruction is increasing in many parts of the world. In some regions of Brazil, for example, deforestation is accelerating at the rate of 33 percent a year. One of the worst affected regions is the State of Rondonia. As Myers reports,

“In 1975, only 460 square miles of forest had been cleared, but by 1985 the amount had grown to almost 11,000 square miles. Were this exponential rate of increase to be maintained (it reveals ever more momentum), it would lead to the elimination of half of Rondonia’s forests by the early 1990s and to the elimination of the whole lot by the year 2000.”

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Forest destruction and ethnocide

Forest destruction spells cultural death for the estimated 140 million people who at present live within the forest, either as hunter-gatherers or as swidden agriculturalists or, as with the rubber tappers of Brazil, by extracting the produce of the forest on a sustainable basis. Many of these peoples rely on the forest for their entire livelihood. They derive from it the building materials for their houses; the wood for their agricultural implements; the herbs for their traditional medicines; the fibres and dyes for their clothes; and the materials for their traditional religious and cultural artefacts.

But the forest is not simply the source of material benefits: it is the foundation on which the very cultures of forest peoples are built; the resting place of their ancestors and the home of their deities. In effect, for the world’s forest dwellers, the destruction of tropical forests amounts to nothing less than ethnocide.

For the most part (the rubber tappers are an obvious exception), these peoples belong to cultures which are thousands of years old, proof indeed of the sustainability of their lifestyles. Not only are they in possession of a vast storehouse of knowledge about forest plants and animals but their methods of farming, hunting and gathering are increasingly recognised to be the only sustainable means of exploiting the forest.

Nonetheless, forest dwellers worldwide continue to be deprived of their land and to be resettled, generally forcibly, under government sponsored schemes aimed at incorporating tribal peoples “into mainstream society”. Inevitably, the majority end up in the burgeoning slums of the cities of the Third World, where they live in grinding poverty, more often than not falling prey to prostitution and alcoholism.

In effect, the very people who have most to teach us about how to live in harmony with the forests are being systematically destroyed.

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The extinction of species

Although tropical moist forests only cover some 6 percent of the total land surface of the globe, they contain at least 50 percent of the species on earth and, possibly, 90 percent.

Indeed, the importance of tropical forests as a habitat for wildlife cannot be understated. Ninety percent of the world’s non-human primates are found only in tropical rainforests, along with two thirds of all known plants, 40 percent of birds of prey and 80 percent of the world’s insects.

The Amazon basin alone contains an estimated 1 million animal and plant species, including 2,500 species of tree, 1,800 species of birds and 2,000 species of fish. A single hectare may contain 400 trees, every other one a different species. By contrast a typical temperate forest contains a mere 10 to 15 trees per hectare. One river in Brazil has been found to contain more species of fish than all the rivers in the United States.

As a result of tropical deforestation, at least one species is being condemned to extinction every day. In all likelihood, as Norman Myers points out, the true figure is even higher, amounting to “several species per day”. Within another ten years, he predicts, the rate of extinction will have risen “to several species an hour”. This view is endorsed by such eminent scientists as Paul Ehrlich, Edward O. Wilson and Peter Raven.

Not only are species now being lost at an unprecedented rate – some 400 times faster than at any other period during recent geological time – but the range of species affected is far wider than ever before. As Edward 0.Wilson points out:

“In at least one respect, this human-made hecatomb is worse than any time in the geological past. In earlier mass extinctions. . . most of the plant diversity survived: now, for the first time, it is being mostly destroyed.”

Although nature undoubtedly has considerable resilience – ensured in part by the sheer number of species on earth – there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. To illustrate the point, the biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have compared individual species, whether they be “bacteria, herbaceous plants, worms, mites, insects, frogs, lizards, or small mammals” to the rivets that hold together an aeroplane. Although we know that each species plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological systems,

“in most cases, an ecologist can no more predict the consequences of the extinction of a given species than an airline passenger can assess the loss of a single rivet. But both can easily foresee the long term results of continually forcing species to extinction or removing rivet after rivet.”

Indeed, if the present mass extinctions are permitted to continue, “the end result will be as predictable as that of popping rivets from any flying machine – disaster”. The Ehrlichs go on to warn:

“Sooner or later, the vital functions of earth’s ecosystems will be sufficiently impaired that the planet’s carrying capacity for human beings will plummet, perhaps over a period of decades, perhaps within a single year. Then humanity will be faced with extinction.”

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Loss of genetic resources

In agriculture, as in medicine, the importance of preserving genetic diversity is of utmost importance. Modern farming practices have systematically reduced the number of crops used in farming; indeed, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of our food. That lack of genetic diversity renders modern agriculture extremely vulnerable not only to pests and disease, but also to climatic change, current crop varieties being finely tuned to present climatic conditions. In future, therefore, wild species of plants may prove vital in order to fortify modern varieties against disease or a less propitious climate.

