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.


Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm  (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.


Are vines taking over the planet?

Welcome to the 'Planet of the Vines'.  It's a world where proliferating vines strangle trees, suppress forests, and diminish forest carbon storage -- increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and making Earth a hotter place for us all.

Are vines running amok?  (photo by William Laurance)

Are vines running amok? (photo by William Laurance)

That's the implication of two recent studies in the leading journal Ecology

In the first, ALERT director Bill Laurance and colleagues showed that woody vines (known as 'lianas') in undisturbed forests of the Amazon have increased markedly in abundance, by about 1% per year over at least the last couple of decades.

Why?  Nobody knows for sure, but Laurance and colleagues think it might be a response to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  This stimulates plant growth, and fast-growing species such as vines seem especially adept at taking advantage of it.

In the second study, researcher Stefan Schnitzer and colleagues experimentally removed woody vines from forests in Panama, by cutting them off of infested trees.  They found that growth rates of the trees nearly tripled, and that forest-carbon storage increased by a fifth.

This illustrates just how dramatically vines can affect forests.  Vine-infested trees grow more slowly, reproduce less, and die more often.  When they die, the carbon that's stored in their wood and leaves is released into the atmosphere, as carbon dioxide.

Some woody vines are hefty...  (photo by William Laurance)

Some woody vines are hefty... (photo by William Laurance)

This kind of scenario sends shivers up the spines of ecologists, because it can turn into a positive feedback -- a situation that can quickly snowball out of control. 

In other words: humans spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to more vines, which then kill and suppress trees, which in turn emit more carbon dioxide...  And on and on it goes...

In the 1970s a margarine commercial on TV resonated with the punchline, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature". 

Clearly we haven't learned that lesson. 

It seems increasingly likely that Mother Nature might now be fooling around with us.

Species disappearing "1000 times faster than normal"

Want to know one of the most hotly debated questions in environmental science?  It's this: How fast are species disappearing today?  A new paper in the leading journal Science suggests the answer is -- very fast indeed.

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

Undiscovered species... this Amazonian jay doesn't even have a scientific name yet (photo by Mario Cohn-Haft)

The paper, led by ALERT member and Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm with a team of eminent coauthors, makes several key arguments:

- Species extinctions today are occurring roughly 1000 times faster than the 'background' (or natural) rate that prevailed before humans appeared on Earth

- We know where the most imperiled species are located, with particularly big concentrations in the tropical Asia-Pacific region, especially in places like the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra

-Other regions with lots of extinction-prone species include the Andes mountains, West Africa, Madagascar, and other scattered pockets of the world

- Millions of species have not yet been discovered (scientifically described or studied) by scientists; for example, huge numbers of plant, insect, fungi, and nematode species are undiscovered, among many others

- Many of the undiscovered species are imperiled because they have small geographic ranges and occur in vulnerable parts of the world -- known as 'biodiversity hotspots' -- that have already lost much of their original habitat

- Protecting the surviving habitats in the biodiversity hotspots is crucial if we are to stave off a dramatic collapse of biodiversity on Earth

For those who care about biodiversity, this paper (which you can download free at the link above) is an authoritative and highly readable summary of what we know, think, and suspect about the future of life on Earth.


Is intensifying agriculture good or bad for nature?

It's a conundrum... should we intensify farming to get more food per acre, and thereby hope to spare wild lands for nature?  Or should we focus on extensive 'wildlife-friendly' farming that's less productive per acre but not so hard on biodiversity?

Do we want to turbocharge farming or make it wildlife-friendly?

Do we want to turbocharge farming or make it wildlife-friendly?

However, we might feel about this debate, many agronomists believe that intensifying agriculture is the only realistic way we're going to feed up to 11 billion people this century. 

In a new essay in Yale Environment 360, ALERT director Bill Laurance summarizes some of the pithy realities and tough choices ahead, especially for the tropics. 

The tropics are likely to be the epicenter of future agricultural expansion, because that's where crops grow the fastest, where land is the cheapest, and where human populations and food demand are increasing the fastest.

Of course, the tropics are also the epicenter of biodiversity--of life on Earth. 

Save a little land for me...

Save a little land for me...

The 21st century is going to bring truly remarkable changes.  The pressing question is: can we feed billions more people while also protecting the natural world?


We must save logged tropical forests

Four hundred million hectares--an area bigger than Mexico and Indonesia combined.  About the size of the Brazilian Amazon.

That's how much of the world's tropical forests are being selectively logged.  Unfortunately, these logged forests are intensely vulnerable to being cleared for oil palm, slash-and-burn farming, and other land-uses.

Logged forests... lots of biodiversity here

Logged forests... lots of biodiversity here

In the past, biologists have often emphasized the negative impacts of logging on biodiversity.  But a growing body of evidence shows that even heavily or repeatedly logged forests still retain most of their species and ecological functions. 

That's a vital conclusion because it underscores just how valuable these logged forests are

In a recent editorial, ALERT director Bill Laurance and his colleague David Edwards argue that protecting logged tropical forests should be very high on the agendas of conservationists.

With the rapid decline of old-growth tropical forests, retaining logged forests--and devising economically viable ways to manage them over the long term--are key priorities for the future.


Are global forest-destroyers turning over a new leaf?

Is the world shifting on its axis?  For those who follow the behavior of the biggest forest-destroying corporations, it might seem so.

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes? (photo by Chi'en Lee)

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes? (photo by Chi'en Lee)

In a piece just published in The Conversation, I highlight how four of the world's biggest oil palm and wood-pulp corporations seem to be changing their stripes--pledging to halt the clearing of native forests and vegetation. 

But is the story too good to be true?  Read all about it here.

-Bill Laurance

How does forest fragmentation affect birds?

ALERT member Dr Cagan Sekercioglu has just sent us an extremely interesting global meta-analysis of bird responses to habitat fragmentation.  It's a massive study, incorporating data on nearly 3000 bird species from almost 300 sites on five continents.

The paper is coauthored by Cagan as well as Tom Bregman and Joe Tobias, and was just published in Biological Conservation.  You can download it here.

Fragmentation is bad for tropical birds (photo by Susan Laurance).

Fragmentation is bad for tropical birds (photo by Susan Laurance).

Among the study's key findings:

- Fragmentation affects bird communities in tropical forests much more strongly than those in other ecosystems

- Among different types of birds, insect-eating species and large-bodied birds that eat fruit are most vulnerable

- The decline of birds in fragmented habitats can impact a number of important ecosystem functions, especially in the tropics

-Bill Laurance

The year's top stories for tropical forests continues to show why it is the leading venue for news on tropical forests.  In a recent story, Mongabay founder Rhett Butler (one of ALERT's media advisors) provides a fantastically insightful summary of trends and events in 2013 that affected tropical forests globally.

If you want to keep abreast of tropical forest conservation, you really do need to read this incisive essay.