Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Phillip Fearnside
Pasture meets gallery forest in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
How much is a forest really worth? And what is the cost of forest degradation? These values are difficult to estimate, but according to Dr. Phillip Fearnside, we need to do a better job.
For nearly forty years, Fearnside has lived in Amazonia doing ecological research, looking at the value of forests in terms of environmental or ecosystem services such as carbon storage, water cycling, and biodiversity preservation. Fearnside then works to convert these services into a basis for sustainable development for rural populations.
Philip Fearnside. Photo courtesy of Philip Fearnside.
“The idea of ‘environmental services’ was certainly radical and innovative when this started out, but now it is a household word. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before this substitutes for forest destruction here,” Fearnside told mongabay.com.
Fearnside also feels we need to improve our ability to estimate forest degradation. Degradation, or the gradual destruction of forests caused by edge effects, climate change, and infrastructure projects has received less attention from scientific and environmental groups than outright deforestation.
“The ability to estimate the effect of specific infrastructure projects and policy decisions is essential,” Fearnside said. “Most of what has been done on deforestation deals with region-wide trends, but it is the effect of specific projects that counts most.”
To this end Fearnside says one area that has received too much attention and funding is restoring degraded lands over avoiding deforestation in the first place.
“The advantage of recuperating degraded areas is that everyone is in favor of it, whereas avoiding deforestation must buck powerful economic interests…The financial cost of recuperating a hectare of degraded land is much higher than the cost of avoiding the loss of a hectare of native forest, and the benefit in terms of biodiversity, water and carbon is much less.”
Fearnside has authored over 490 professional publications focused on problems of environment and development. In 2006 he was identified by Thompson-ISI as the world’s second most-cited scientist on the subject of global warming. In 2012 he was identified as the world’s seventh most-cited scientist in the area of sustainable development.
Currently, Fearnside is a permanent resident of Brazil and a research professor at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. PHILLIP FEARNSIDE
Mongabay: What is your background?
Phillip Fearnside: I am a research professor at INPA (National Institute for Research in Amazonia) in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. I am an ecologist with a PhD is in biological sciences from the University of Michigan advised by Dan Janzen and John Vandermeer. The thesis was on estimation of human carrying capacity on Brazil’s Transamazon Highway.
Mongabay: How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is the focus of your work?
Amazon rainforest in Peru. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Phillip Fearnside: I have been in Brazilian Amazonia for 38 years (two on the Transamazon Highway plus 36 at INPA). Before that I worked on reservoirs in India for two years. I have also published on shorter studies in China, Indonesia and Peru.
Mongabay: Are you personally involved in any projects or research that represent emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?
Phillip Fearnside: For almost three decades now my work has been organized around making the value of the environmental services of Amazonia into an alternative basis to support the rural population here. The idea of “environmental services” was certainly radical and innovative when this started out, but now it is a household word. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before this substitutes for forest destruction here. I am head of one of Brazil’s “national institutes of science and technology”(which are really big projects rather than an institutions) titled “Environmental Services of Amazonia.” This involves estimating the environmental costs of forest destruction (and thereby the value of avoiding it). Most of the data relates to greenhouse-gas emissions, but the costs involve other services such as water cycling and biodiversity maintenance. Modeling the impact of major infrastructure projects, such as highways and dams, is part of this, as well as the benefits of creating and maintaining various kinds of protected areas.
Mongabay: What do you see at the next big idea or emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation? And why?
Phillip Fearnside: Much more attention needs to be given to forest degradation, as by logging, fires and edge effects. Almost everyone (including myself) has been concentrating on outright deforestation instead.
The ability to estimate the effect of specific infrastructure projects and policy decisions is essential. Most of what has been done on deforestation deals with region-wide trends, but it is the effect of specific projects that counts most. Politicians and decision makers may be all in favor of reducing deforestation in general, but when it comes to foregoing a specific highway or dam the reaction is very different!
Quantifying Amazonian deforestation effects needs to have much more effort on water cycling, which affects rainfall in places like São Paulo (now in the throes of a major drought, even without Amazonian deforestation having advanced to the point that the large transfers of water vapor from the region are affected).
Work needs to be done to clear up the conflicting estimates of the level of threat that climate change poses to Amazon forest. Models agree that Amazonia will be hotter and drier and that the air will have more CO2, but how this will affect the forest is not a matter of agreement. The consequences of getting it wrong could be substantial.
Mongabay: In regards to conservation, is there anything you feel is NOT working (or not working well) that continues to get a lot of attention and support?
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Phillip Fearnside: Recuperating degraded areas in Amazonia fits this description. The advantage of recuperating degraded areas is that everyone is in favor of it, whereas avoiding deforestation must buck powerful economic interests. Opportunities to create protected areas are quickly disappearing because the difficulty of creating these areas increases rapidly as human occupation advances. The financial cost of recuperating a hectare of degraded land is much higher than the cost of avoiding the loss of a hectare of native forest, and the benefit in terms of biodiversity, water and carbon is much less. Since the funds available for environmental actions are always limited and insufficient, money spent on recuperating degraded lands implies less for avoiding deforestation.
