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

Why are we so afraid to talk about human population?

When it comes to the environment, human population is the 900-pound gorilla in the corner.  I know this from first hand--I once got into hot water for a New Scientist piece that slammed conservatives in the U.S. for failing to support family planning.

People are great, but enough already... (photo by William Laurance)

People are great, but enough already... (photo by William Laurance)

Now, in a provocative essay, Jonathan Porritt asks why is nearly everyone--including most leading environmental groups--so reticent to talk about population?

It's a good question.  According to the U.N. Population Division, Earth's population is projected to peak at nearly 11 billion people this century. 

Africa will have 400% more mouths to feed, according to the U.N.  Nigeria--already teetering on the edge of social and economic chaos--will have five times its present population.

These are incredible figures, and they underscore momentous challenges ahead--for global food security, social welfare, immigration and national security issues, and of course the environment.

The challenge is growing.  According to a recent analysis by Leontine Alkema and colleagues, by 2015 nearly a billion women will need contraception or will have an unmet need for contraception.  This number is rapidly increasing, especially in developing nations.

Demographers like Alkema keep saying the same thing: One of the smartest long-term investments we can make today is in family-planning and contraception, especially where population growth is fastest and most likely to be destabilizing in the long term.  A good place to start is Africa.

We need a lot more talk--and action--on population.

-Bill Laurance