Rainforest – dispatches from Earth’s most vital frontlines

Tony Juniper
Profile Books, London, 2018
Rrp $32.99

Tony Juniper CBE is a prominent and well-known British environmentalist, campaigner, writer and sustainability adviser with numerous prestigious awards and a very extensive c.v.   Juniper joined the staff of Friends of the Earth in 1990 and led their international tropical rainforest campaign, and in 1998, became their Policy and Campaign Director.  In 2008 Juniper was elected Vice Chair of the Friends of the Earth International representing 70 national organizations.  2008-10 he served as Special Adviser with the Prince of Wales Rainforest Project where he worked with representatives from finance and banking targeting big business and governments, scientific bodies and campaign organizations.   Juniper is currently Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Project.  He is considered one of the top ten environmental figures of the last 30 years and “by popular consent the most effective of Britain’s eco-warriors”.   He stood as a candidate for the Greens in Cambridge at the 2010 general election, polling 4th at 7.6%.   

It thus is no surprise to find this impressive book not only has a global perspective but also an appreciation of the many practical difficulties associated with tropical rainforest conservation.  The book is divided into five parts, each with several chapters, beginning with a broad general overview in “Earth’s Most Vital Systems” for those out there who might not appreciate the importance of our planet’s lungs.   

Deforestation is a disaster

It has been estimated that intact and recovering tropical rainforest now remove 1.2 to 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon annually which is about 10-15% of what is required to achieve the 2 degree global warming target.  If deforestation and forest disturbance including logging were stopped and largescale reforestation was successfully undertaken, tropical forests could effectively remove and store a third of what is needed for the 2 degree target.  Juniper writes: “…much of the debate about climate change is concerned about fossil fuels, parts per million of pollution and technology choices.  This sometimes conveys an impression that the Earth’s climate system is a dead entity, a mechanism that can be tinkered with by humans via technology.  This is, however, completely false, for the atmosphere is a living entity, one that is the product of life and fundamentally shaped by ecosystems such as forests.  Juniper’s book aims to redirect our focus away from ourselves and our technology and widen our perspective, albeit with standard anthropocentric arguments, towards a broader ecocentricism.  

Three of the book’s parts are specifically devoted to rainforest issues in the Americas, in Africa, and Asia & the Pacific and problems specific to each of these three areas are discussed.  The section on Africa is the smallest, recognising that the main driver of deforestation is population pressure and small-scale, often subsistence agriculture.  The population of sub-Saharan Africa increased from 179.62 million in 1950 to 808.66 m in 2007, rising to 1,061.11 m in 2017.  With the fastest growing population anywhere in the world, predictions are that it could reach 2.7 billion by 2060.  Presently 1 of every 6 people live in Africa, that proportion is projected to be 1 in 4 by 2050.  By 2100 predictions are that more than a third of people on our planet will somehow be living in Africa.  

The African Explosion

The African population explosion overwhelms its other important rainforest issues such as roads and logging (often a gateway to complete deforestation), poaching and a cultural demand for bush meat including other species of great apes, wood for fuel, corruption, war and poverty.  By 2050 The Gates Foundation Report predicts 86% of the world’s extreme poor will reside in sub-Saharan Africa.

The issues in the Amazon are large-scale clearing for beef and soya production and indigenous rights.  In Asia, transportation programmes, oil palm and wood pulp plantations are major concerns.  Palm oil is now found in approximately half of all packaged products in supermarkets.  Population pressure and financed transportation programmes are significant.  Indonesia’s population in 1950 was 69,543,316.  By 2018 it had risen to 267,865,280 and expected to peak near 2060 at 324.7 million.  Where exports and global enterprises were involved in tropical rainforest deforestation, consumer pressure points were located for vigorous image-driven press campaigns.  Tracing Amazonian soya production to McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets, analysing paper chemically for the presence of indicator rainforest species, linking illegally logged Amazonian mahogany to the slaughter of Amazonian tribes are among the successful media campaigns described in this book.  

