Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

Today tropical rainforests are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. Tropical cover now stands at 2 billion hectares (7.7 million sq miles), an area about the size of the United States plus China and representing around 13 percent of the world's land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.

Five Basic Steps to Saving Rainforests

"TREES" is a concept originally devised for an elementary school audience but serves well as set of principles for saving rainforests and, on a broader scale, ecosystems around the world.

  • Teach others about the importance of the environment and how they can help save rainforests.
  • Restore damaged ecosystems by planting trees on land where forests have been cut down.
  • Encourage people to live in a way that doesn't hurt the environment.
  • Establish parks to protect rainforests and wildlife.
  • Support companies that operate in ways that minimize damage to the environment.

Deforestation of tropical rainforests has a global impact through species extinction, the loss of important ecosystem services and renewable resources, and the reduction of carbon sinks. However, this destruction can be slowed, stopped, and in some cases even reversed. Most people agree that the problem must be remedied, but the means are not as simple as fortifying fences around the remaining rainforests or banning the timber trade. Economic, political, and social pressures will not allow rainforests to persist if they are completely closed off from use and development.

So, what should be done? The solution must be based on what is feasible, not overly idealistic, and depends on developing a conservation approach built on the principle of sustainable use and development of rainforests. Beyond the responsible development of rainforests, efforts to rehabilitate and restore degraded forest lands along with the establishment of protected areas are key to securing rainforests for the long-term benefits they can provide mankind.

Javari river. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Past efforts

Historic approaches to rainforest conservation have failed, as demonstrated by the accelerated rate of deforestation. In many regions, closing off forests as untouchable parks and reserves has neither improved the quality of living or economic opportunities for rural poor nor deterred forest clearing by illegal loggers and developers. Corruption has only worsened the situation.

The problem with this traditional park approach to preserving wildlands in developing countries is that it fails to generate sufficient economic incentives for respecting and maintaining the forest. Rainforests will only continue to survive as functional ecosystems if they can be shown to provide tangible economic benefits. Local people and the government itself must see financial returns to justify the costs of maintaining parks and forgoing revenue from economic activities within the boundaries of the protected area.

Rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Limited resources

Countries with significant rainforest cover are generally not the world's richest. As such, rural people's day-to-day survival is dependent upon natural-resource use. Most local people living in and around forests never have an option to become a doctor, sports star, factory worker, or secretary; they must live off the land that surrounds them, making use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty costs themselves, their country, and the world through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services like erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, and fisheries protection.

Governments in these countries are in the unenviable position of having to balance the well-being of rural poor with the interests of industry, demands from foreign governments, and requirements from the international aid community. In this climate, it can be easier to simply neglect the continued destruction and degradation of environmental assets than to come up with a long-term plan to ensure that economic development is ecologically sustainable. Success in conserving wildlands in these countries will require reconciling the inevitable conflicts between short-term needs of local people and the long-term nature of the benefits that conservation can generate on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

Forces behind rainforest loss

Rainforests are being cut mostly for economic reasons, though there are political and social motivations as well. A significant portion of deforestation is caused by poor farmers simply trying to eke out a living on marginal lands. Beyond conversion for subsistence agriculture, activities like logging, clearing for cattle pasture and commercial agriculture are sizable contributors to deforestation on a global scale. Agricultural fires typically used for land-clearing often spread outside cultivated areas and into degraded rainforest regions.

Jungle creek in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Addressing deforestation

Addressing deforestation requires taking the very different needs and interests of these groups into account.

    Poor farmers:
    Poor farmers are simply trying to put food on the table for their families. A better approach to addressing the needs of the rural poor may be improving and intensifying currently existing agricultural projects and promoting alternative cultivation techniques—notably permaculture. Permaculture adds a mix of crops to the farmer's palette that both enables the farm to diversify his or her income stream and enhance degraded soils by restoring nutrients. An added benefit of such techniques is that they maintain forest systems, soils, and biological diversity at a far higher level than do conventional agricultural approaches. As long as such fields are adjacent to secondary and old-growth forest, many species will continue to thrive.

