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Amazon or Bust!

July 1, 2011
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Rain Forests – going, going, gone?

This is a news editorial I wrote recently, which applies to our upcoming week…. food for thought!

Destroying a tropical rain forest and other species-rich ecosystems for profit is like burning all the paintings of the Louvre to cook dinner.
— E.O. Wilson

Climbing the great kapok tree

Great Kapok Tree at our Amazon site

Brazil’s environmental minister Izabella Teixeira recently announced that, during March-April 2011, logging in the Amazon rose 473% from last year. With new satellite technologies, detailed changes in land use can be monitored with greater accuracy. Most of the clearing occurred in Mato Grosso, a Brazilian state dominated by soybean farming. In other news, a major hydroelectric power plant was approved in the Amazon basin, affecting the fate of tens of thousands of indigenous people, millions of species inhabiting these forest canopies, and further shrinking/fragmenting South America’s tropical rain forests.
Viewed from space, Earth’s tropical rain forests form a green necklace around the equator, with three significant emeralds: northern South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. These three regions of tropical rain forest provide key aspects of global water and carbon cycles, ecosystem services for humans living nearby, and home to an estimated half of all species on Earth. But Brazil is not unique in its rates of deforestation. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), an estimated 80% of original forests are now gone, with a whopping 50% loss since the beginning of the 20th century. Only 1200 million acres (or just over 3 million square miles) remain. Some countries like Madagascar and Ethiopia have lost over 95% of their forests, whereas Surinam and Guyana still have over 90% original forest cover. An estimated 20% of American and European timber imports were illegally harvested, so corruption exists at both ends of the trade.

In addition to the enormity of human threats to tropical rain forests, climate change poses an even greater risk. Between 2003 and 2006, over 20,000 flying foxes died of heat stroke in Australian rain forests, when temperatures soared to 42 degrees Centigrade, nearly 8 degrees higher than average. In montane rain forests, animals are moving to higher elevations, seeking cooler climates; but some of them have reached the top of the mountain, with no further retreat from warming trends. Hundreds of species may be extinct in the next few decades, victims of warmer and drier climates in the tropics. Although climate change is often linked with polar ecosystems due to the clear trends of melting ice, the impacts on tropical rain forests are equally serious and threatening to life on earth.

To combat its rapidly accelerating rain forest clearing, Brazil has set up a crisis center with 700 agents and police officers dedicated to combating illegal forest practices. But these measures only tackle the problem after the fact. A bigger challenge remains: how to create a new paradigm for conservation so that political will shifts to save forests? One notion is to create economic incentives for ecotourism, carbon credits, and better controls on US timber imports. Another idea involves the creation of sustainable harvests from tropical forests such as orchids, iguana, and butterfly farming. But ultimately, conservation initiatives require political will. As it currently stands, the system is broken. Can a new generation of leaders create innovative policies that link economics, ecology, and social services? It needs to happen yesterday. If business as usual continues, most tropical rain forests will be gone when our grandchildren grow up.

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