Conservation news

Another look at global rainforest conservation




Another look at global rainforest conservation


Another look at global rainforest conservation
Are rainforests still in need of saving?
Editorial
Rhett Butler, mongabay.com
April 19, 2005

With Earth Day approaching it is appropriate to take another look at conservation efforts in the world’s tropical rainforests, which today are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. World rainforest cover now stands at around 2.5 million square miles (6 million square kilometers), an area about the size of the contiguous 48 United States or Australia and representing around 5% of the world’s land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.

Deforestation of tropical rainforests has a global impact through species extinction, the loss of important ecosystem services and renewable resources, and the reduction of carbon sinks. However, this destruction can be slowed, stopped, and in some cases even reversed. Most people agree that the problem must be remedied, but the means are not as simple as fortifying fences around the remaining rainforests or banning the timber trade. Economic, political, and social pressures will not allow rainforests to persist if they are completely closed off from use and development

So, what should be done? The solution must be based on what is feasible, not overly idealistic, and depends on developing a new conservation policy built on the principle of sustainable use and development of rainforests. Beyond the responsible development of rainforests, efforts to rehabilitate and restore degraded forest lands along with the establishment of protected areas are key to securing rainforests for the long-term benefits they can provide mankind.

Past efforts




Rainforest in Honduras

Historic approaches to rainforest conservation have failed as demonstrated by accelerated rate of deforestation. In many regions, closing off forests as untouchable parks and reserves has neither improved the quality of living or economic opportunities for rural poor nor deterred forest clearing by illegal loggers and developers. Corruption has only worsened the situation.

The problem with this traditional park approach to preserving wildlands in developing countries is that it fails to generate sufficient economic incentives for respecting and maintaining the forest. Rainforests will only continue to survive as functional ecosystems if they can be shown to provide tangible economic benefits. Local people and the government itself must see financial returns to justify the costs of maintaining parks and forgoing revenue from economic activities within the boundaries of the protected area.

Limited resources

Countries with significant rainforest cover are generally among the world’s poorest countries. As such, people’s day to day survival is dependent upon natural resource use. Most local people living in and around forests never have an option to become a doctor, sports star, factory worker, or secretary; they must live off the land that surrounds them making use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty costs themselves, their country and the world through the loss of the biodiversity and ecosystem services like erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, and fisheries protection.

Governments in these countries are in the unenviable position of having to balance the well-being of rural poor with the interests of industry, demands from foreign governments, and requirements from the international aid community. In this climate, it can be easier to simply neglect the continued destruction and degradation of environmental assets than come up with a long-term plan that ensures economic development is ecologically sustainable. Success in conserving wildlands in these countries will require reconciling the inevitable conflicts between short-term needs of local people and long-term nature of the benefits that conservation can generate on sustainable ongoing basis.

Forces behind rainforest loss




Deforested landscape of Madagascar

Rainforests are being cut mostly for economic reasons, though there are political and social motivations as well. A significant portion of deforestation is caused by poor farmers simply trying to eke out a living on marginal lands. Beyond conversion for subsistence agriculture, logging, clearing for cattle pasture and commercial agriculture are sizeable contributors to deforestation on a global scale. Agricultural fires typically used for land-clearing are increasingly spreading outside cultivated areas and into degraded rainforest regions.

Addressing deforestation

Addressing deforestation will need to take the very different needs and interests of these groups into account.

Restoring and rehabilitating ecosystems


There is no use bemoaning past deforestation of large areas of forest. Today the concern is how to best utilize lands already cleared so they support productive activities today and for future generations. Without improving the well-being of people living in and around forests, we cannot expect rainforests to persist as fully functional systems and continue to cater to our needs.

In addressing environmental problems in rainforest countries it is important that decision makers not only be concerned with the transformation of existing natural ecosystems, but also the more rational utilization of already cleared and degraded areas. To lessen future forest loss we must increase and sustain the productivity of farms, pastures, plantations, and scrub-land in addition to restoring species and ecosystems to degraded habitats. By reducing wasteful land-use practices, consolidating gains on existing cleared lands, and improving already developed lands we can diminish the need to clear additional forest.

Research and experience has shown that the restoration of entire ecosystems is most possible in regions where parts or at least remnants of the original forest still remain and there are few human population pressures. Small clearings surrounded by forest recover quickly and large sections may recover in time especially if some assistance in the reforestation process is provided. After several years, a once barren field can once again support vegetation in the form of pioneer species and secondary growth. Although the secondary forest will be low in diversity and poorly developed, the forest cover will be adequate for some species to return (assuming they still exist). In addition, the newly forested patch can be used for the sustainable harvest of forest products and low intensity logging and agriculture.

Funding rainforest conservation efforts

Conservation efforts and sustainable development programs are not going to be cost free. Even countries that already get considerable aid from foreign donors have trouble effectively making such initiatives work in the long term. Since handouts, which in and of themselves have the tendency to breed dependency, are not going to last forever, funding these initiatives may require more creative sources of income to be truly successful. Here are some other funding strategies for consideration

Further steps once funding is in place

Looking toward the future, tough choices




Woolly monkey in Brazil

Simply banning the timber trade or establishing reserves will not be enough the salvage the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. In order for the forest to be preserved, the underlying social, economic, and political reasons for deforestation must be recognized and addressed. Once the issues are brought into the light, the decision can be made what should be done. If it is decided that rainforests must be saved, then the creation of multi-use reserves that promote sustainable development and education of local people would be a good place to start. Currently about 6% of the world’s remaining forests are protected, meaning that over 90% are still open for the taking. However, even this 6% is not safe if the proper steps towards sustainable development are not taken. If possible, reforestation and restoration projects should be encouraged if we, humanity, hope to come out of this situation without serious, long-term consequences.


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