The year in rainforests

/ Rhett A. Butler

2012 was another year of mixed news for the world's tropical forests. This is a look at some of the most significant tropical rainforest-related news stories for 2012. There were many other important stories in 2012 and some were undoubtedly overlooked in this review. If you feel there's something we missed, please feel free to highlight it in the comments section. Also please note that this post focuses only on tropical forests.


Rainforest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

2012 was another year of mixed news for the world’s tropical forests. This is a look at some of the most significant tropical rainforest-related news stories for 2012.

There were many other important stories in 2012 and some were undoubtedly overlooked in this review. If you feel there’s something we missed, please feel free to highlight it in the comments section.

Also please note that this post focuses only on tropical forests.

Science on the impacts of deforestation and the effects of climate change on forests

Research published in 2012 provided a better understanding of tropical deforestation’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Two studies — one published in Science and the other published in Nature Climate Change, concluded that while deforestation now accounts for a lower share of global emissions relative to the late 1990s, it still represents roughly 10 percent of gross emissions. Estimates of emissions from deforestation, forest fires, and peatlands degradation remain highly contentious.

Several papers published in 2012 raised disturbing questions about the health of tropical forests worldwide. In January, a review published in Nature warned that deforestation, forest degradation, and the effects of climate change are weakening the resilience of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem, potentially leading to loss of carbon storage and changes in rainfall patterns and river discharge. That warning was echoed by a December Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study that found the effects of the massive 2005 Amazon drought persisted longer than previously believed, raising questions about the world’s largest tropical forest to cope with the expected impacts of climate change.

Meanwhile other research came to similar conclusions about forests outside the Amazon. A paper published in July in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences painted a grim future for Borneo’s forests. A Nature study that assessed the specific physiological effects of drought on 226 tree species at 81 sites in different biomes around the world found that forests worldwide are at ‘equally high risk’ to die-off from drought conditions, suggesting that large swathes of the world’s forests — and the services they afford — may be approaching a tipping point.

Rainforest logging debate

The debate over the sustainability of selective logging in the tropics continued in 2012. A commentary published in January in the journal Biological Conservation argued that harvest rates in tropical rainforests currently exceed the capacity of forests to regenerate timber stocks and substantially increase the risk of outright clearing for agricultural and industrial plantations. That paper was shortly followed by an article by one the co-authors in New Scientist magazine that warned of a decline in the world’s biggest trees. In the article, researcher William F. Laurance said that the loss of the oldest trees has detrimental impacts on climate, biodiversity, and forest ecology.

These arguments were partly countered by an extensive review published in the May issue of Conservation Letters, which made the case that well-managed selective logging in tropical forests should be considered a “middle way” between forest protection and outright destruction for monoculture plantations, agriculture, or livestock ranches. However a commentary published in Bioscience argued that the ecology of tropical hardwoods makes truly sustainable logging not only impractical, but unprofitable. The Bioscience said that industrial logging be excluded from subsidies under the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program.

While the academics debated, the Malaysian state of Sabah continued to move serve as a testing ground for tropical forest management. Its forests decimated by unsustainable logging from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, Sabah has been setting aside high conservation value forests — both logged and unlogged — in protected areas

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