Earth Policy Institute: Shrinking Forests — The Many Costs

more deforestationForest Trends, a nongovernmental organization consisting of industry and conservation groups, estimates that at the current rate of logging, the natural forests in Indonesia and Myanmar will be gone within a decade or so. Those in Papua New Guinea will last 16 years. Those in the Russian Far East, vast though they are, may not last much more than 20 years.

Forest losses from clearing land for farming and ranching, usually by burning, are concentrated in the Brazilian Amazon, the Congo Basin, and Borneo. After having lost 93 percent of its Atlantic rainforest, Brazil is now destroying the Amazon rainforest. This huge forest, roughly the size of Europe, was largely intact until 1970. Since then, close to 20 percent has been lost.

Africa’s Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, spans 10 countries. Like the Amazon rainforest, it is also under assault, primarily from loggers, miners, and farmers. This 190-million-hectare rainforest—home to 400 species of mammals, including the world’s largest populations of gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and forest elephants—is shrinking by 1.6 million hectares a year.

The fast-rising demand for palm oil led to an 8-percent annual expansion in the palm plantation area in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) between 1998 and 2003. In Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, growth in oil palm plantings is higher, at over 11 percent. Now that palm oil is emerging as a leading biodiesel fuel, growth in oil palm cultivation will likely climb even faster. The near-limitless demand for biodiesel now threatens the remaining tropical forests in Borneo and elsewhere.

Haiti, a country of 9.6 million people, was once largely covered with forests, but growing firewood demand and land clearing for farming have left forests standing on scarcely 4 percent of its land. First the trees go, then the soil. Once a tropical paradise, Haiti is a case study of a country caught in an ecological/economic downward spiral from which it has not been able to escape. It is a failed state, a country sustained by international life-support systems of food aid and economic assistance.

The biologically rich rainforest of Madagascar, an island country with 18 million people, is following in Haiti’s footsteps. As the trees are cut, either to produce charcoal or to clear land to grow food, the sequence of events is all too familiar. Environmentalists warn that Madagascar could soon become a landscape of scrub growth and sand.

When land is cleared for grazing or farming in the Amazon, the amount of rainfall that runs off and returns to the sea increases, while that which is recycled inland to provide more rainfall is reduced dramatically. The forest begins to dry out, and at some point, the weakened rainforest becomes vulnerable to fire. As the Amazon rainforest weakens, it is approaching a tipping point beyond which it cannot be saved.

A similar situation may be developing in Africa, where deforestation and land clearing are proceeding rapidly as firewood use mounts and as logging firms clear large tracts of virgin forests. As the trees disappear, rainfall runoff increases, depriving the land of the water pumped through trees and into the atmosphere. When the forests disappear, this rainfall declines and crop yields follow.

More and more countries are beginning to recognize the risks associated with deforestation. Among the countries that now have total or partial bans on logging in primary forests are China, New Zealand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Unfortunately, all too often a ban in one country simply shifts the deforestation to others or drives illegal logging.

Image credit: World Resources Institute at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

One comment
  1. David Childs

    I don’t know a whole lot about tropical forests, but this surely is alarming. It’s sad that we have cases like Thailand and Haiti where the short-term economics are put ahead of long-term strategies. There’s nothing that says we can use our forests sustainably and profit…

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