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Droughts, floods, deserts and degradation

Undegraded forests perform numerous irreplaceable ecological services for free, and those services are now being widely disrupted by deforestation. As a result, droughts and floods are increasing and thousands of hectares are being transformed into degraded scrub or desert every year.

One of the most vital functions fulfilled by forests is the control of water runoff to rivers. Typically, in a well-forested watershed, 95 percent of the annual rainfall is trapped in the elaborate sponge-like network of roots that underlies the forest floor. That water is then released slowly over the year, replenishing groundwaters and keeping streams and rivers flowing during the dry season. When the forest is removed, however, there is no longer any ‘sponge’ to absorb the water. As a result, the rains rush down the denuded slopes, straight into the local streams and rivers, only 5 percent of the rainwater being absorbed in what remains of the soil.

The consequence is massive flooding, which in the densely populated regions of the tropics, can prove disastrous. According to the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, the number of people affected by flooding trebled between 1960 and 1980, with over 15 million people suffering flood damage in the late 1970s. In India alone, the Government estimates that one in 20 people are now at risk from flooding.

Moreover, because the rainwater is no longer stored in the soil, the local streams and rivers are not replenished and thus quickly dry up, once the rains are over. The result is the so-called ‘drought-flood cycle’, with massive floods during the monsoon periods alternating with devastating droughts during the dry season. In the Indian State of Maharastra alone, deforestation is largely responsible for the drying up of water supplies in 23,000 villages, an increase of 6,000 in just five years.

Once stripped of their forest cover, the soils of the tropics are also increasingly vulnerable to erosion. Scientists working in the Ivory Coast have recorded massive differences between the rates of erosion in forested and deforested areas: they report that, even in mountainous areas, soil erosion in secondary forest is as low as 0.03 ton per hectare a year. Once deforested, the rate rises to 90 tons per hectare.

The amount of soil now being lost as a result of deforestation is staggering. In Nepal, which has lost 90 percent of its trees since the 1940s, billions of tons are washed into the rivers of the Himalayas every year, whilst in India 6,000 million tonnes of topsoil are lost annually. In Africa, the Ethiopian Highlands, which have long suffered from the effects of deforestation, are losing some 269 tonnes of topsoil per hectare – over 1,600 million tonnes a year. In Amazonia, the threat of erosion is such that Harald Sioli warns, “There is a danger that the region may develop into a new dust-bowl”.

In that respect, the lushness of the world’s rainforests is amazingly deceptive. For despite the profusion of plants and trees, the underlying soils are incredibly poor, almost all the nutrients being bound up in the vegetation. Once the forests have been cut down, those few nutrients that remain in the soil are quickly washed away, effectively transforming the land into a barren wasteland. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies of tropical rainforest destruction is that it is all for nought: almost all the areas that are now being cleared for agriculture or ranching cannot support these activities for more than a few years at the most.

In Brazil, for example, virtually all the cattle ranches established prior to 1978 had been abandoned by 1985. Similarly, as José Lutzenberger points out, attempts to open up Amazonia to agriculture have proved ecologically disastrous: almost all of the Brazilian colonists settled in Rondonia, for example, have been forced to abandon their new farms after the soils proved too infertile to make a living for more than a year or two. Some settlers have moved two or more times.

In Indonesia, too, many of those settled under the country’s massive Transmigration Scheme [see The Ecologist Vol. 16 No. 2/3, 1986] have abandoned their now degraded and infertile settlement sites and returned home to Java.

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Climatic Change

As Peter Bunyard documents in his article, tropical forests play a critical role in regulating climate, both at the regional and the global level. Their destruction not only threatens to disrupt world rainfall patterns but, more seriously perhaps, to destabilise the delicate chemistry of the earth’s inner atmosphere.

At the regional level, deforestation is already disrupting the subtle hydrological cycles that control rainfall. At least half of the rainwater that falls on moist tropical forests is returned back into the atmosphere through evapo-transpiration, hence the perpetual cloud that hangs over the world’s great rainforests. That evaporated moisture is then carried by the wind to fall as rain in areas often thousands of miles away.

Where the forests have been destroyed or degraded, however, there is no moisture for the winds to pick up; hence areas downwind of deforested areas no longer receive as much rain as previously, causing them to dry out. The destruction of West Africa’s forests may well be largely responsible for the droughts that are now such a common feature of the belt from the Sahel to Ethiopia. It is also claimed that the Sahara itself was created by cutting down the forests of North Africa.

