Will we lose our forests?

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Will we lose our forests?

We are losing our oldest forests. Wayne Ellwood explains why and why we need to save the trees.


Loggers cut down trees in Brazil. Brazil is losing more than half-a-million hectares of rainforest every year. © BrazilPhotos.com/Alamy

The Brazilian state of Rondônia is in the centre of the Amazon, between the state of Amazonas to the north and Bolivia to the south.

Fifty years ago, there was thick tropical rainforest in Rondônia. Today, it is one of the most deforested parts of the Brazilian Amazon. 100,000 square kilometres of forest have gone from the state since 1978. Many poor people from the crowded coastal areas came here in the 1970s when roads were built. They came for land and opportunity. First came loggers, who cut the trees. Then settlers came and cleared the remaining trees to plant maize and soy. Finally landowners came and kept cattle. Two-thirds of Brazil’s deforested land is used for cattle. But let’s leave the Amazon and think about São Paulo. It is more than 3,000 kilometres southeast. More than 20 million people live there. São Paulo is Brazil’s economic centre.

Serious drought

The city has a big problem – not enough water. Much of southeast Brazil has the same problem and the country’s second-biggest city, Rio de Janeiro. There have been three years of drought. São Paulo’s reservoirs are nearly empty. Last year, the Cantareira Reservoir, which has water for nine million people, was only five-per-cent full. About 50 million of the country’s 200 million people now live in areas where rainfall is lower than before.

The coast is drying up and the Amazon is drying up. The region has had three very bad droughts in the last 10 years. We think this is because of climate change. By the end of the century it is possible there will be very bad drought in three times the area. And it is possible it will be even faster as carbon dioxide (CO2) from the dead and dying forest will stop rainfall and there will be more drought. This kills more trees and then there will be more carbon dioxide and so on.

Researchers find a direct link between deforestation in the Amazon and drought in São Paulo.


A young boy looks at deforestation in the US Pacific northwest. RooM the Agency/Alamy

Deforestation is slower now but the country is still losing more than 500,000 hectares of jungle every year.

Many Brazilians accept this because their lifestyle is better. They think they should be free to use their resources just as North Americans and Europeans did hundreds of years ago.


Deforestation is very bad for plants and animals, and for people who need forests to live. Forests make it possible for us to live comfortably on Earth. They store carbon, filter air and water and stop floods. They are home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Trees give food and homes and medicines. We think a quarter of modern medicines come from forest plants.

At the time of the Roman Empire, thick forests covered 80 per cent of Europe. In the middle ages forests covered 40 per cent of Europe. By 500 BCE half of England had no forests. Today, the oldest forests in Europe are nearly all gone. In Ireland, for example, there are forests on only one per cent of the land. The same is true in North America. They cleared forests fast in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the end of the 20th century, there were farms and houses in place of many of America’s forests.

Degraded land

For the poor with no land in Rondônia, the chance to have a few hectares from the forest to grow bananas and maize, and have a few chickens and pigs, is more important than the environment. This hides extreme inequality. Brazil has the world’s eighth-biggest economy but there is a very big difference between rich and poor.

Later governments encouraged living and farming in the Amazon. But small farmers are not the main cause of deforestation and they do not get the most from it. After a few years, rain takes away value from the thin tropical soil. The people grow less food. Large landowners and powerful companies buy the degraded land.


It is not surprising that the need to make money from farming and the land affects forests everywhere in the world.

• In Australia, coalmining affects more than a million hectares of forest. In Canada 20 per cent of the forest is given to logging companies, oil and gas, hydro dams and mines.

• There is so much illegal logging by loggers working with corrupt politicians and greedy businesses. In Burma, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, Chinese businesses pay in gold to cut forests on whole mountains and take timber out of Burma’s state of Kachin.

• Papua New Guinea has sold 30 per cent of the country to foreign timber companies. More than 80 per cent of its forests may be gone by 2021.

• In Uganda, tea planters plan to have 250 hectares of the Kafuga Pocket Forest Reserve in the Bwindi National Park. The forest is one of the last homes of the mountain gorilla.

• The need for green fuels is another reason for deforestation. Across Europe, power plants are now burning wood for electricity. They are using trees in Slovakia and Romania. This also endangers forests in the US south from Georgia to the Carolinas.

Zero net deforestation

In many countries, managing tree plantations is now normal. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says 50 million hectares of forests were planted between 2000 and 2010. Unfortunately, these were mostly industrial monocultures – pine, acacia, eucalyptus, rubber and palm. The UN thinks they are natural forests!

This might seem a strange idea. But the UN’s plan is ‘zero net deforestation’ which businesses. It means that they can cut natural forests if they replace them – somewhere, anywhere – with other trees. That’s one reason why big businesses such as Unilever, Bunge and Mondelez International support the idea. But planting trees does not always make a forest. The Mbyá Guaraní people in the Argentine province of Misiones saw their native lapachos and timbós trees replaced by foreign pine trees. Now, they say that their land is a desert of pine trees with no animals, birds or fish.

The other idea from the UN and big business seems simple. Rich countries pay poor countries not to cut down their forests. They save the trees, they save the CO2. The countries (or companies) which pay can have credit for the CO2 emissions saved and they can trade the credits in a global carbon market.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels.

Forests without people

So, rich countries can continue to make more carbon if they can pay poor countries not to cut their trees.

More seriously, the communities who need the forest to live have the biggest problems. Journalist Sam Knight wrote about Papua New Guinea, When money and trees mix, it is normally local people who lose.


Bears in Canada’s northern forest. The forest is 30 per cent of the world’s forests and is threatened by climate change and resource extraction. John E Marriott/Alamy

An NGO study of 24 projects in a number of countries – including Mozambique, Peru, Nigeria and Kenya – found that local groups cannot use forests to support their ways of life. This supports the idea that a “good” forest is a forest without people. And that is a mistake. Our idea of forests without people is wrong. People have always been in forests. Millions of people today need forests to live. And they are the people who can look after the forests best. Recent research supports this idea.

Deforestation rates in community-managed forests are always lower – up to six times lower in forests where local people have legal rights. In the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, where local people look after a quarter of the two-million hectares, deforestation is only 0.02 per cent. In Peru it’s the opposite. There, the government has allowed companies to ignore the rights of local people. They are cutting trees in 75 per cent of the jungle.

Kenya is another country where local people are making a difference. Trees were burned to make charcoal and rainfall went down and there was drought. The local people now look after the forests and today there is more forest and more rain.

People and animals and the earth need forests. That’s why it’s so important now that we protect them.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL:http://newint.org/features/2016/04/01/forests-keynote/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).