Australia’s ‘Ecological Axis of Evil’ triggers native mammal collapse

Dr Mark Ziembicki of James Cook University in Australia has spent much of the last several years chasing an environmental mystery -- the cause of the dramatic collapse of mammal populations in northern Australia.  Here he gives us an update on an emerging biodiversity crisis:

Across the world, biodiversity is being battered by familiar foes.  Habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive species, and impacts of human development are leading us to what many believe may be the sixth great extinction.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

In contrast to the environmental pressures on other continents, large parts of Australia have undergone only limited modification, and are sparsely settled and remote.  Many areas have substantial nature reserves.

Yet, nonetheless, Australia has the world’s worst record for contemporary mammal extinctions.  One in ten species have disappeared in the last 200 years -- and of those that persist, over a third are now threatened or near threatened.  What’s more, recent analyses suggest the problem is even worse than previously thought.

Greater recent recognition of Australia’s ‘extinction calamity’ and its spread to the tropical north (see here, here and here) has provoked intense interest and stimulated a series of research and management initiatives to study the declines, their causes, and what can be done to halt them.

A new paper I published with a team of coauthors summarizes the research efforts, and assesses the effectiveness of recent conservation-management interventions.

In our view, the loss of Australia’s mammals has been driven primarily by what has been dubbed Australia’s Ecological Axis of Evil -- an unholy trinity comprising the feral cat, altered fire regimes, and grazing impacts.

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Alone, these threats do not explain the declines but there is now some compelling evidence that, when operating in concert, predation by feral cats exacerbated by frequent, intense fires, reduced ground cover from overgrazing, and, in some areas, the control of dingoes are driving the declines.

So what’s to be done?  The demonstration of interacting factors gives conservation managers some options for reducing their impacts.  There are now some examples of rapid recovery of species following threat management.

Priority actions include intensively managing fires, reducing feral livestock in conservation reserves, establishing exclosures to keep feral predators out, enhancing biosecurity for important islands where rare species still persist, and acquiring grazing lands in important mammal areas for conservation purposes.

Despite some progress, we still have much to learn and even more to do, to stop and reverse the devastating declines. 

Equally worrying is that Australia's federal and state governments are planning an ambitious expansion of agriculture, grazing, roads, energy, and irrigation projects in northern Australia.  These developments are likely to intensify threats that have so far been limited in the region, but that have caused much biodiversity loss in other parts of the world.

This is a dangerous time for Australia's biodiversity.  Without effective planning and management actions, a significant component of northern Australia’s mammal fauna could collapse -- contributing further to the continent’s already-woeful record for mammal extinctions.

India's growing environmental crisis

A longstanding ALERT fan, Dr Shaju Thomas from the Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences in India, weighs in here with worries about the future of India's environment:

Indian environments in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Indian environments in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Environmental governance in India has evolved over the last 60 years, via a bevy of Acts, Rules, Bills, Ordinances, and other such legal measures.  Despite growing pressures from various vested interests, these legal acts have clearly helped to save India's environment from even worse deterioration than it has so far suffered.

But the opening up of India to global market forces in the 1990s, and the policies that accompanied it, have created severe challenges for the environment.

A striking example is the appointment of a High Level Committee (HLC) in 2014 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.  The HLC was charged with reviewing major environmental laws in the country, including:

- The Environment Protection Act, 1986

- The Forest Conservation Act, 1980

- The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972

- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974

- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981

- The Indian Forests Act, 1927

The HLC submitted its report in November 2014 -- without giving enough time for public discourse. 

The biggest problem with the report that it oversteps its mandate.  The HLC wants to get rid of time-consuming procedures for approval of development projects.  It wants to introduce "speed" in project approvals, which it says are the "engines of the nation's growth". 

Further, the HLC is proposing an "Environment Law (Management) Act", as well as more centralized federal and state environmental authorities, which can be more easily controlled.  And the HLC's report has no provision at all to deal with climate change and related issues.

These are all dangerous developments.  The HLC report is a deliberate attempt to derail the legal and policy framework that has evolved over time to protect India's environment. 

Indians need to stand up and be heard.  If its recommendations are adopted, the HLC report will pose great perils for India's environmental future.

