|Saving What Remains|
Chapter 10: SOLUTIONS:
How to Save Tropical Rainforests
Today tropical rainforests 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 percent 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.
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.
Historic approaches to rainforest conservation have failed, as demonstrated by the 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.
Countries with significant rainforest cover are generally among the world's poorest. 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 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 to come up with a long-term plan to ensure that 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 the long-term nature of the benefits that conservation can generate on a sustainable, ongoing basis.
Forces behind rainforest loss
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, activities like 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 will need to take the very different needs and interests of these groups into account.
Poor farmers are simply trying to put food on the table for their families. A better approach to addressing the needs of the rural poor may be improving and intensifying currently existing agricultural projects and promoting alternative cultivation techniques—notably permaculture. Permaculture adds a mix of crops to the farmer's palette that both enables him to diversify his income stream and enhance degraded soils by restoring nutrients. An added benefit of such techniques is that they maintain forest systems, soils, and biological diversity at a far higher level than do conventional agricultural approaches. As long as such fields are adjacent to secondary and old-growth forest, many species will continue to thrive.
A second important part of aiding poor farmers is helping them gain formal title to their land. Right now, in places where it is difficult to gain ownership rights to land and where land is relatively open and abundant, there is little incentive to maintain or improve holdings. Once local people have a stake in the land they are farming, they will have an interest in using it efficiently instead of moving on to a new area of forest once soils are prematurely exhausted.
The creation of credit facilities for poor farmers to both save their earnings and borrow in times of need is also important to improving their quality of life. Micro-credit facilities can provide significant economic benefits to the local economy while bringing dignity to and promoting entrepreneurship among local people.
Finally, improved access to markets is important in enabling farmers to get their agricultural products. Improved access can be a doubled-edged sword if it means increased road-building, which often spurs further deforestation. Any infrastructure improvements should be carefully planned to minimize the future impact on remaining ecosystems.
Thus far it has proved difficult to apply the same permaculture agricultural techniques mentioned above to industrial operations. As currently practiced, large-scale agriculture is typically quite destructive of native ecosystems and does not maintain biodiversity at levels commensurate with adjacent forest areas. Incremental steps like the use of natural pest control and fertilizers can help reduce pollution caused by agricultural operations, while leaving strips of forest as corridors linking sections of forest helps moderate biodiversity losses.
Sustainable logging, while possible, has met resistance from the timber industry for its lack of efficiency relative to traditional harvesting methods, and it remains controversial among conservationists as to the impact on the environment. Illegal logging and counterfeit labeling are major obstacles facing sustainable forest management for timber, but in time the development of higher yielding timber plantations will help alleviate pressures on natural forests.
There is no use bemoaning past deforestation of large areas. Today the concern is how to best utilize lands already cleared so they support productive activities, now 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 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
Simply banning the timber trade or establishing reserves will not be enough to 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 about 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 percent of the world's remaining forests are protected, meaning that over 90 percent are still open for the taking. However, even this 6 percent 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.
[full photo version]
Continued: Saving Rainforests Through Sustainable Development—Agriculture
Bibliographic citation for this page
Other pages in this section:
|what's new | rainforests home | help support the site | madagascar | search | about | contact|
Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005