    One promising area of research looks at ancient societies that lived in the Amazon rainforest before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Apparently these populations were able to enrich the rainforest soil, which is usually quite poor, using charcoal and animal bones. By improving soil quality, large areas of the Amazon that have been deforested could be used to support agriculture. This could help reduce pressure on rainforest areas for agricultural land. Further, the "terra preta" soil could be used to help fight global warming since it sequesters carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming.

    A second important part of aiding poor farmers is helping them gain formal title to their land. Right now, in places where it is difficult to gain ownership rights to land and where land is relatively open and abundant, there is little incentive to maintain or improve holdings. Once local people have a stake in the land they are farming, they will have an interest in using it efficiently instead of moving on to a new area of forest once soils are prematurely exhausted.

    The creation of credit facilities for poor farmers to both save their earnings and borrow in times of need is also important to improving their quality of life. Micro-credit facilities can provide significant economic benefits to the local economy while bringing dignity to and promoting entrepreneurship among local people.

    Finally, improved access to markets is important in enabling farmers to get their agricultural products. Improved access can be a doubled-edged sword if it means increased road-building, which often spurs further deforestation. Any infrastructure improvements should be carefully planned to minimize the future impact on remaining ecosystems.

    Industrial/commercial developers:

    Thus far it has proved difficult to apply the same permaculture agricultural techniques mentioned above to industrial operations. As currently practiced, large-scale agriculture is typically quite destructive of native ecosystems and does not maintain biodiversity at levels commensurate with adjacent forest areas. Incremental steps like the use of natural pest control and fertilizers can help reduce pollution caused by agricultural operations, while leaving strips of forest as corridors linking sections of forest helps moderate biodiversity losses.

    Sustainable logging, while possible, has met resistance from the timber industry for its lack of efficiency relative to traditional harvesting methods, and it remains controversial among conservationists as to its impact on the environment. Illegal logging and counterfeit labeling are major obstacles facing sustainable forest management for timber, but in time the development of higher yielding timber plantations established on degraded non-forest lands will help alleviate pressures on natural forests.

Flooded forest in lowland Amazonia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Restoring and rehabilitating ecosystems

There is no use bemoaning past deforestation of large areas. Today the concern is how to best utilize lands already cleared so they support productive activities, now and for future generations. Without improving the well-being of people living in and around forests, we cannot expect rainforests to persist as fully functional systems and continue to cater to our needs.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] In addressing environmental problems in rainforest countries, it is important that decision makers not only be concerned with the transformation of existing natural ecosystems, but also the more rational utilization of already cleared and degraded areas. To lessen future forest loss, we must increase and sustain the productivity of farms, pastures, plantations, and scrub land in addition to restoring species and ecosystems to degraded habitats. By reducing wasteful land-use practices, consolidating gains on existing cleared lands, and improving already developed lands, we can diminish the need to clear additional forest.

Research and experience has shown that the restoration of entire ecosystems is most possible in regions where parts or at least remnants of the original forest still remain and there are few human population pressures. Small clearings surrounded by forest recover quickly, and large sections may recover in time, especially if some assistance in the reforestation process is provided (with native seed dispersers like bats and birds doing some of the heavy lifting). After several years, a once-barren field can again support vegetation in the form of pioneer species and secondary growth. Although the secondary forest will be low in diversity and poorly developed, the forest cover will be adequate for some species to return (assuming they still exist). In addition, the newly forested patch can be used for the sustainable harvest of forest products and low-intensity logging and agriculture.