The world's two most dangerous environmental trends

What are the two biggest direct threats to our natural world?  One could debate this question endlessly but here are my personal candidates for two recent developments that are especially environmentally perilous:

Growing perils for nature...

Growing perils for nature...

1) The G20's stunning plans for infrastructure expansion

Believe it or not, the leaders of the G20 nations -- the world's 20 largest economies -- committed during their recent global summit in Brisbane, Australia to spend an astonishing 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030

This staggering sum will come from a variety of sources, such as public-private partnerships, pension funds, bilateral aid, and the major development banks.  This will be the single biggest financial transaction in human history -- and the environmental impacts will be Earth-shaking

Expect massive increases in roads, hydroelectric dams, mining projects, gas lines, and power lines, all across the planet.  Such projects will open up many of the world's last surviving wild areas and lead to an avalanche of new development pressures.

2) The rise of the Chinese and Brazilian development banks

An equally alarming trend is that the nature of infrastructure funding is changing. 

Large funding bodies such as the World Bank and the African, Asian, and Inter-American Development banks -- which, after many years of bearing criticism, have worked to develop and implement some environmental safeguards -- are increasingly being supplanted by the heavily funded and far more aggressive Chinese (AIIB) and Brazilian (BNDES) development banks. 

We've previously critiqued BNDES, but the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is, arguably, even worse.

The Chinese and Brazilian banks are funding massive numbers of developments worldwide, and generally place a much lower priority on environmental concerns than do many other infrastructure funders and donors.      

Conservationists and scientists will have to redouble their efforts to meet the challenges posed by these two landmark -- and alarming -- trends.

-Bill Laurance

 

Amazon update: 'Sustainable' corporation under fire, appears to plan huge increase in forest destruction

Here are three recent news items about United Cacao, the corporation that claims to be producing 'sustainable' cacao -- the main ingredient in chocolate -- but has been accused by ALERT of destroying over 2,000 hectares of biodiversity-rich rainforest in Peru.

A rainforest dies in Peru

A rainforest dies in Peru

1)  In recent days the share price of United Cacao has fallen by around $25, a 14% drop in its share value.

2) We have just learned that on 9 December 2014, the Peruvian subsidiary of United Cacao -- known as Cacao del Peru Norte -- was ordered by the Peruvian Agricultural Ministry to halt agricultural operations on one of its key properties, named Fundo Tamshivacu, which is located in Mavnas Province.

3) Alarmingly, we have also learned -- via recent reports in the Peruvian newspaper La Region (see here, here, and here) -- that at least 45,000 hectares of forested land in the Peruvian Amazon has been sold to subsidiary companies controlled by Dennis Melka, the owner of United Cacao. 

This suggests that much larger forest-clearing operations could be planned for the near future -- although whether this would be for cacao, or for another crop such as oil palm, is unknown. 

As can be seen below, these five properties adjoin the 2,000-hectare block (in orange) that was recently cleared by Cacao del Peru Norte:

The five newly purchased properties -- all dominated by old-growth rainforest -- that have been purchased by subsidiaries of United Cacao in Peru (courtesy of Save America's Forests and the Amazon Conservation Association).

The five newly purchased properties -- all dominated by old-growth rainforest -- that have been purchased by subsidiaries of United Cacao in Peru (courtesy of Save America's Forests and the Amazon Conservation Association).

Please pass the word: Be strongly advised that investments in United Cacao or any of its Peruvian subsidiaries are likely to promote large-scale forest destruction.  It is the opinion of ALERT scientists that this corporation should be shunned by any investor who cares about the environment.

Our continued thanks to scientists and journalists working in the region for these updates, especially John C. Cannon and the leading environmental website, Mongabay.com.

 

ALERT's latest campaign: 'Sustainable' corporation blasted for destroying Amazon rainforest

A corporation that aims to be the world’s biggest supplier of ‘sustainable’ cacao -- the main ingredient in chocolate -- is being accused by ALERT scientists of destroying large expanses of biodiversity-rich forest in Peru.  ALERT issued this press release today.

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

The Company, United Cacao, previously raised 10 million pounds on the London Stock Exchange, and is now hoping to raise additional funds on the Lima Stock Exchange in Peru to expand its operations in the Peruvian Amazon. 

ALERT scientists caution investors that United Cacao’s products may be far from environmentally sustainable, and that they should exercise exceptional caution before investing in the company or its Peruvian subsidiary, Cacao del Peru Norte.

