The global villains and heroes of tropical forest destruction

The Earth may well be experiencing its sixth mass-extinction event and the rapid destruction of tropical forests is a key reason for this.  Who is responsible for the ongoing decimation of rainforests?

The high cost of deforestation  (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

The high cost of deforestation (Photo (c) Tantyo Bangun)

After an exhaustive data-collection effort, the Global Canopy Programme, a UK-based scientific and conservation organization, has just released a 'ratings agency' for rainforests. 

This scheme -- called "Forest 500" -- identifies the governments, corporations, and investors that are either driving or saving tropical ecosystems and their imperiled biodiversity.

Overall, Forest 500 evaluates the actions of 50 governments, 250 companies, 150 investors, and 50 other 'power brokers'.

Who are some of the biggest sinners and heroes

Among nations, the global heroes include Liberia, Colombia, and several E.U. nations such as Norway, all of whom are working to slow deforestation.  China, India, and Russia rank among the biggest sinners for having aggressive policies to source tropical commodities and weak commodity-import policies.

Surprisingly, despite a growing number of 'zero deforestation' claims in the rhetoric of many corporations, the Forest 500 study suggests that less than 10% of the companies evaluated really have an overarching commitment to this goal. 

Six corporations, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, get top scores for improving their policies.  A number of Asia-based corporations are big-time sinners.  Privately-owned corporations tend to rank more poorly than do publicly-traded ones, which are more prone to pressures from consumers and investors.

Among other power brokers, financial institutions based in Europe tend to have better policies than do those based in Asia or North America.  In general, banks tend to have better policies than do insurance companies, hedge-funds, and sovereign-wealth funds. 

Globally, the study concludes, investors in the U.S. are the dominant owners of stock in major forest-destroying corporations.

The Forest 500 analysis is an excellent effort to highlight who in the world is working to save tropical forests -- and whose hand is on the axe.

 

Heated debate over boreal forests

ALERT is achieving a new milestone today by hosting its first scientific debate.  This focuses on the fate and condition of the world's vast boreal forests.

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

The debate arose over a recent paper led by Nick Haddad and colleagues (of which ALERT members Tom Lovejoy and Bill Laurance were coauthors).  Haddad and colleagues asserted in their paper -- and also conspicuously in their various press coverage -- that the only two remaining areas of large, intact forest on Earth were the Amazon and Congo Basin.

Boreal forest researcher Jeff Wells takes serious issue with this contention.  Below is Wells' complaint, followed by a response from Nick Haddad and another of his coauthors, Joe Sexton, who actually conducted the analyses at the heart of this scientific tussle.

All this is then followed by a synopsis of the debate by boreal forest expert Corey Bradshaw, an ALERT member and professor and senior researcher from the University of Adelaide in Australia.  Bradshaw was not involved in either study. 

Read away!

THE COMPLAINT BY JEFF WELLS

The paper “Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth’s ecosystems” by Nick Haddad and 23 co-authors published in the 20 March, 2015 issue of Science Advances provided an incredibly important documentation of the many and varied negative impacts to biodiversity that result from human-caused large-scale fragmentation of intact forest habitats.  Although there are regional differences in the ways in which fragmentation impacts various biodiversity features, the effects are largely generalizable across the world’s forests.

There are a few regions of the globe where there remains large tracts of forest that are not fragmented by human activities—so-called primary forests.  These areas have been mapped in a number of ways over recent decades and all show five large areas of remaining primary forest.

The largest are the North American Boreal Forest, the Siberian Boreal Forest, the Amazon Forest followed by the Congo Basin Forest and the forests of New Guinea and other parts of Indonesia. In fact, some analyses indicate that the world’s largest single intact blocks of forest habitat are now found in the Amazon and in Canada’s Boreal Forest.

Given these facts it was astonishing and disappointing to see in the paper, a map purporting to show forested areas of the globe that are most impacted by fragmentation (defined in the paper as “the division of habitat into smaller and more isolated fragments separated by a matrix of human-transformed land cover”) that portrayed the North American boreal forest as heavily fragmented rather than intact as it truly is.  In the paper the authors write that they are presenting “a global analysis of the fragmentation of forest ecosystems, quantifying for the first time the global hotspots of intensive historical fragmentation.”

They go on to say that their analysis showed that “nearly 20% of the world’s remaining forest is within 100 m of an edge — in close proximity to agriculture, urban, or other modified environments…”

Clearly the implication in this statements and others in the paper is that the mapping analyses presented in the paper intends to portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation.  In fact, the map in the paper shockingly indicates that the most northern portions of the Boreal Forest region of North America are among the most fragmented in the world.