Flooded forest in lowland Amazonia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Funding rainforest conservation efforts

Conservation efforts and sustainable development programs are not going to be cost-free. Even countries that already get considerable aid from foreign donors have trouble effectively making such initiatives work in the long term. Since handouts, which in and of themselves can breed dependency, are inherently unsustainable, funding these initiatives may require more creative sources of income to be truly successful. Here are some other funding strategies for consideration:

  • Payments for ecosystem services—Hope for avoiding the worst outcomes in the tropics increasingly rests on the belief that people will soon pay for the services provided by healthy rainforests. These services—which include biodiversity maintenance, rainfall generation, carbon sequestration, and soil stabilization, among others—have traditionally been undervalued by markets, but there are signs that the situation is changing. In recent years the idea of compensating tropical countries for the carbon stored in their forests has gained traction. Known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the approach is being pushed by entities ranching from the World Bank, to the U.N., to conservation groups, to states and municipalities. Even Indigenous groups are experimenting with REDD+ projects. At a conceptual level, REDD+ operates as follows: tropical countries receive payments for reducing deforestation and forest degradation rates below a historic, mutually agreed-upon baseline. The payments go toward activities that reduce deforestation, whether its creating alternative livelihoods to slash-and-burn agriculture, subsidizing industrial agricultural expansion on degraded grasslands instead of forests, or providing health care to communities that normally depend on illegal logging to pay for medicine. While the idea sounds simple, in reality it is rather complex due to uncertainties on land rights, concerns that stopping deforestation in one place will only drive it elsewhere, worries about fairness and corruption, and controversies over the origin of the funds. Some believe that carbon offsets — whereby instead of reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions emissions, a polluter (e.g. a power company) pays another entity (e.g. a collective of poor farmers) to reduce its emissions (e.g. halting deforestation for small-scale agriculture) — should fund REDD+. Others balk at this approach and instead REDD+ should be funded by traditionally aid models, under which taxpayers in countries like Australia, Germany, and the United States foot the bill for rainforest conservation in places like Papua New Guinea, Congo, and Ecuador. Some argue for something in between known as hybrid models. Of course carbon is just one of many services afforded by forests. Some analysts believe water generated by rainforests may have an even higher value than carbon. In fact, Brazil has started valuing parts of the Amazon based on the rainfall it generates for agricultural region and the contribution to hydroelectric dams.
  • Commodity roundtables—In a similar vein, pricing carbon emissions into agricultural production could generate funds for conservation while discouraging deforestation. The idea is that agricultural producers who abide by certain standards that reduce carbon emissions — like avoiding deforestation — would see higher prices for their products or receive preferential market access, like reduced tariffs. Meanwhile producers who continue to clear forests would be charged for the associated emissions. The approach is not without precedent — several countries, including Indonesia, have deforestation charges.
  • Ecotourism—Ecotourism can fund efforts both through park entrance fees and employing locals as guides and in the handicraft and service sectors (hotels, restaurants, drivers, boat drivers, porters, cooks). Many lodges in and around protected areas charge a daily fee to visitors which goes toward supporting the forest.
  • Bio-prospecting fees—Rainforest countries can earn revenue by allowing scientists to develop products from a country's native plant and animal species. The pioneer in this area was Costa Rica, which entered into an agreement with the American pharmaceutical company, Merck, to look for plants with potential pharmaceutical applications. Under the agreement, a portion of the proceeds from compounds that do prove commercially valuable will go to the Costa Rican government, which has guaranteed that some of the royalties will be set aside for conservation projects. Similarly, in 2001 Givaudan, a Swiss fragrance and flavor company, sent a team to look for new exotic smells and flavors in Madagascar. Following their survey, Givaudan researchers "reconstituted" 40 aromas that could be used in commercial products. The company has agreed to share a portion of the profits from these products with local communities through conservation and development initiatives. However such approaches have been challenged by questions over intellectual property and compensation for native communities. The market has also proved smaller than originally hoped.
  • Corporate sponsorship—Corporations have been a bit slow in "adopting" parks, but they have the money and a marketing-driven interest in taking a closer look at such schemes. One possible approach was proposed in 2004 Eugene Linden, Thomas Lovejoy, and J. Daniel Phillips in a commentary for Foreign Affairs. In the editorial, they call for dividing tropical rainforests into blocks and then soliciting funding commitments from international environmental groups, development institutions, corporations, and other credible donors. There would be a bidding process, after which an entity would take responsibility for maintaining forest cover and forest health in each block of the entire forest system. This plan could be a road for corporations to become involved in conservation as a public-relations/marketing tool. A given percentage of the proceeds could be put into a trust fund with the payout ear-marked for ongoing conservation and sustainable development programs.
Flooded forest in lowland Amazonia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Further steps once funding is in place