“This company has its roots in Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry, which has been a huge driver of forest destruction,” said ALERT director William Laurance.  Laurance has conducted research in the Amazon region for nearly 20 years.

“World-class scientists at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University and the Amazon Conservation Association have used satellite data and cutting-edge laser technology to show that United Cacao has recently cleared more than 2,000 hectares of mostly old-growth rainforest in Peru,” said ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy, a long-term Amazon expert and former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents.

A small fraction of the cleared land evidently was farmed in the past, and parts of the forest were likely selectively logged in the 1980s, according to a detailed report in the leading environmental website Mongabay.com, based on thorough investigative research by John C. Cannon.

However, the laser technology -- known as LIDAR -- has shown that the carbon stocks contained in the destroyed forests were among the highest known for the Peruvian Amazon, according to Carnegie researcher Greg Asner.  This clearly indicates that the cleared block was formerly dominated by mature or old-growth rainforest.

“There’s no way you can clear old-growth rainforest and then claim to produce sustainable cacao,” said Lovejoy. 

“Not only that,” said Lovejoy, “but the corporation did so very quietly and without conducting an environmental impact study.  That sets a very dangerous precedent.”

“We see a lot of green-washing among corporations today -- where firms try to appear sustainable but really aren’t,” said ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. 

“My fear, based on these recent findings of large-scale forest destruction, is that United Cacao is one of these green-washing corporations,” said Koh. 

“The forests of the Peruvian Amazon are just about the biologically richest real estate on the planet,” said Laurance.  “And unfortunately there’s a feeding frenzy happening, with large-scale expansion of oil palm and cacao plantations, as well as a great deal of legal and illegal mining and logging.”

“Investors need to be sure that they’re putting their money into projects and corporations that are truly sustainable,” said Laurance.  “Right now we have a lot of doubts about United Cacao.”

What's the biggest killer of people in developing nations? The answer will surprise you.

If you had to guess the biggest killer of people in the developing world, what would you say?

A funeral pyre in India...

A funeral pyre in India...

HIV/AIDS?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Malnutrition? 

Nope.  Pollution.

According to a recent essay in Ensia magazine, in 2012, air, water, and other forms of pollutants killed some 8.4 million people in developing nations.  That's more people than died from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

And by these measures, mortality from Ebola is a mere drop in the bucket.

Pollution not only kills people directly.  It often worsens or increases the incidence of other diseases, such as heart disease, cancers, respiratory diseases, chest infections, and diarrhea. 

Scientists are increasingly warning people with health concerns -- such as obesity, diabetes, and respiratory problems -- to stay indoors during periods of rush-hour traffic, when air pollution is heaviest.

Globally, some 9 million people die from pollution annually, according to the World Health Organization.  Given that over nine-tenths of these deaths occur in developing nations, it is apparent that deadly pollution is increasingly a problem concentrated in the developing world.

As Southeast Asia continues to see heavy smoke palls from forest burning that send thousands of people to hospitals, and as plumes from forest fires stretch for thousands of kilometers across the Amazon, we have to remember that environmental destruction doesn't just kill nature.

It kills lots of people too.

 

GM crops: Good or bad for nature?

One of the more heated controversies in conservation science concerns genetically modified crops.  Are GM crops a boon for conservation or a serious danger?

On the one hard are those who believe GM crops are vital to increase agricultural production (and in some cases to reduce pesticide use), thereby allowing us produce more food on less land and spare more land for nature conservation.  The followers of this view often see the anti-GM crowd as hopelessly misguided or naive.

On the other hand are those who see potential dangers in GM crops -- ones that might outweigh their benefits in some if not many cases.  The term "Frankenfoods" has sometimes been applied to GM crops, reflecting the fear that these genetically modified foods might have a darker side.

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud from India counts himself among those who worry about GM crops.  Here he tells us about his fears about one crop in particular.

A genetically modified crop is produced by introducing genes from another species, and the Bt. brinjal (a type of modified eggplant) was developing by introducing genes from a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis) that is resistant to borers and caterpillars. 

However, GM organisms pose potential risks such as creating more vigorous pests, and could harm non-target species and disrupt biotic communities.

