Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Natural Systems Under Stress: Shrinking Forests: The Many Costs

In early December 2004, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo “ordered the military and police to crack down on illegal logging, after flash floods and landslides, triggered by rampant deforestation, killed nearly 340 people,” according to news reports. Fifteen years earlier, in 1989, the government of Thailand announced a nationwide ban on tree cutting following severe flooding and the heavy loss of life in landslides. And in August 1998, following several weeks of record flooding in the Yangtze River basin and a staggering $30 billion worth of damage, the Chinese government banned all tree cutting in the upper reaches of the basin. Each of these governments had belatedly learned a costly lesson, namely that services provided by forests, such as flood control, may be far more valuable to society than the lumber in those forests. 6

 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the earth’s forested area was estimated at 5 billion hectares. Since then it has shrunk to just under 4 billion hectares, with the remaining forests rather evenly divided between tropical and subtropical forests in developing countries and temperate/boreal forests in industrial countries. 7

 

Since 1990, the developing world has lost some 13 million hectares of forest a year. This loss of about 3 percent each decade is an area roughly the size of Greece. Meanwhile, the industrial world is actually gaining an estimated 5.6 million hectares of forestland each year, principally from abandoned cropland returning to forests on its own and from the spread of commercial forestry plantations. Thus, net forest loss worldwide exceeds 7 million hectares per year. 8

 

Unfortunately, even these official data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) do not reflect the gravity of the situation. For example, tropical forests that are clearcut or burned off rarely recover. They simply become wasteland or at best scrub forest, yet they still may be counted as “forest” in official forestry numbers. Plantations, too, count as forest area, yet they also are a far cry from the old-growth forest they sometimes replace.

 

The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that of the forests that do remain standing, “the vast majority are no more than small or highly disturbed pieces of the fully functioning ecosystems they once were.” Only 40 percent of the world’s remaining forest cover can be classified as frontier forest, which WRI defines as “large, intact, natural forest systems relatively undisturbed and big enough to maintain all of their biodiversity, including viable populations of the wide-ranging species associated with each type.” 9

 

Pressures on forests continue to mount. Use of firewood, paper, and lumber is expanding. Of the 3.5 billion cubic meters of wood harvested worldwide in 2005, just over half was used for fuel. In developing countries, fuelwood accounts for nearly three fourths of the total. 10

 

Deforestation to supply fuelwood is extensive in the Sahelian zone of Africa and the Indian subcontinent. As urban firewood demand surpasses the sustainable yield of nearby forests, the woods slowly retreat from the city in an ever larger circle, a process clearly visible from satellite photographs taken over time. As the circles enlarge, the transport costs of firewood increase, triggering the development of an industry for charcoal, a more concentrated form of energy. March Turnbull writes in Africa Geographic Online: “Every large Sahelian town is surrounded by a sterile moonscape. Dakar and Khartoum now reach out further than 500 kilometers for charcoal, sometimes into neighboring countries.” 11

 

Logging for lumber also takes a heavy toll, as is most evident in Southeast Asia and Africa. In almost all cases, logging is done by foreign corporations more interested in maximizing a one-time harvest than in managing for a sustainable yield in perpetuity. Once a country’s forests are gone, companies move on, leaving only devastation behind. Nigeria and the Philippines have both lost their once-thriving tropical hardwood export industries and are now net importers of forest products. 12

 

Perhaps the most devastating development affecting the earth’s remaining natural forests in this new century is the explosive growth of the wood products industry in China, now supplying the world with furniture, flooring, particle board, and other building materials. In supplying domestic and foreign markets, China has gone on a logging orgy outside its borders, often illegally, to procure logs from Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Siberia. And now Chinese logging firms are moving into the Amazon and the Congo Basin. 13

 

In a landmark article in April 2007, Washington Post reporters Peter Goodman and Peter Finn described how the Chinese went after one of the world’s few remaining natural stands of teak across the border in Myanmar. They reported that a Chinese logging boss “handed a rice sack stuffed with $8,000 worth of Chinese currency to two agents with connections in the Burmese borderlands....They used that stash to bribe everyone standing between the teak and China. In came Chinese logging crews. Out went huge logs, over Chinese-built roads.” 14

 

Forest 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. 15

 

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. 16

 

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. 17

 

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. 18

 

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. 19

 

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. 20

 

While deforestation accelerates the flow of water back to the ocean, it also can reduce the recycling of rainfall inland. Some 20 years ago two Brazilian scientists, Eneas Salati and Peter Vose, pointed out in Science that when rainfall coming from clouds moving in from the Atlantic fell on healthy Amazon rainforest, one fourth of the water ran off and three fourths evaporated into the atmosphere to be carried further inland to provide more rainfall. When land is cleared for grazing or farming, however, the amount that runs off and returns to the sea increases while that which is recycled inland falls alarmingly. 21

 

Ecologist Philip Fearnside, who has spent his career studying the Amazon, observes that agriculturally prominent south-central Brazil depends on water that is recycled inland via the Amazon rainforest. As more and more land is cleared for grazing and farming, the forest begins to dry out. At some point, the weakened rainforest becomes vulnerable to fire as lightning strikes. As the Amazon rainforest weakens, it is approaching a tipping point beyond which it cannot be saved. 22

 

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. In Malawi, a country of 14 million people in East Africa, forest cover has shrunk by nearly a quarter since the early 1970s, a loss of up to 1 million hectares. The cutting of trees to produce charcoal and to cure tobacco is leading to a sequence of events paralleling that in Haiti. 23

 

As the trees disappear, rainfall runoff increases and the land is deprived of the water from evapotranspiration. Consulting hydrogeologist Jim Anscombe notes: “Driven by energy from the sun, the trees pump water from the water table, through the roots, trunk and leaves, up into the atmosphere through the process of transpiration. Collectively the forest pumps millions of liters of water daily to the atmosphere.” Given the local climate conditions, this evapotranspiration translates into summer rainfall, helping to sustain crops. When the forests disappear, this rainfall declines and crop yields follow. 24

 

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. 25

 

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