Too Many People

Population pressure and clearing by impoverished small farmers are issues which continue to defy solution as they are largely outside the global corporative network.

Ice cores indicate a sharp drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the early 1600s, dropping by about eight parts per million where it remained until the mid-nineteenth century.  This drop in CO2 the author attributes to the depopulation of Africa from the slave trade and the population crash of the native people of the Americas, both resulting in large areas of cultivated land returning back to rainforest.  The author cites estimates of the pre-Columbian Amazonian population at 8 million, devastated by European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and particularly pulmonary diseases where up to 90% of the population succumbed much like the indigenous inhabitants of Australia.  Like Australia’s first people, the Amazonian tribes had a major transformative influence on their environment.  Presently 280-350,000 indigenous people remain in Brazil, 180,000 of these living traditionally.  Indigenous people comprise just .4% of the present Brazil’s population.  Brazil’s population in 1950 was 53,974,729, blowing out to 210,876,954 in 2018 and projected to peak in 2050 at 238.3 million.   

The impact of the structural adjustments resulting from the Third World Debt Crisis and the role of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are well explained, including Indonesia’s transportation programme, privatisation (globalisation), overproduction of commodities and price collapse resulting in further clearing for more production to make ends meet, further dampening prices.

The campaigns to recognise indigenous people’s rights in Brazil have slowed down deforestation.  As a result, about 200,000 indigenous forest dwellers are now ostensibly looking after about 25% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest.  There is widespread concern that recent political developments in Brazil following the election of President Jair Bolsonaro will undermine and reverse efforts to preserve what’s left of its rainforest and reignite deforestation pressures.  

Although pressure has also been successfully applied to Western corporations dealing in commodities associated with rainforest deforestation in an attempt to slow or halt illegal clearing and timber extraction, subsistence farmers are another matter.  

One Good Example

Costa Rica is held up as the shining, if anomalous, model of reforestation and economic progress.  Although its population increased from 1.85 million in 1970 to 4.95 million today, its forest cover of 21% in the 1980’s has increased now to 52%.  Costa Rica is touted as having the world’s highest level of “wellbeing” with a high life-expectancy.  In 1949, Costa Rica uniquely abolished its armed forces and invested those funds in social programmes, health, education and housing.  Tourism, since 1999 has overtaken its export earnings from its three main cash crops; bananas, pineapple and coffee.   This contrasts with other central American countries like Honduras which, between 1990 and 2005 had the highest deforestation rate in Latin America, having lost 37% of what was then left.  By 2013 only 13% of its primary forest remained.  Hundreds of environmentalists have been murdered there in recent decades.  

Forest carbon cycles are complex.  While forests are presented as carbon sinks, wildfires produce 5 – 10% of annual global CO2 emissions.  Fires in the Amazon are becoming larger and more frequent due to drier conditions, more people living in the forest with fire being used to clear land.  Forests that have burnt are more likely to burn again.  Deforestation itself also affects rainfall.  The biotic pump model explains how forests generate rain and also transport moisture westward from the Atlantic in the Amazon basin.  However, drought in the west Amazon is driven by warmer sea temperatures in the north tropical Atlantic.  Global warming is producing a drier Amazon with an increased fire frequency, something which we are presently witnessing in the western U.S. and can expect across broad areas of Australia.  Fires are generally caused by human activities.  

In Sumatra, large-scale clearing for palm-oil and pulp plantations was the primary cause of the disastrous 1997 fires, with small farmers burning forests in peatlands a secondary cause.  In 1997 and 1998, millions of hectares of forest burned during an intense El Nino drought, including rainforests in Brazil, the cloud forest of Chiapas in Mexico, and the rainforests of Borneo.  In 2002 the fires returned.  The pollution index reached 1500, five times the highest danger category.  Even face-masks failed to stop the fine particles of smoke haze entering people’s lungs.  