A recent study concludes that hybridization is possible between wild and cultivated brinjal in southern India, and another study showed there is a clear potential for transgenes to spread to wild brinjal populations.

Hence, the risk of transgene escape to wild or domesticated plants cannot be ignored.  Before introducing a GM crop, it is vital to check whether its genes can be transferred to wild relatives via pollinators.

Yes, we need to feed a hungry world.  But GM crops are not a panacea.  We have to study each one, on a case-by-case basis, before deciding whether or not its benefits will outweigh its risks. 

 

The good and bad news about Brazil's soy moratorium

A new study has shown that Brazil's Soy Moratorium -- an industry-led pledge not to clear Amazon rainforest for soy production -- has had incredible benefits.  But there's also bad news.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

The study, undertaken by U.S. and Brazilian researchers and published in the leading journal Science, was led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The team found that, prior to the Moratorium's commencement in 2006, about 30% of the soy planted in the Amazon directly replaced rainforest. 

That's a huge impact because Brazil will soon be the world's biggest soy producer.  Much of Brazil's soy is exported to China and Europe.

In fact, the impact of soy on the Amazon was even greater than Gibbs and colleagues suggest, because a lot of soy farmers bought up Amazon cattle ranches to expand their farms, pushing the ranchers deeper into the rainforest and thereby promoting more deforestation for ranching.

But after the Moratorium, the impact on the Amazon from soy fell sharply.  By 2014, less than 1% of soy replaced rainforest, according to Gibbs and colleagues. 

While this is a tremendous accomplishment, the Moratorium doesn't apply to Brazil's biodiversity-rich Cerrado, a vast but imperiled savanna-woodland that's a global biodiversity hotspot.  There, soy expansion continues to be a major driver of habitat loss.

Some in Brazil -- particularly elements of the powerful soy lobby -- are arguing that the Soy Moratorium should be dropped, because Brazil's government is effective enough, they say, to limit soy expansion into environmentally important areas.

But the study by Gibbs and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite.  They found abundant evidence of illegal deforestation in the Amazon, in areas such as Legal Reserves.  This suggests that the government alone can't halt illegal deforestation without help from major land-using industries such as soy producers. 

Hence, rather than being canceled, the Soy Moratorium should remain in force and should even be expanded -- to include the rapidly vanishing Cerrado as well.

Let's hope that sanity prevails in Brazil.  Those combating the Soy Moratorium will find themselves facing major boycotts and public shaming if they kill off one of the best industry-led environmental initiatives in the world.

 

Global gold rush is killing the world's rainforests

After a short holiday-season hiatus, ALERT is now back in action.  Here, we examine the alarming impact that illegal gold-mining is having on rainforest environments around the world.

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

The rise in illegal gold mining has two main causes.  First, the price of gold is skyrocketing, in part because investors see it as a safeguard against unstable economic conditions.  Second, new roads are proliferating across the tropics, opening up once-remote areas to invasions of illegal miners.

For example, a recent study by Nora Alvarez-Berríos and Mitch Aide documents the escalation of illegal gold mining in South America.  They found that gold mining has accelerated significantly since 2OO7, following a rush by investors to find havens for their money following the global financial crisis.

Mining can have huge impacts in certain areas.  Alvarez-Berríos and Aide found that mining was especially severe in four general regions of South America: the Guianas, the Southwest Amazon, the Tapajós–Xingú area of the western Amazon, and the Magdalena Valley in the Colombian Andes.  This shocking video shows just how badly miners are decimating the Southwest Amazon in Peru following construction of the Inter-oceanic Highway there.

Around 17O,OOO hectares of forest was destroyed outright in these four regions, but even worse was the broader-scale impacts on aquatic ecosystems and water quality.  Gold miners cause enormous siltation of streams and rivers as well as water pollution by toxic mercury, which they use to separate gold from river sediments. 

Gold miners also often have conflicts with local indigenous groups and poach wildlife.  For instance, armed miners in French Guiana murdered two park guards there, who were attempting to defend the park.

The scourge of illegal gold mining is by no means limited to Latin America.  It is escalating rapidly across vast expanses of Africa, Asia, and many other regions of the tropics. 

It's become stylish to talk about 'blood diamonds', but let there be no mistake -- 'blood gold' is even more environmentally deadly and is a growing threat to the world's rainforests.