Anyone with knowledge of northern and Arctic regions would likely be rather astonished by this portrayal given the incredible lack of human industrial fragmentation in this remote and generally inaccessible part of the world. The inaccurate and misleading map and analysis is the result of a mischaracterized data set that labels natural fires, intact peatland and tundra (far from any human industrial footprint) as the same as clearcuts, areas cleared for agriculture or mines, roads, powerlines and other human caused fragmentation.

While as a scientific issue this mischaracterization is serious enough, more troubling is the fact that media stories about the paper included quotes attributed to the first author like this one in a story in The New Yorker:

“There are really only two big patches of intact forest left on Earth — the Amazon and the Congo — and they shine out like eyes from the center of the map.”

Or this statement in Climate Progress:

“Haddad was surprised by the degree that Boreal forest in Canada and Siberia has already been sliced up.”

These statements are fundamentally incorrect and are a serious blow to conservation initiatives in the massively large, truly intact Boreal Forest region of North America where incredible efforts are underway that are succeeding in achieving some of the world’s largest forest conservation gains.

Canada’s Boreal Forest region (an area of approximately 5.6 million square kilometers) is estimated to contain 25% of the world’s remaining primary forest within its Boreal Forest region, storing a minimum of 208 billion tonnes of carbon, supporting some of the world’s largest populations of northern large mammals including some that undertake the world’s last large-scale annual migrations and hosting 1-3 three billion nesting birds, most of which migrate south to populate temperate and tropical forests.

This vast intact forest region continues to be inhabited by to hundreds of indigenous communities that maintain their cultural traditions including harvesting native fish and wildlife for subsistence.

Over 870,000 square kilometers of new protected areas have been established across Canada’s Boreal Forest region in the last 15 years and the governments of Ontario and Quebec are pursuing conservation visions that together would strictly protect (IUCN categories I-IV) an additional 858,000 square kilometers of intact, primary forest. 

In the Northwest Territories, over 425,000 square kilometers of new protected areas and interim protected areas are the result of leadership of indigenous governments that have developed sophisticated land-use plans combining traditional knowledge and Western science approaches.

What is particularly tragic is the portrayal of North America's Boreal Forest as one of the parts of the world that is most highly fragmented by human industrial activities.  Scientists and conservationists working in the world's last wildernesses should become more familiar with the threats across ecosystems and regions, in order to accurately portray reality on the ground.  This will allow us to protect these ecosystems while there is still time to do so.

A boreal forest in flames

A boreal forest in flames

THE RESPONSE BY NICK HADDAD AND JOE SEXTON

Dr. Wells’ comments regarding the ecological importance of boreal forests are valuable.  The boreal forest houses enormous stocks of carbon; is the origin of many major rivers transporting nutrients to and from the Arctic Ocean; and its trophic system provides essential ecosystem services to human communities.  Dr. Wells confirms what is shown in our Figure 1 when pointing out that the boreal forest is one of the greatest remaining expanses of forest on Earth.

We agree with Dr. Wells’ assertion of the conservation value of boreal forest, and our global forest analysis in no way contradicts it.  Compared to temperate and tropical forests, the boreal forest is much less impacted by human land-use change. 

Whereas the forests of temperate and tropical biomes (except the interior forests of the Amazon and Congo Basins) are heavily fragmented by human land use, edges of the boreal forest are primarily natural.  Boreal-forest edges arise predominantly from climatological and edaphic features (i.e., the taiga-tundra ecotone), from hydrological features (the prevalence of rivers and small water bodies), and from acute disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks (see a recent comparison of natural and human created edge effects in boreal forest).

Whereas logging impacts some regions — including much of British Columbia and Scandinavi— these areas are a comparatively small portion of the total area.  Yet even this distinction is increasingly eroded by human impacts, as recent fires in the Siberian boreal forest have been found to be largely human in origin.

It is currently impossible to discriminate natural from human-induced edges, and so our global analysis did not attempt to do so. This contrasts with our experimental analyses which comprise the bulk of our paper, and which are focused on effects of human-caused fragmentation.

In retrospect, we should have emphasized this distinction; we regret the confusion it created.  Our Figure 1 does not “portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation,” (Wells’ assertion) but instead simply maps globally the distance of each forest pixel to the forest’s edge.  Regardless, Wells’ assertion that the boreal forest is not fragmented raises an important distinction between natural and human-created edges.

