Deforestation often shunted to highlands
Carbon-centric conservation programs, such as REDD+ (Reduce CO2 Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), seek to lower greenhouse gas emissions by preventing forest loss through protection of certain areas of forest that have high carbon content. This is determined by estimating the aboveground woody biomass, which is, basically, how thick the tree cover is. In the process, these programs tout that they’re also preserving vital wildlife habitat.
However, a study published this week in mongabay.com’s journal Tropical Conservation Science, found tree cover does not necessarily correlate with habitat importance. It suggests that using such a metric may be leading to false assumptions of habitat importance, and that REDD+ and other carbon-centric conservation programs may actually be propelling some species towards extinction.
“Indeed, since the carbon stocks and species richness of forests are not equally distributed across the world, “carbon-centric” conservation programs, such as REDD+, that are based foremost on avoiding CO2 emissions from deforestation, could actually increase rates of species loss,” the study states.
While more sparsely populated and with overall less biomass than lowland forests, highlands such as those in the Andes are important habitat and are home to many species found nowhere else in the world. Photo by Paolo Costa Baldi.
The researchers, from various institutions in Colombia and the U.S., conducted their study in Antioquia, Colombia, an area comprised of diverse habitats from lowland tropical forest to Andean alpine highlands. They measured the number of plant species in a variety of these habitats to check if, as carbon-centric wisdom would have it, more plant biodiversity is found in lowland areas. They also calculated the amounts of potential carbon loss, carbon emissions, and species loss and extinction of these habitats.
The team found that reduced deforestation of lusher lowland habitats due to protections from carbon-centric programs often just displaced deforestation to sparser highland habitats. They also found that highland habitats had high numbers of endemic species — species found nowhere else in the world — that could face serious potential threats from deforestation.
“Given the resultant increase in deforestation in the low-biomass highland areas and the high proportion of endemic species that inhabit these montane forests, we predict that a carbon-centric strategy that does not markedly reduce the total extent of deforestation could therefore actually have an overall negative effect on species diversity,” the authors write.
The researchers acknowledge the success of REDD+ and other carbon-centric programs in reducing overall emissions from deforestation by focusing on areas with high biomass. However, they suggest these programs should be more comprehensive when evaluating areas considered for protection, as well as updating the way they determine species richness.
“Given that a major rationale for curbing anthropogenic-mediated global climate change is to preserve and maintain species diversity, conservation programs must explicitly incorporate values of species diversity into policies and practices,” the study states.
- Duque, A., Feeley, K. J., Cabrera, A., Callejas, R. and Idarraga, A. 2014. The dangers of carbon-centric conservation for biodiversity: a case study in the Andes. Tropical Conservation Science Vol.7 (2): 178-191
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