The climatic consequences of deforestation will undoubtedly extend beyond the regional level however. As Bunyard notes, much of the rain evaporated from the forests of Amazonia is carried by the trade winds towards the higher latitudes. In the process, “heat is transferred from the Tropics to the higher latitudes, thus contributing significantly to a more equitable climate in temperate areas”. Without the rainforests of the tropical countries, and in particular with the destruction of the forests of Amazonia, “the Tropics would tend to be hotter and drier and the temperate regions both sides of the equator colder”. Indeed,

“the moist tropical forests of the world can be considered as a vital component in the process of pumping heat from the hot regions of the globe to the cooler regions.”

In addition to disrupting regional and global hydrological cycles deforestation is adding as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as that added by the burning of fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide results both from the burning of forest (and hence the oxidisation of the carbon locked up in the vegetation) and through the rotting of cleared vegetation. It is now generally accepted that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will bring about a global warming via the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’, the carbon dioxide trapping the sun’s solar energy, thus causing the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere to rise.

Climatologists now predict that the combined effect of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels will cause levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to double, bringing about a 2°C to 3°C rise in global temperatures.

Scientists are agreed that rising global temperatures could completely alter the face of the earth. Many of the world’s most fertile regions (notably the grain belts of North America and Russia) are likely to become drier and less productive, whilst regions such as India and the Middle East are expected to become wetter and more fertile. Tropical storms are predicted to become more violent and sea levels are predicted to rise as a result of the thermal expansion of seawater.

A rise in global temperatures of 5°C (by no means an impossibility) would melt the West Antarctica ice sheet, causing a 5 metre rise in sea levels and drowning many coastal regions of the eastern United States and elsewhere. Even a modest rise in temperatures could have a dramatic effect on sea levels: a recent paper in Nature [12 November 1987] predicts that by 2025 the earth’s temperature will have risen by 0.6°C – 1.0°C, causing sea levels to rise by 4 to 8 centimetres and directly threatening such cities as London, Bangkok and Venice.

There are already worrying signs that the greenhouse effect is indeed becoming a reality. Scientists measuring the amount of solar radiation entering and leaving the earth’s atmosphere, for example, have found that 0.1 percent more radiation is now retained than twelve years ago. Other worrying portents include the breaking off of a giant iceberg (measuring 100 miles by 25 miles) from the Ross Ice Shelf along the Bay of Whales in Antarctica. Indeed it is clear that man’s activities are destabilising the world’s climate and that deforestation is one of the major causes of that destabilisation.

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The World Resources Institute report

The World Resources Institute (WRI), in conjunction with the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, has produced a lengthy report calling for action to end deforestation. (The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has produced a similar plan, proposing similar conclusions.)

The report was written by an international taskforce with the brief of drawing tip a priority action programme to address deforestation issues on a broad front. The report outlines a 5-year action programme – to cost $8,000 million aimed at providing fuelwood, promoting agroforestry, re-afforesting upland watersheds, conserving tropical forest ecosystems and strengthening institutions for research, training and extension.

The taskforce consisted of government ministers, directors of state forestry agencies, representatives of logging companies and paper manufacturers, together with a representative of the World Bank. No conservationist or ecologist or member of an independent (that is, non-government funded) environmental organisation was included, nor were any tribal peoples from those areas most directly affected by tropical deforestation.

Significantly, the plan was rejected outright by Non-Governmental Organisations from 10 countries at a meeting in Delhi during the autumn of 1987. Nor should this surprise us, for, as Vandana Shiva and Magda Renner point out, the WRI report is deeply flawed.

Firstly, the WRI report is based on the premise that poverty, over-population and ignorance, are the prime causes of forest destruction. Blaming the poor for deforestation, however, is a gross and evil charge. As James Nations and Daniel I. Komer point out with reference to Central America,

“To blame colonising peasants for burning the rainforests is tantamount to blaming soldiers for causing wars. Peasant colonists carry out much of the work of deforestation in Central America, but they are mere pawns in a general’s game.”

Making scapegoats of the poor and dispossessed not only obscures the reasons for their poverty but detracts from the real causes of deforestation – namely, the massive commercial development schemes being promoted in the Third World.

Plantations and ranching projects, for example, have laid waste to millions of hectares of forest. In Ethiopia, the Awash Valley has been stripped of its trees to make way for plantations, 60 percent of the land now being under cotton with another 22 percent devoted to sugar. In Central America, cattle ranching is responsible for the clearance of almost two thirds of the forests. In Brazil official government statistics reveal that 60 percent of forest destruction between 1966 and 1975 was caused by large-scale ranching schemes (3,865,271 hectares) and road building (3,075,000 hectares).

Dams too are a cause of massive and irreversible deforestation. In Brazil, the Tucurui project, has flooded some 216,000 hectares of virgin forest. Near Manaus, in north-western Amazonia, the Balbina dam will flood 2,346 square kilometres. All told, the dams planned for Amazonia are expected to flood an area the size of Montana, much of it forest.

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