 

Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.


Football fields of deforestation: What does it mean?

In an effort to be more readily understood by the general public, scientists and journalists sometime resort to analogies.  A particularly common analogy, when discussing deforestation, is to say how many football fields of forest are being destroyed each minute (or hour). 

As discussed below, ALERT member Erik Meijaard has a problem with the football field analogy.  ALERT director Bill Laurance is notably guilty of this sin, but we're happy to let Erik air his concerns and then you can be the judge. 

A recent newspaper article stated that Indonesia lost 4.6 million hectares of forest between 2009 and 2013.  This was equated to an area of three football fields every minute.

I understand what journalists are trying to do with their frequent reference to football fields.  Presumably it makes that obscure, ivory-tower world of weird units like hectares and square kilometers easier to visualize by comparing it to something everyone is apparently familiar with: 22 football (soccer) players running up and down those revered green pitches.

But how helpful is this comparison, especially when it is so often inaccurate?

I searched the internet for football field–deforestation comparisons over the past few years and found that Indonesia is being deforested at a rate of:

- 300 football fields every hour

- 12 football fields every day (0.5 fields per hour)

- 10 football fields every minute (600 fields per hour)

- 6 football fields a minute (360 fields per hour)

- 7 American football fields every minute (315 fields per hour)

- 300 football fields of forest lost every hour to palm oil alone (300 fields per hour just because of oil palm)

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of European and American football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 hectares per hour at the lowest to 648 hectares per hour at the highest.

Or, in the more usual measurements, the rate ranges from 1752 hectares per year to 5.7 million hectares per year -- a 3,000-fold difference!

And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

The size of football pitches in the English Premier League already varies quite a bit, with the largest (Manchester City’s) being 16% larger than the smallest (West Ham). And American football fields are 25% smaller than their soccer cousins.

Humans took the wise decision to standardize their length and area measurements to get rid of the bewildering variety of Rijnland Inches, four-inch hands, and mornings (the amount of land tillable by one man behind an ox in the morning hours of a day).

Can we just stop dumbing down the public and provide people with proper scientific measurements and units?

Deforestation is a serious issue affecting everyone in this world.  Reducing clarity about its magnitude isn't helping matters.

Please take ALERT's 60-second poll!

Today, ALERT celebrates its one-year anniversary -- and it's been a year of tremendous growth and impact.

Via our Facebook, website, and Twitter platforms, ALERT now routinely reaches 35,000 to 40,000 engaged readers each week, all across the world.

To help us serve you better, please take this 60-second poll to tell us what kinds of issues, stories, and geographic regions you want to hear more about.

We promise -- it really takes just 60 seconds!  And it'll be a big help to us as we continue to grow and advance nature conservation!

Good news, bad news for the Amazon

How is the world's greatest rainforest faring?  It very much depends where you look...

The world's biologically richest rainforests (photo by William Laurance)

The world's biologically richest rainforests (photo by William Laurance)

In the Brazilian Amazon, the rate of forest destruction has plummeted to historic lows.  For example, last year the deforestation rate was only about a quarter of what it was in the 1990s and early-mid 2000s, when 2-3 million hectares of forest were being felled each year -- comparable to a country the size of Belgium.

And this year the news is even better.  The current rate of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia is 18% lower than it was last year

Long-term Amazon watchers can scarcely believe it.  The falling deforestation rate in Brazil is being chalked up to better enforcement of environmental laws, new protected areas, a moratorium on forest clearing for soy, and an important role for indigenous lands in limiting forest loss

International carbon funds -- led by Norway's contribution of up to $1 billion to Brazil -- have also helped.

The heartening decline in forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon (from Mongabay.com)

The heartening decline in forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon (from Mongabay.com)

But elsewhere the picture is lot uglier. 

Peru is clearing large expanses of Amazon rainforest for oil palm, and gold miners are wreaking havoc in large areas, in part because of increased access to forests via the new Inter-Oceanic Highway.  And much of the Peruvian Amazon is being opened up for oil and gas leases.

The blight of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon

The blight of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon

In Bolivia, the government has announced that it intends to expand the agricultural frontier by nearly 1 million hectares per year between now and 2025.  Few believe such wildly ambitious plans are realistic but it speaks to the prevailing government's priorities -- and the environment is clearly very low on its list.