Many of the effects of natural and anthropogenic fragmentation are identical — sunlight and wind penetrate a forest edge regardless of its origin. However, many edge effects — including species invasions, especially by species associated with humans — are not.

As is often the case with the conveyance of scientific findings to the public, the popular media focuses on one or two key points and disregards complexities.  The primary objective of our paper was to synthesize long-term experiments documenting the effects of habitat fragmentation. The spatial analysis of forests was included to alert our audience to its global footprint, whether natural or anthropogenic. 

Given one figure and two short paragraphs, we could only portray this complexity from one aspect — namely habitat edges.  The popular media focused on the Amazon and the Congo forests, the two areas with the least areas of edge, but did not cover the distinction between natural and anthropogenic disturbance.

We share Dr. Wells’ eagerness to overcome the current technical inability to discriminate natural from human-induced vegetation change in the satellite record.  We and a large community of researchers are working on precisely this problem.  We look forward to specifying the agency of habitat fragmentation in the years to come.

To reiterate, we agree with Dr. Wells about the great need to conserve boreal forest.  We are at the same time pleased that Dr. Wells recognizes our study’s central finding: that human-induced habitat fragmentation threatens forests across the globe, leading to long-term decline in the diversity and function of ecosystems.

Long-term experiments and global analysis of the extent, pattern, and dynamics of forest change will continue to advance understanding of the impact of and conservation prospects for landscapes fragmented by people.

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

A PERSPECTIVE FROM AN INDEPENDENT EXPERT, COREY BRADSHAW

Missing the forest despite its trees

Despite its immense size, there is little doubt that the ugly second cousin of forest conservation is the boreal region covering much of Alaska, Canada, Fennoscandia, and Russia.  Indeed, extending some 1.4 billion hectares, of which well over 60% is found in Russia alone, the entirety of the boreal forest is more than double the area of the Amazon forest.

Yet despite this massive expanse, the impressive biota it shelters, and its important contribution to the global carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles, the boreal is an oft-overlooked region in terms of global conservation priorities and possibilities.

The exchange between Haddad & Sexton and Wells regarding the former researchers’ recent paper highlights this problem, of which even many expert ecologists are often only vaguely aware.  Wells takes particular issue with Haddad and colleagues’ assertion that the boreal forest is highly fragmented, claiming to the contrary that the (North America) boreal forest is “… truly intact … ”.  While Haddad and Sexton respond that they did not differentiate between ‘natural’ and human-caused fragmentation, my view is that the exchange misses some important concerns about the state of the boreal forest.

Wells correctly points out that the boreal zone in North America is “massive”, but can his other claim -- that it is “truly intact” -- stand up to scrutiny?  Citing one of my own papers from 2009 to demonstrate (correctly) that the boreal forest of North America holds a stunning array of species, Wells neglects to highlight that in that same paper we also identified the extensive, artificial fragmentation that has occurred there and in other parts of the boreal zone over the last few decades.

For example, we showed clearly that only 44% of the entire biome is considered to be ‘intact’, defining the term precisely as “areas over 500 square kilometers, internally undivided by infrastructure (e.g., roads) and with linear dimensions greater than 10 kilometers”. 

Satellite imagery has also confirmed that between 2000 and 2005, the boreal biome experienced the largest area of gross forest cover loss compared to any other.  Despite recent evidence that so-called edge effects (characteristics of a disturbed matrix that penetrate some distance into habitat fragments) are probably of a smaller spatial magnitude in boreal compared to other biomes, it is disingenuous to claim that North America’s boreal forests are “truly intact”.

Wells' perspective also ignores the intense historical and current fragmentation to the largest boreal forest region in Russia.  Between 1988 and 1993, Russia lost an average of 1.1 million hectares of forest per year due principally to logging.  An increase in fire and insect outbreaks due to direct (fire) and indirect (climate-driven insect outbreaks) human pressures has eroded the area even further.

Add these observations to mounting evidence that the boreal forest has already or is about to become a net carbon source due to direct (logging, fire) and indirect (climate change, insect outbreaks) human influences, and it is counter-productive in any conservation sense to purport that the boreal zone is anything but a highly modified and increasingly disturbed biome.

I can understand that anyone used to the images of forest devastation from South East Asia, the Amazon, or many parts of Central Africa might be convinced that the boreal forest is comparatively intact -- for it is indeed relatively more contiguous.  However, the extent of the boreal fracturing can be easily missed if not observed from broader spatial scales.