(03/26/2014) Just days before Myanmar, also known as Burma, implements a ban on exporting raw logs, the Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA) has released a new report that captures the sheer scale of the country’s illegal logging crisis. According to the EIA, new data shows that 72 percent of logs exported from Myanmar between 2000-2013 were illegally harvested.
(03/21/2014) Dr. Kinari Webb has a superpower: the ability to provide high-quality health care in a remote and rural landscape. And she uses her power not only to save lives, but also to protect the remaining Bornean rainforests. Twenty-one years ago, Kinari Webb traveled to Borneo to work with orangutans. She witnessed the faltering health of both the people and the environment and saw that the two issues were inseparable. When families must choose between the health of their children and the health of the forest that supports them, everyone loses. But in the region of Gunung Palung National Park — where an estimated 10 percent of the world’s orangutans live — illegal logging and slash and burn farming methods paid the bills and locals saw few alternatives. Kinari vowed to study medicine and return with more to offer.
(03/17/2014) Not yet 30, Paul Rosolie has already lived a life that most would only dare dream of—or have nightmares over, depending on one’s constitution. With the Western Amazon as his panorama, Rosolie has faced off jaguars, wrestled anacondas, explored a floating forest, mentored with indigenous people, been stricken by tropical disease, traveled with poachers, and hand-reared a baby anteater. It’s no wonder that at the ripe age of 26, Rosolie was already written a memoir: Mother of God.
(03/16/2014) Environmentalists and scientists raised howls of protest when the Santo Antônio and Jirau Dams were proposed for the Western Amazon in Brazil, claiming among other issues that the dams would raise water levels on the Madeira River, potentially leading to catastrophic flooding. It turns out they may have been right: last week a federal Brazilian court ordered a new environmental impact study on the dams given suspicion that they have worsened recent flooding in Brazil and across the border in Bolivia.
(03/12/2014) A new online tool, dubbed ForestDefender, aims to help indigenous people understand and implement their rights in regard to forests. The database, developed by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), brings together vast amounts of legal information—both national and international—on over 50 countries.
(03/11/2014) In 2006, Mexico intensified its security strategy, forming an inhospitable environment for drug trafficking organizations (also known as DTOs) within the nation. The drug cartels responded by creating new trade routes along the border of Guatemala and Honduras. Soon shipments of cocaine from South America began to flow through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC). This multi-national swathe of forest, encompassing several national parks and protected areas, was originally created to protect endangered species, such as Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and jaguar (Panthera onca), as well as the world’s second largest coral reef. Today, its future hinges on the world’s drug producers and consumers.
(03/10/2014) Two scientists are calling on researchers, NGOs, and governments to begin studying the impact of burning forests and peatlands in Indonesia on the already-threatened marine ecosystems of Southeast Asia. Every year, Indonesian farmers set forests, vegetation, and peatlands alight to clear them for agriculture, often palm oil, and pulp and paper plantations. Not only do these practices destroy hugely-diverse tropical forests, but the resulting haze spreads to many parts of Southeast Asia, threatening regional health and impacting economies. Now, a new paper argues that the sinister impacts of Indonesia’s burning may extend as far as the oceans.
(03/07/2014) Is it possible to equitably divide the planet’s resources between human and non-human societies? Can we ensure prosperity and rights both to people and to the ecosystems on which they rely? In the island archipelago of Indonesia, these questions become more pressing as the unique ecosystems of this global biodiversity hotspot continue to rapidly vanish in the wake of land conversion (mostly due to palm oil, poor forest management and corruption. For 22 years, Dr. Erik Meijaard has worked in Indonesia. Now, from his home office in the capitol city, Jakarta, he runs the terrestrial branch of an independent conservation consultancy, People and Nature Consulting International (PNCI).
(03/06/2014) A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (PNAS) points to the homogenization of global diets over the past
fifty years. It shows that worldwide production of traditional staples
such as millet, rye, sorghum, yams and cassava have been in decline.
Instead, the world’s population increasingly relies on a relatively
small number of ‘megacrops’ like wheat, corn and soy, raising
serious concerns for global food security, human nutrition, and the
genetic diversity of crops.
(03/04/2014) Europe is failing to fully enforce its one-year-old EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), alleges Greenpeace, with illegally-logged wood still slipping into the continent, especially from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
(03/03/2014) In the Western Amazon—arguably the world’s most biodiverse region—scientists have found that not only is the forest super-rich in species, but also in chemicals. Climbing into the canopy of thousands of trees across 19 different forests in the region—from the lowland Amazon to high Andean cloud forests—the researchers sampled chemical signatures from canopy leaves and were surprised by the levels of diversity uncovered.