Temperate Rainforests

Juniper includes a small section on temperate rainforests and the magnificent alerce, Fitzroa cupressoides, of Chile and Argentina which superficially resembles California’s Giant Redwood of the Sierra Nevadas, Sequoiadendron giganteum.  The largest tree species in South America, the largest individual of which, the “Gran Abuelo” from Chile was dated in 1993 at 3,622 years old and is over 60 metres tall with a trunk diameter of 4.26 metres.  In Argentina alerce grows on mountain slopes and lake shores from 300-400 metres with between 2000 and 4000 mm of annual rainfall.  In Chile it receives rainfall up to 6000 mm.  Despite this high rainfall and dense rainforest environment, the alerce is surprisingly dependent on catastrophic fire in order to regenerate stands.  A study in 1999 concluded “the current widespread decline observed among remnant populations may be due in good measure to fire suppression.”  

There are now ambitious plans for reforestation in the Amazon following the Paris agreement, aiming at reforesting 12 million hectares by 2030.  Last November, M. Sanjayan, CEO Conservation International, announced a “breathtakingly audacious project” to reforest 30,000 hectares with 73 million trees by 2023, using a mechanized direct seeding technique.  60 kilos of rainforest seeds (200,000 seeds) are mixed with 100,000 seeds of annuals, perennial legumes and sand.   This mixture is called muvucu and is applied to each hectare at a cost of $2000.  This is the world’s largest tropical reforestation project and is a partnership including Conservational Internationale, the Brazilian Minister for the Environment, Global Environment Facility, Brazilian Biodiversity Fund and the World Bank.   However, this should be viewed in context of the overall trend.  According to World Resources Institute at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum, 15.8 million hectares of tropical tree cover were lost in 2017, the equivalent of 40 football fields of trees every minute for a year.  Losses in Brazil accounted for nearly 30% of the total.   With climate change, fires and storms are playing an increasing role in tree cover loss with almost all fires deliberately lit to clear forests for agricultural pursuits.   

Global Forest Watch was started in 1998 by the World Resources Institute based in Washington D.C.  Vastly empowered during the last ten years by access to NASA’s Landsat archive, Europe’s Sentinel satellite programme and Google’s computing cloud, the 30-metre resolution allows the detection of deforestation.  The Global Land Analysis & Discovery Lab at the University of Maryland provides the first Landsat alert system for loss of tree cover (GLAD Alerts).  All of this is readily available on the web and will be used to evaluate reforestation efforts as well.  

Australia’s deforestation
the worst

It is critically important to note that “tree cover loss” encompasses fires, “sustainable forestry” and plantations, as well as outright deforestation.  Some of these statistics can be misleading.  Tree cover loss in Australia from 2001 to 2017 was 4.2 million hectares.  Between 2001 and 2015, 8.1% of Australia’s tree cover loss resulted in “permanent” deforestation.  World Wildlife Fund put Australia on its list of deforestation fronts, the only developed country on that list.  About 395,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared in Australia 2015-2016, a third more than the previous year.  More than 1500 football fields of woodland and scrub were cleared each day in Queensland.  In the Moree-Collarenebri region of NSW, clearing nearly tripled after the repeal of the NSW Native Vegetation Act.  In this already extensively cleared region with only 6% of it forested and 11% designated sparse woodlands, 8,194 hectares were cleared 2017-2018, including the bulldozing of 14 ha of koala habitat each day.  WWF warns that 3 million hectares of vegetation are likely to be cleared during the next 15 years in Australia.

Climate change requires us to scrutinise tropical deforestation as well as the rampant deforestation in our own backyards, primarily clearing for grazing, agriculture and housing for a Big Australia.  Concerted efforts to preserve the world’s tropical rainforests have failed to halt their meteoric loss, establishing a feedback loop accelerating global warming and drought.  Stopping deforestation and reforesting lost forests are considered the cheapest and best ways to slow down global warming.  

Juniper concludes his book:  “After all, there’s no reason why we must continue to watch the inexorable decline of the tropical rainforests.  We can save most of what is left and put back much of what’s gone, if we want to.”  Note the word “inexorable”.  Paul Kingsnorth may have better explained the situation in his dissertation on problems and predicaments; the former have solutions while the latter don’t.  (Look for his book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”.)

Dr. John Stockard

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