Rain forests: Are they going, going, gone?

July 4, 2011 

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

During March and April, logging in the Amazon rose 473 percent over last year, Brazil's environmental minister Izabella Teixeira recently announced. Most of the clearing occurred in Mato Grosso, a Brazilian state dominated by soybean farming.

A major hydroelectric power plant also was approved in the Amazon basin, affecting tens of thousands of indigenous people, millions of species inhabiting the forest canopies, and further shrinking and fragmenting of 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 forest regions facilitate global water and carbon cycles, and provide ecosystem services for humans living nearby. They are home to an estimated half of all species on Earth.

Brazil is not unique in its rates of deforestation. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, an estimated 80 percent of original forests are now gone, with a whopping 50 percent loss since the beginning of the 20th century. Only 1,200 million acres (or just over 3 million square miles) remain.

Some countries such as Madagascar and Ethiopia have lost more than 95 percent of their forests, whereas Surinam and Guyana still have over 90 percent original forest cover.

In addition to human threats to tropical rain forests, climate change poses an even greater risk. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 20,000 flying foxes died of heat stroke in Australian rain forests when temperatures soared nearly 8 degrees above average.

In montane rain forests (characterized by cloudiness), animals are moving to higher elevations, seeking cooler climates. But some of them have reached the top of the mountain, with no further retreat possible.

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 U.S. timber imports. Another idea involves creating sustainable harvests from tropical forests such as orchids, iguana, and butterfly farming.

But ultimately, conservation requires political will. Can a new generation of leaders create policies that link economics, ecology and social services? If business as usual continues, most tropical rain forests will be gone when our grandchildren grow up.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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