  • Expand protected areas—As many areas should be protected as soon as possible. If protected areas can be developed in such a manner to generate income for local communities, an increasing number of parks should theoretically create more economic benefits for a greater share of the population.
  • Increase surveillance of and patrols in protected areas—This can be done at a reduced cost if local communities benefit from the success of the park. If locals have a vested interest (i.e. are compensated via entrance fees, hired as guides, make handicrafts to sell to tourists, and recognize the value of ecosystem services), they will want to watch the park so that the source of their income is not diminished. Community surveillance is the most effective way to patrol a protected area, though it will probably be necessary to have park staff conduct patrols as well. Guides should be trained as well to keep watch for activities that are damaging to the ecosystem and report suspicious activities.
  • Build research facilities for training local scientists and guides—Boosting intellectual capital can introduce a new dynamic to an economy, especially one based on resource extraction. Unlocking the value of forests provides a great opportunity for a country to capitalize on its natural assets. For example, rainforests are home to many plants with potential medicinal value, yet it is usually American or European companies that develop drugs based on these natural compounds. Why can't it be local scientists unlocking the value of these natural treasures and local companies turning them into commercial products? Beyond medicine, there are opportunities to improve crop yields, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, and mitigate soil erosion.
  • Establish programs that promote sustainable use—Programs that promote sustainable use are key to elevating the standard of living for people living around protected areas. Not all members of a community will see the direct benefits from employment in the service or production sector, and many people will still rely on traditional use of the natural resources around them. These resources must be used in a more effective manner to maximize productivity and minimize the impact on the environment.
  • Compensate displaced people—The establishment of protected areas has often displaced local people, making them enemies of conservation and depriving them of their basis human rights. Therefore it is critical that new protected areas involve a process of "free prior informed consent" (FPIC) with stakeholders that could be affected. In cases where local communities decide to move, it is important that they are fairly compensated for abandoning their existing livelihood and homes. While direct cash payouts is an option, a better strategy may be to provide these displaced people with long-term income possibilities through training in improved agricultural techniques or alternative crops.
  • Involve Indigenous people, where they still exist, in park management. Indigenous people know more about the forest than anyone and have an interest in safeguarding it as a productive ecosystem that provides them food, shelter, and clean water. Research has found that in some cases, "indigenous reserves" may actually protect rainforest better than national parks in the Amazon. [More in our interview with Mark Plotkin and the Conservation Corridors Project.]
  • Promote ecotourism—Ecotourism is perhaps the best long-term approach for sustaining some tropical economies. Planners should seek to minimize the environmental impact and maximize the benefits for local communities.
  • Ensure economic success does not result in increased deforestation—As rural populations begin to reap benefits from conservation-related activities, it is important that they not reinvest this income in activities that result in further deforestation. Traditionally, in many villages, the more money someone made, the more money was put back into land clearing. Rural banks and savings institutions are virtually unknown in many parts of the developing world. Such facilities, which would enable both saving and lending, could rapidly change the lives of millions through increased entrepreneurship and the ability to put away money for the future.
  • Encourage entrepreneurship—Encouraging entrepreneurship through such a micro-credit strategy could pay significant dividends for a country's economy as a whole. Studies in developing countries have found that entrepreneurial skills among the poor are actually quite high when people are given access to capital. Stimulating entrepreneurship through small, low-cost loans is possibly a better approach than handouts, which may do little more than breed dependency and reduce human dignity.

