If you want to understand how deforestation works, just think about cancer.
That’s because the two behave in a remarkably similar fashion.
Large-scale studies reveal that deforestation is highly spatially contagious. That means it grows in a tumor-like fashion, spreading out from an initial “seed” or point of origin.
For example, if a new road cuts into a wilderness area, deforestation tends to grow along the road, like a series of tumors.
And then the cancer spreads. The initial road spawns secondary and tertiary roads, either legally or illegally, with deforestation then ‘jumping’ to these new areas.
It’s exactly how cancer spreads when it jumps from, say, a lymph node to the liver, lungs, and bone marrow.
The cancer-like behavior of deforestation has big implications for nature conservation.
Cancer and Conservation
For starters, there’s no such thing as having a “little bit” of cancer. If you’ve got cancer, you’ve got cancer.
So, if you punch a new road into a wild forested area, you’re typically going to start a cancer-like process of deforestation that continues to spread and spread.
How can we combat the cancer of deforestation?
Obviously, the best approach is to avoid getting cancer in the first place.
That means, wherever possible, keeping roads out of any place that we really need to protect from deforestation and other destructive human activities, such as poaching and illegal mining.
“Avoid the first cut” is the cardinal principle when it comes to building new roads in wild places. Don’t let the cancer in at all.
But if we do get cancer, then what? Well, there are two options.
The easiest is surgery—cut the cancer out, if it’s caught early enough. This would be analogous to closing a forest road completely.
For instance, after a logging operation, one could destroy a key bridge at the entrance to the forest, or set up a permanently-manned guard post to ensure illegal encroachers and poachers are kept away.
The second option is more expensive and painful. If we can’t cut the cancer out, then the options are long-term treatment—radiation and chemotherapy.
It's painful and expensive, but it's better than nothing.
The analogy in this case would be for the government to maintain the road through the forest but to attempt to control human activities along the road. For instance, there could be land-use and forestry regulations, land-use planning, and legal enforcement.
The problem is that this requires a long-term, recurring investment—it’s expensive and difficult.
It assumes the government has the resources for monitoring activities along the road, has adequate law-enforcement capabilities, and has an effective judiciary to enforce the law.
Unfortunately, this kind of treatment often doesn’t work, especially in many frontier areas where the rule of law is limited. Bribery and corruption occur, along with waves of illegal mining, logging, poaching, and land speculation.
As we ponder current projections that suggest we’re going to have some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads worldwide by 2050—enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times—it’s important to remember the cancer analogy for deforestation.
It teaches us a vital lesson: It’s crucial to stop roads from penetrating into any landscape or ecosystem that we seriously want to conserve—unless we have a very effective means in place for controlling the cancer of deforestation.
It really is that simple. And our options really are that limited.
Roads have already fragmented the Earth’s ecosystems into some 600,000 pieces.
Avoid cancer. And if you can’t avoid cancer, cut it out as quickly as possible.
After that, things get a lot more complicated.