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.

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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.

 

Malaysian 'eco-thug' tries to halt book exposing his crimes

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. 

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

After reportedly making billions of dollars for himself and confederates by pillaging and destroying vast expanses of Borneo's rainforests, former Sarawak timber chief and governor Abdul Taib is now being brought to task by a new book.

Entitled Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia, by Lukas Straumann, the book accuses Taib of massive corruption, despotic behavior, and committing one of the greatest environmental travesties in history.

The forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in northern Borneo, have been devastated in recent decades by intensive logging and conversion to oil palm plantations.  This has had profound impacts on biodiversity, indigenous peoples, and forest carbon stocks in the region.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has referred to the rampant pillaging of Borneo's forests as “probably the biggest environmental crime of our times”.

As reported recently in the leading environmental website Mongabay, lawyers representing Taib and the Malaysian government are attempting to block Money Logging's publication, by threatening its publishers with legal action. 

The publishers have announced they intend to press ahead with the book.

In March, ALERT highlighted some of Taib's notorious activities -- slamming him for unprecedented environmental misdeeds and corruption.  The scale of Taib's environmental crimes can be seen in this shocking video.

So far, Taib's lawyers haven't said anything to us -- but we'll certainly let you know if they do.

 

Turn up the heat on McDonald's for killing orangutans

Do you tweet?  If so, do the world a favor and tweet this line today:

Is @McDonalds driving #orangutan habitat loss? For #FastFoodDay RT to demand McD’s uses zero deforestation #PalmOil pic.twitter.com/ZsxagRPFAk

Rainforest killer...

Rainforest killer...

Imagine chomping into a Big Mac and finding a dead orangutan finger.  That's effectively what's happening because McDonalds refuses to stop using palm oil that contributes to rainforest destruction.

Today is National Fast Food Day, and ALERT is helping the Union of Concerned Scientists to turn up the heat on McDonalds.  UCS asked a series of leading corporations to tighten up their palm oil policies and most were happy to oblige -- but not McDonalds.

It's time to tweet, folks. 

And remember also to vote with your wallets -- and ask your friends to do so too. 

McDonalds is a massive consumer of palm oil -- the kind that kills rainforests.  If they don't want to play nice and help save orangutans and countless other species, let's just boycott them until they do.

 

Australia talks the talk but will it walk the walk for conservation?

Australia's environment minister, Greg Hunt, has a tough gig. 

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hunt seems legitimately interested in advancing nature conservation but his boss, the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, clearly is not.  Abbott's government has the worst environmental record of any Australian government in living memory

That leaves Hunt in a difficult spot.  Few doubt that if he were to push conservation too strongly -- or fail to support Abbott's pro-coal, pro-mining, no-new-parks, anti-renewable-energy policies -- he'd soon be gone.

In such a setting, where domestic policy is so clearly being driven by a growth-first agenda, what is an environment minister to do?  One 'safe' strategy is to focus not on matters at home, but on those abroad.

That is precisely what Hunt did this week in Sydney with his "Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit" -- a forum that proclaimed it will help Australia's tropical neighbors to protect their imperiled forests.

After interviewing Hunt, ALERT director Bill Laurance just wrote this lively critique of the event

It's worth a quick read to see how nature conservation -- and politics -- are playing out in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

 

The corporations that turn rainforests into toilet paper

The Ethical Shopping Guide is a cool new resource.  It lets you check out the environmental and social impacts of corporations that produce the products you buy every day.  As Penny van Oosterzee and ALERT director Bill Laurance argue in a new essay, the Ethical Shopping Guide has some surprises for us all.

A rainforest cleared for wood pulp in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

A rainforest cleared for wood pulp in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

One of these is that a lot of the paper products that many of us use every day — from diaries and newspapers to cardboard and toilet paper — are helping to destroy the world’s most biologically diverse forests.

For example, much of the forest clearing to date on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia has been driven by two mega-corporations, Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL (Asia-Pacific Resources International Limited).  Between them, they’ve destroyed millions of hectares of native rainforest — first turning the rainforest into paper pulp and then replanting the cleared land with monocultures of exotic, fast-growing trees to produce yet more pulp.

Although APP and APRIL are now claiming that they intend to reduce their clearing of native forests, the onslaught is far from over.  Indonesia recently announced that it plans to fell another 14 million hectares of native forest in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea by 2020, for industrial pulp and oil palm plantations.  That’s an area larger than Greece.

So, pass the word.  One of the best things we can all do to help the natural world is to vote with our wallets — to avoid the products of corporations with bad environmental records. 

And we should tell retailers selling such products that we think they should drop them altogether — or we just might start avoiding those retailers as well.

And while we’re voting with our wallets, we should let the forest-killing corporations know — loudly and emphatically and often — why we’re treating them like a plague-carrier. 

 

Neotropical rainforests under assault from infrastructure & mining

Everywhere you look across Central and South America, native ecosystems are being imperiled by an avalanche of new mining and infrastructure projects. 

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Consider just three examples:

- In Nicaragua, a massive interoceanic canal project threatens vast expanses of rainforest and other ecosystems.  It will imperil 4,000 square kilometers of forest and wetlands, slice across several key nature reserves, and cut through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.  This issue is so worrisome that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's leading scientific organization devoted to tropical research, issued a special resolution of concern.

- In Brazil, many protected areas are under assault from mining.  A paper just published in the leading journal Science shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s strictly protected areas and indigenous reserves -- an area larger than the UK and Switzerland combined -- are under consideration for mining projects.  More than 44,000 square kilometers of Brazil's protected areas have been lost to mining and other developments since 2008.

- Across the Amazon basin and Andes, at least 150 major hydroelectric dams have been proposed or are under construction.  These projects will not only flood large expanses of forest but their associated road projects will imperil some of the basin's most remote and biologically important areas.  For instance, it is estimated that 12 dams proposed for the Tapajós River in Brazil would result in nearly 1 million hectares of additional forest loss by 2032.

Who is responsible for this tsunami of forest-destroying projects?  There is no single cause, but China's unquenchable thirst for natural resources, the aggressive Brazilian development bank BNDES, and ambitious regional development schemes such as IIRSA are all leading contributors.

No one wants to halt responsible economic development, but this is a feeding frenzy.  Unless scientists and conservationists have a louder voice, some of the world's most important environments could be lost forever.

 

Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Ten ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction

Anthony Barnosky is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and he's one smart dude.  He's just written a brilliant essay entitled "10 ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction". 

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

As we all know, we are living in an age of biodiversity crisis.  Some believe we could lose up to three-quarters of all species on Earth in the coming century

Others believe the extinctions will be less severe, but even optimistic estimates suggest the age of humans -- the Anthropocene -- could be one of the greatest extinction events in Earth's 4.5-billion year history. 

Barnosky emphasizes that there's still time to avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction, but we need to pull our thumbs out and get moving -- today. 

We briefly summarize his 10 key messages below.  See his original essay for details about each suggestion:

1. Spread the word, to your family, friends, co-workers, and social media circle: the extinction crisis is real.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint.

3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.

4. Eat fish from only healthy fisheries.

5. Eat less meat.

6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory -- or from any other product derived from threatened species.

7. Enjoy nature.

8. Adopt a species or become a citizen scientist.

9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women's rights to education and healthcare.

10. Don't give up.

Bottom line: We are not doomed to any particular fate, but we will be if we fail to confront the growing extinction crisis. 

A planet that's too hostile to sustain much biodiversity will not be a good place for people to live either.

 

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.