Looking toward the future, tough choices

Simply banning the timber trade or establishing reserves will not be enough to salvage the world's remaining tropical rainforests. In order for the forest to be preserved, the underlying social, economic, and political reasons for deforestation must be recognized and addressed. Once the issues are brought into the light, the decision can be made about what should be done. If it is decided that rainforests must be saved, then the creation of multi-use reserves that promote sustainable development and education of local people would be a good place to start. Currently about 6 percent of the world's remaining forests are protected, meaning that over 90 percent are still open for the taking. However, even this 6 percent is not safe if the proper steps towards sustainable development are not taken. If possible, reforestation and restoration projects should be encouraged if we, humanity, hope to come out of this situation without serious, long-term consequences.

Rainbow over the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • How should rainforests be protected?
  • How can we save rainforests?
  • Why is saving tropical rainforests a challenge?
  • Why do national parks often fail to protect rainforests?
  • Why is economics important in conservation?

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Continued / Next: Saving Rainforests Through Sustainable Development—Agriculture

  • The quotation at the beginning of the chapter is taken from Schaller, G.B., "Tibet's Hidden Wilderness : Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Tang Reserve," New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
  • Statistics for rainforest cover and deforestation during the 1980s comes from State of the World's Forests 1999 (SOFO) published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Myers, N. "Nature's Greatest Heritage Under Threat," Rainforests-The Illustrated Library of the Earth, Norman Myers, ed., Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993.

  • The background for agriculture in the tropical rainforest draws heavily from T. Nishizawa and J. I. Uitto, eds. (The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995) and Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995. The study which suggests nearly 12% of terre firme forests in the Amazon are anthropogenic is found in Balée, W., "The culture of Amazonian forests," Advances in Economic Botany 7: 1-21, 1989.
  • Myers, N. estimated in "Nature's Greatest Heritage Under Threat," Rainforests-The Illustrated Library of the Earth, Norman Myers, ed., Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993 that roughly 60% of deforestation is caused by the shifted cultivator.
  • Skewed land distribution is discussed in Wood, C.H. and M. Schmink, "Blaming the victim: Small farmer production in an Amazon colonization project," Studies in Third World Societies 7: 77-93, 1978; Myers, N. "Nature's Greatest Heritage Under Threat," Rainforests-The Illustrated Library of the Earth, Norman Myers, ed., Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993; and Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995.
  • Padoch, C., J. Chota Inurna, W. de Jong, and J. Unruh, "Amazonian agroforestry: A market-oriented system in Peru" Agroforestry Systems 3: 47-58, 1985; Nair, P. K., "State-of-the-art of agroforestry systems," Forest Ecology and Management 45: 5-29, 1991; T. Nishizawa and J. I. Uitto, eds. (The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995) and Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995 discuss polycultural techniques in the rainforest including agroforestry and examines the highly dynamic nature of traditional agriculture in the Amazon.
  • Greenberg, R. et al., "Bird Populations in Shade and Sun Coffee Plantations in Central Guatemala," Conservation Biology Vol. 11 No. 24 (48-59), Apr. 1997, demonstrate higher biodiversity under agroforestry systems (shade coffee plantations) than conventional coffee plantations.
  • Home gardens in Amazonia are presented in Smith, N.J.H., "Strategies for sustainable agriculture in the humid tropics," Ecological Economics 2: 311 -323, 1990 and Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995.
  • The failure of many Indonesian transmigrant agriculture programs as a result of a lack of planning and administration is discussed in Brookfield, H., Potter, L., and Byron, Y., In Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula (New York: United Nations University Press, 1995),
  • Myers, N. ("The world's forests: problems and potentials." Environmental Conservation 23 (2) p. 158-168. 1996) estimates the population of subsistence farmers dependent on tropical forests at more than 600 million and projects their growth rate at 4-6% per year.