In Guyana, which has historically had low rates of deforestation, aggressive Chinese logging corporations are rapidly moving into the country.  A single Chinese corporation, Bai Shan Lin, now controls 1.4 million hectares of Guyana's forest and has been accused of widespread bribery in acquiring timber concessions.

Deforestation is also high in the Colombian Amazon, where cattle ranching and illegal coca production are major causes of forest lossMining activity is also exploding in the country.

The list goes on an on -- almost everywhere you look in the Amazon, there's more roads, more dams, more mining, more mega-projects

While the story in Brazil is heartening, there's no time for complacency elsewhere.  The threats are multiplying dramatically, and the fate of the world's greatest rainforest is hanging precariously in the balance.   

Disaster ahead for Sumatra's forests?

Alarm bells are ringing in Indonesia. 

An in-depth article just published by ALERT member Erik Meijaard in the Jakarta Globe suggests that the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra — the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos still coexist — could be greatly imperiled.

Trouble ahead for tigers

Trouble ahead for tigers

The problem is the highly controversial “spatial plan” passed by the Aceh Provincial Government. 

The plan completely omits the Leuser Ecosystem — and according to Meijaard that’s because the Aceh government plans to log, clear, mine, and essentially destroy much of the Leuser environment.

That would be a tragedy wrapped in a disaster.  The IUCN lists the Leuser Ecosystem — a region of 2.26 million hectares rich in rainforests and peat-swamp forests — as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places”.

Beyond its unparalleled importance for biodiversity, the Leuser Ecosystem also provides vital environmental services for the people of Aceh — such as reducing flooding and droughts, protecting soils, and providing clean water for people, agriculture, and fisheries. 

The forests also store large quantities of carbon essential for limiting global warming.

As Meijaard argues, the natural services provided by the Leuser forests truly are vital. 

For instance, floods in December 2006 affected over 700 villages in Aceh, destroyed over 4400 homes, and killed 47 people.  Damage from the floods was estimated to total US$210 million. 

Imagine the toll from such an event if the Leuser forests — which help to limit destructive flooding — had been largely destroyed.

Meijaard and many others — including 141 scientific, environmental, and social-rights organizations — are urging Indonesia’s federal government to strike down the Aceh government’s ill-advised spatial plan, as the plan can't proceed without federal approval. 

Let’s hope common sense prevails in Indonesia, before one of Earth’s most unique and important ecosystems is lost forever.

Growing evidence that forests reduce flood risk

In 2007, ALERT member Corey Bradshaw and colleagues published a high-profile global analysis that suggested forests reduce flood risk. 

A tropical torrent -- flooding in the Amazon (photo by William Laurance)

A tropical torrent -- flooding in the Amazon (photo by William Laurance)

However, their analysis was instantly controversial -- lauded in some quarters and attacked in others -- in part because their study used complex statistical models rather than simple experiments or direct observations to draw their conclusions. 

Now a new study appears to provide key support for Bradshaw's assertions.  Working in Peninsular Malaysia, Jie-Sheng Tan Soo and colleagues have found strong evidence that areas with more native rainforest are less prone to damaging floods in the wet season.

Specifically, the authors found that conversion of native rainforest to oil palm or rubber plantations increased the number of days of downstream flooding in 31 different areas.

Collectively, these findings are important because they provide another key economic justification for conserving native forests -- including pristine forests and those that have been selectively logged but still retain much of their original tree cover

Not only do such forests harbor amazing biodiversity, store large stocks of carbon, and help to drive global climate and rainfall patterns, they also have a sizable impact on flooding -- which is vital to local communities in forested regions.

Each years, destructive floods cause billions of dollars in damage to properties, crops, and livestock.  They also kill hundreds of people and displace tens of thousands more. 

With our growing human population and increasing tendency to live, build dwellings, and farm in vulnerable floodplains, floods are becoming an ever-more serious hazard. 

The poor are often forced to live in vulnerable flood-prone areas

The poor are often forced to live in vulnerable flood-prone areas

The poor -- which are often forced to live in flood-prone areas -- are especially vulnerable.  But we all suffer from flooding via increased insurance rates and higher taxes for government disaster-aid efforts. 

With the added complications of rising sea levels and increasing extreme-weather events, flooding might cost the world $1 trillion per year by 2050, according to one analysis.

