The new land-use tsunami imperiling the tropics

Oil palm, oil palm, oil palm.  For years we've heard that a tidal wave of oil palm expansion is one of the biggest and fastest-growing threats to the world's rainforests.

But there's a new peril in town: rubber.  And it's also spreading like a destructive tsunami.

Spreading like wildfire

Spreading like wildfire

Two recent papers -- by Eleanor Warren-Thomas and colleagues and by Antje Ahrends and colleagues -- have underscored just how desperate the situation is becoming, especially in Southeast Asia.

As a result of escalating demand for natural rubber, plantations are increasingly gobbling up large expanses of land in Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland, as well as tropical Africa and Latin America. 

For instance, vast expanses of native forests have been cleared for rubber plantations in southern China,  which sustains many of that nation's biologically richest ecosystems

The current global production of rubber  (from Warren-Thomas  et al.  2015)

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

Warren-Thomas et al. see a rapidly worsening situation.  To meet expected demand, they estimate that from 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations -- an area up to three times the size of Belgium -- will be needed by 2024, threatening in particular significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

Expect especially rapid increases in rubber plantations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, say the authors.

Ahrends and colleagues emphasize that rubber is now expanding into many areas that are ecologically marginal for rubber production.  In Southeast Asia, they estimate that 57% of the rubber plantations are currently vulnerable to droughts, erosion, frost, or wind damage.

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks  (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

In 2013, for instance, typhoons in Vietnam alone destroyed over $US250 million in rubber plantations.  And future climate change could make conditions across Southeast Asia even worse for rubber, they contend.

The worst news of all is that native forests and other habitats are often being cleared for rubber production.  For example, say Ahrends et al., between 2005 and 2010, over 250,000 hectares of natural tree cover and 61,000 square kilometers of protected areas were converted to plantations in tropical and subtropical Asia.

This is scary news for the environment, for it suggests that a 'second tsunami' of forest-destroying plantations for rubber could soon follow just on the heels of the explosive expansion of oil palm.


ALERT press release: Roads imperil wilderness

To coincide with the International Day of Forests, ALERT today issued a press release entitled "Roads imperil world's last wildernesses".

Roads versus nature... Deforestation near Acre, Brazil

Roads versus nature... Deforestation near Acre, Brazil

Our press release partially echoes a recent press statement by RoadFree, which also highlights the often-devastating impacts of new roads on wilderness areas (see blog below).

There is a growing consensus among scientists that unbridled road expansion is one of the biggest proximate causes of environmental degradation globally


Massive oil palm project threatens biodiversity in Cameroon

Oil palm plantations continue to spread like a tsunami across large expanses of the world's humid tropical regions, often driving large-scale deforestation.  Initially widespread in Southeast Asia, the crop is now spreading apace to Latin America, Africa and beyond.

Things are not looking up for wildlife in Cameroon (photo by William Laurance).

Things are not looking up for wildlife in Cameroon (photo by William Laurance).

ALERT member Joshua Linder has been very concerned about the impacts of a massive oil palm project in Cameroon.  Advocated by Herakles Corp., a New York-based agroindustrial firm, the plantation could eventually span over 70,000 hectares and destroy large areas of habitat in the buffer zones of three of Cameroon's most important national parks.

In a recent article, Linder decries the tactics of Herakles and explains how the project could impact on endangered primates and other wildlife species.  Other observers are also expressing great concern about this huge project, both for its environmental impacts and potential effects on local communities.

The challenges to nature conservation in Africa will surely increase dramatically this century, as its human population continues to grow rapidly.  The United Nations estimates that Africa's population will quadruple this century, and the continent is also experiencing an explosion of mining, infrastructure and other development pressures.