From my own personal experience in northern Alberta over 20 years ago, the sight of a vast expanses of boreal forest criss-crossed with seismic exploration lines and clearcuts from logging testify viscerally to our capacity to modify even the seemingly infinite spans of remote boreal wilderness.  While the boreal forest might not have the same human population densities or experience the same degree of legal and illegal forest conversion as the tropics, it is nonetheless a highly and increasingly stressed ecosystem.

Fortunately, we still do have the opportunity to limit the worst ravages that deforestation, climate change and fire could wreak there, but we have to get a lot more serious about measuring, recognizing, and limiting the damage that we as a society seem so desperate to render.

 

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.

 

Dramatic erosion of world's last intact forests

Since 2000, more than 100 million hectares of the world's surviving intact forests have been seriously degraded -- by logging, road building, fragmentation, and other disturbances. 

That's an area three times the size of Germany.

Forests under assault...  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault... (photo by William Laurance)

These are the conclusions of a new analysis and report by the Greenpeace GIS Laboratory, University of Maryland, and Transparent World, with help from the World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia.

The report focuses on "Intact Forest Landscapes" -- large expanses of remaining forest land that survive in pristine or near-pristine condition.  Key findings include:

• Since 2000, over 8% of the world's intact forests have been degraded

• Almost 95% of remaining intact forests are in tropical and boreal regions

• The largest areas of degradation were in the northern boreal forests of Canada, Russia, and Alaska, and in tropical regions such as the Amazon and Congo

• Canada, Russia, and Brazil contain nearly two-thirds of the world’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, and accounted for over half of all forest degradation

Road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, was a key driver of forest degradation, with fires and forest clearing for agriculture having big impacts in some regions

The new maps on which these analyses are based can be analyzed using tools on the cutting-edge Global Forest Watch platform.  This is a dynamic, online forest monitoring and alert system that can detect changes in near real time.

You can read more about the main findings in this press release

Kudos to the groups that produced this report for a vital and timely analysis.

 

Last chance to save the world's primary forests

ALERT member James Watson tells us about important new research on the world's last surviving primary forests.

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda  (Photo © Liana Joseph)

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda (Photo © Liana Joseph)

Primary forests -- those largely free from industrial-scale land uses, and where natural processes still dominate -- provide maximum ecosystem benefits to humans and nature. 

Primary forests are essential for biodiversity conservation, and in the face of a rapidly changing climate they will provide critical refugia for many vulnerable species and sustain the maximum natural adaptive capacity.

However, new research by my colleagues and I -- which you can download free here -- has shown how threatened the world's primary forests are.  Just one-quarter of all primary forests still survive on Earth, with a mere 5 percent of these found in protected areas.

Despite increasing global awareness, annual rates of primary-forest loss remain as high as 2 percent in some countries.

Importantly, our study found that half of the world's primary forests occur in five developed nations -- the USA, Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand -- and the time is ripe for these nations to show leadership and promote the conservation of remaining primary forests as an urgent matter of global concern.

This is critically important in international negotiations -- such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- as all fail to distinguish primary forests from industrial production forests, degraded forests, or even plantations.

Now is the time to underscore the vital importance of vanishing primary forests and their crucial benefits for nature and human welfare.

 

African ecosystems assailed by foreign-funded mining boom

Africa is experiencing a mining boom of truly unprecedented proportions, with hundreds of billions of dollars of investments pouring in from China, Australia, India, Canada, Russia, Brazil, and other nations.  Profound changes are ahead.  Can African ecosystems and wildlife survive?

Trouble on the horizon... even the iconic Serengeti could be threatened by mining   (photo by William Laurance)

Trouble on the horizon... even the iconic Serengeti could be threatened by mining (photo by William Laurance)

This is the theme of a new article by David Edwards and colleagues, including ALERT director Bill Laurance, which has just appeared online in Conservation Letters.  

Among the key findings:

- Chinese investment in African mining has skyrocketed, and now exceeds $100 billion annually

- more than 230 Australian mining companies are working in 42 different African countries

- mining investments could have sizable economic benefits but are a driving force behind new roads and infrastructure projects that are opening up much of Sub-Saharan Africa to development pressures

- mining money could be highly destabilizing for many African governments that have long been plagued by corruption concerns

- Many of Africa's most spectacular ecosystems and centers of biological diversity could be imperiled by mining projects and associated developments

Few doubt that this foreign-investment-fueled mining boom will profoundly change Africa.  The question is just how much environmental damage will be inflicted during the feeding frenzy.