The studies by Bradshaw, Tan Soo, and colleagues show that native forests can be vital for reducing flooding in regions that receive even occasional heavy rains. 

Less native forest means more destructive flooding -- and that's not good for any of us.

A new Armageddon for amphibians?

Amphibians -- such as frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians -- are among the most ancient of all terrestrial vertebrates.  And increasingly, they seem to be among the most imperiled as well.

Biodiversity in retreat...  many frogs are imperiled (photo by Mike Trenerry)

Biodiversity in retreat...  many frogs are imperiled (photo by Mike Trenerry)

Why?  For one thing, amphibians, more than any other group of terrestrial vertebrates, rely intimately on water.  Their eggs dry out on land, and their larvae (such as tadpoles) are often aquatic.  Across the planet, aquatic ecosystems are being destroyed and degraded -- by pollution, dams, river channelization, introduced predators and competitors, and other maladies -- at a horrific pace.

Beyond this, amphibians seem unusually vulnerable to exotic diseases.  The water that they rely on so intimately is an excellent medium for transmitting pathogens, many of which will quickly die if they dry out. 

Many amphibians need clean water for survival (photo by William Laurance)

Many amphibians need clean water for survival (photo by William Laurance)

Combine that trait with our hyper-mobile modern society -- where exotic organisms are suddenly being moved across the planet at lightening speed, often by accident -- and you have the makings of environmental Armageddon.

For example, a few decades ago a mysterious chytrid fungus suddenly appeared and swept like a tsunami across Australia, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Europe with deadly effect. 

In total, some 200 species of frogs and salamanders have declined catastrophically or been driven to global extinction by the fungal disease (notably, ALERT director Bill Laurance and colleagues did some of the earliest work on the pathogen's impacts).  

Now, there is a new disease threat.  Exotic viruses have appeared that seem to be targeting a range of amphibian species.  This is frightening, because viruses are usually specific to a particular species

A virus that can attack several species at once could be catastrophic for amphibians.  Normally, a virus dies out when it kills most individuals of its host species, because the host becomes so rare that the virus is no longer transmitted successfully.

But a multi-species virus is different.  One of its host species might be largely wiped out, but the virus can still thrive in a different species.  Because it persists in the environment, even when one of its hosts becomes perilously rare, such a virus can drive a species completely to extinction.

That is exactly what seems to be happening now in Europe.  At least two new types of Ranaviruses are plaguing frogs and salamanders there, causing massive die-offs in several different species of hosts at once. 

The viruses induce hemorrhaging in the frogs, creating open sores and killing their limb tissues.

Alarmingly, even reptiles might be affected; a snake that ate an infected salamander died soon afterward, apparently from the virus. 

Such events suggest that one of the most damaging features of modern humanity might be our proclivity for moving exotic organisms all around the planet.  Species have adapted to ecosystems in which a major new pathogen might come along once every few centuries or millennia.  Now they're arriving at a pace that's blindingly faster than that.

Little wonder that the amphibians -- among the most ancient denizens of the Earth -- are having a hard time surviving the onslaught.

 

Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Progress in the battle against illegal logging

Illegal logging is a scourge for many developing nations, imperiling forests and biodiversity and robbing the government of direly needed revenues.  So it's heartening to hear that the battle against illegal logging is gaining some traction.

Ill-gotten timber? (photo by William Laurance)

Ill-gotten timber? (photo by William Laurance)

A key development has been the growing impact of laws or regulations designed to reduce illegal trade in timber-consuming nations.  These include the European Union's FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) measures, the Lacey Act in the U.S., and Australia's Illegal-Logging Prohibition Act.

All of these measures put teeth into rules that regulate timber imports.  In essence, they require companies importing timber to use 'due diligence' to ensure that the wood or paper products they import are legal. 

Heavy penalties can apply for those who knowingly or negligently flaunt the law.

According to recent reports by Chatham House, a leading U.K. think tank, high-risk timber imports are falling for most timber-importing nations, including the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, and the Netherlands.  Australia's legislation is only beginning to be enforced now.

The Chatham House reports suggest that Japan is lagging somewhat, because it imports lots of wood and paper products from China, Russia, and Malaysia, all of which are thought to deal frequently in illegal timber.

