Rainforests face myriad of threats says leading Amazon scholar
But there are reasons to be optimistic adds biologist William F. Laurance
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
October 16, 2006
An interview with tropical biologist William F. Laurance
William F. Laurance
Understanding these threats is key to preserving forests and their ecological services for current and future generations. William F. Laurance, a distinguished scholar and president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) -- the world's largest scientific organization dedicated to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems, is at the forefront of this effort. Laurance, who as a senior staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has spent years studying the ecological impacts of habitat fragmentation and degradation in tropical forests, is actively involved in conservation efforts and development policy in the Amazon and central Africa. In this capacity, Laurance recently advocated an innovative strategy to compensate developing countries for conserving their rainforests while helping fight global climate change.
Laurance is also co-editor of Emerging Threats to Tropical Forests. Released on October 1, 2006, the book chronicles the threat facing the world's most biodiverse ecosystems.
In October 2006 I spoke with Laurance about his latest work and the outlook for tropical rainforests.
Rhett A Butler (Mongabay): What are the greatest threats to tropical forests over the coming generation?
William F. Laurance: I'd say the biggest threats are the massive ongoing expansion of agriculture, logging, and transportation infrastructure (such as roads, highways, and railroads). These changes are being largely driven by rapid population growth in many developing countries, by increasing industrialization in the developing world, and by a striking increase in economic globalization and international markets. Of course, global and regional climate changes could also become very important in the near future.
Mongabay: A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study published last month said that in parts of the Amazon the amount of land cleared for agriculture is surpassing deforestation for pasture -- traditionally the leading cause of Amazonian deforestation. How significant is large-scale agriculture in Amazon deforestation? Is it increasing? Do you believe the new emphasis on biofuels (i.e. those derived from soybeans and oil palm) will put further pressure on the world's forests?
Laurance: Soy farming is having a huge impact in the Amazon right now, for three reasons. First, industrial soy farmers are themselves clearing a lot of forest. Second, soy farmers are buying up large expanses of cleared land from slash-and-burn farmers and cattle ranchers, and the displaced farmers and ranchers often just move further out into the forest, maintaining a lot of pressure on frontier areas. Finally, the soy farmers are a very powerful political lobby that is pushing for major expansion of roads, highways, river-channelization projects, and other transportation that will criss-cross large expanses of the Amazon. This infrastructure is acting like Pandora's box--it is opening up the frontier to spontaneous, unplanned colonization and exploitation by ranchers, farmers, hunters, and illegal gold miners.
Mongabay: With the caveat that predicting the long-term effects of climate change is difficult, how will a warmer world impact tropical forest cover? Will places like the Congo and Amazon still be recognizable as tropical rainforests?
Laurance: For lowland forests like the Amazon and Congo, future changes in rainfall, which will result from global warming, are likely to be more important than are increasing temperatures. It's very hard to predict how rainfall will change, but a number of leading computer models suggest that some areas of the tropics could become far more prone to droughts than they are at present.
For montane forests, the situation could be very different. Montane areas in the tropics (from 600 to 3000 meters in elevation) contain many, many locally endemic species that are adapted for cool, cloudy upland conditions. As temperatures rise, it is expected that the geographic ranges of many endemic species will shrink and collapse, rendering them far more vulnerable to extinction.
Emerging Threats to Tropical Forests
(University Of Chicago Press, 2006)
Climate change can be mitigated both by protecting old-growth forests, which are being rapidly destroyed, and by promoting forest regeneration or plantations on lands that have already been cleared. Both are important. At present, international agreements such as Kyoto only provide financial mechanisms to promote reforestation or plantations; they don't provide a means to protect old-growth forests. The ATBC, of which I am president, is one of several international organizations that are working hard to develop practical mechanisms, based on carbon-trading, to protect old-growth forests.
The basic idea behind carbon trading to protect existing forests is that developing nations would be paid by industrial nations to reduce their rate of deforestation. The industrial nations would get carbon credits for this, which would help them meet their agreed emissions targets (under Kyoto or other international agreements). The developing nations would get cash in return for agreeing to permanent reductions in their deforestation rate.
In reality, there are a number of practical hurdles that need to be overcome before rainforest-carbon trading becomes feasible, but I won't bore you with all these technical details!
Mongabay: While the details of the plan haven't been fully articulated, what do you think of the British proposal to turn parts of the Amazon into an "international trust" managed by private entities for the purpose of mitigating global warming while safeguarding ecosystem services?
Laurance: This is not realistic politically. Nations like Brazil have reacted very strongly to this suggestion, as one would expect. We must remember that these are sovereign nations, and they do not appreciate ill-conceived suggestions like this, even though the sentiment underlying them is positive.
Mongabay: Many environmentalists think of corporations as enemies of forests or wilderness, but in a 2005 paper you noted that the presence of an oil company in Gabon actually reduced poaching and protected forests in its concession. Is this case an exception? Does business have a role in conservation?
Laurance: In Gabon and also in the Neotropics, we have sometimes found it easier to deal with international corporations, such as Shell Oil, than with local companies, which don't have international investors and don't seem very concerned about public pressures to "clean up their act." In that sense the bigger multinationals--at least those that care about their reputations and market share--may be easier to deal with under some circumstances. However, I don't for a moment think that most corporations aren't being driven by their bottom line--the need to make money. It's just that some companies are more enlightened about how they go about this.
Mongabay: Can conservation ever be profitable or will it always require outside subsidies?
Laurance: In selected cases, such as where ecotourism flourishes, I think it could be profitable. But in most cases I think external funds will be needed to make conservation a reality.
Mongabay: Do you believe ecosystem services will ever be fully valued from an economic perspective by the business world?
Laurance: I think we are already moving in that direction, particularly for carbon storage and sometimes also for watershed protection. It is gratifying to see this, though we still have a very long way to go.
Deforestation in Peru
Laurance: Well, conservationists haven't really succeeded in significantly slowing the rate of tropical deforestation, particularly in Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and many other important areas. And threats to other areas, such as the Congo and New Guinea, are growing.
What's the solution? A tough question. For starters, we need to attack some of the root sources of the problem, such as rapid population growth, the various manifestations of globalization that are impacting forests, and pressures from international donors to accelerate commodity exports as part of their so-called structural adjustment packages. We also need to promote more international support for conservation, as developing nations are still bearing too much of the opportunity costs for foregoing development and promoting conservation.
Mongabay: What advice can you give students wanting to pursue a career in conservation? Are there specific degrees they should consider or is conservation so multi-faceted today that one could approach from a number of different disciplines?
Laurance: I think one can go about this in different ways. One way is to go the science route, another is the multidisciplinary route. Either way, the key is to work overseas and thereby get hands-on experience. The key is to develop long-term expertise in a particular area. Adopt a rainforest, and work to save it!
Mongabay: What can people do here in the United States to help preserve biodiversity both locally and globally?
Laurance: Some conservation organizations, such as the Rainforest Action Network and Rainforest Alliance, are doing very good work. I'd suggest you get involved. Other groups are also very good, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International. All of these groups really need donations to keep their missions going.
Mongabay: You've traveled widely, do you have a favorite place to visit?
Laurance: I'll never forget the New Guinea highlands--a place with one foot in the Stone Age and the other in the 20th Century. Borneo was also amazing, though disappearing at an astonishing pace. And the rainforest of Gabon are wonderful--no better place to see amazing wildlife.
William F. Laurance is staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Laurance has also written Stinging Trees and Wait-a-Whiles: Confessions of a Rainforest Biologist and co-edited Tropical Forest Remnants. His Emerging Threats to Tropical Forests is now available from the University Of Chicago Press.
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