This progress is definitely good news, and it illustrates the importance and impact of legislation that tightens the rules for timber importers. 

Notably, opponents of such laws -- including the notorious timber lobbyist Alan Oxley -- have long argued that these measures were unnecessary and would be ineffective.  The Chatham House reports clearly show such arguments are wrong.

 

Bizarre story in the Washington Post

Sometimes truth is weirder than fiction.

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon (photo by Bill Laurance)

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon (photo by Bill Laurance)

Two days ago (21 November 2014) the Washington Post ran a story entitled "Deforestation vs. daily life: The logging industry in Nigeria is fueling both", by Nicole Crowder, a staff photo editor.

The story was odd for two reasons.  First, via a tapestry of photos shot by Akintunde Akinleye of Reuters, it portrayed Nigeria's rainforest loggers in a remarkably sympathetic manner. 

This is understandable and forgivable.  Loggers are human beings, and like all of us are struggling to survive in an increasingly populous, hard-edged world.  While readily conceding that much forest harvesting in Nigeria is illegal, the images portrayed the loggers as humble battlers, scrabbling to make a living by carving great trees into sawn timber.

Second, and far more remarkably, the story grossly misstated the impact of logging and deforestation in Nigeria.  It claimed that Nigeria lost "just over 2 million hectares of forest annually between 2005-2010 due to agricultural expansion, logging and infrastructure development". 

That figure is massively wrong.  According to data compiled by Professor Matt Hansen from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch, forest loss in Nigeria from 2001 to 2012 ranged from a low of around 40,000 hectares per year to a peak of about 150,000 hectares per year.  

One doesn't have to be a math whiz to see that the actual deforestation figures -- or at least the best-available scientific estimates -- are a tiny fraction of those reported in the Washington Post

I was initially bemused by the story because the reported deforestation numbers, if true, would have put Nigeria on par with the Brazilian Amazon in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, when that region had the dubious distinction of being the overwhelming epicenter of global forest destruction

I lived and worked in the Amazon for much of that period, and it was a time of catastrophic forest loss and burning -- with palls of smoke from massive fires forcing airports to close and causing sharp spikes in cases of respiratory distress.

If forest destruction in Nigeria was happening as fast as the Post reported -- at a pace that rivaled that in the Amazon -- Nigeria's forests would have vanished in a heartbeat.

At ALERT we pride ourselves on our scientific stripes, but even we make mistakes from time to time.  However, we are not professional journalists.  When a legendary newspaper like the Washington Post gets its reporting so badly wrong, it does give one pause. 

-Bill Laurance

Obama eco-speech infuriates Aussie conservatives

Can somebody please bring Australia's right-wingers a crying towel?

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

In addition to attending the G20 Global Leaders Conference in Brisbane last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a hard-hitting speech on climate change at the University of Queensland. 

This had Australia's right-wingers in a tizzy, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had specifically ruled out climate change as a topic for discussion at the G20 summit.

Obama, fresh off a major deal to reduce carbon emissions with China -- now overwhelmingly the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitter -- wasn't willing to be gagged on the issue.  Hence his speech at the University of Queensland.

Abbott and company were especially annoyed by Obama's assertion that climate change threatened the iconic Great Barrier Reef, as suggested by a number of studies of coral bleaching and mortality during past heat waves, as well as rising ocean acidification.

Abbott is notorious as a pro-coal, pro-mining, no-more-parks, no-carbon-tax leader who considers global warming a minor annoyance -- a manageable environmental problem that's been massively overstated by wild-eyed greenies.

So perturbed was Abbott by Obama's assertions about global warming and the reef that he had his arch-conservative Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, attempt to rebuke Obama

Bishop -- well-known for other anti-environmental tacks such as her heated opposition to Australia's illegal-logging act -- decried Obama's speech and claimed that Australia was actually looking after the reef very nicely, thank you very much.

So nicely, in fact, that UNESCO has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

So nicely that Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, immediately labeled Bishop's comments as "not credible".  

"I loved Obama's speech," said Hughes.  "I thought it was spot on."

Such exchanges show that the Abbott government is sorely out of touch -- not just with many Australians but with the leaders of many other industrial and developing nations. 

Abbott and his colleagues are now clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution on climate change.  And no amount of crying on their part will change that.