Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

In reducing the loss of tropical rainforests, we must not only be concerned with the transformation of existing natural ecosystems, but also with 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 rainforest.


Increasing productivity of cleared rainforest lands is possible using improved technology to generate higher yielding crops. Taking advantage of improved germ plasm developed through careful selection can produce grasses and crops that will grow on degraded forest soils. While technology may have accelerated the development and impoverishment of tropical rainforests, it will be one of the keys to saving them.

Articles on degraded lands
  • 125M ha of degraded lands identified for forest-friendly agricultural expansion (12/19/2014)
  • Initiative to restore 50M acres of degraded Latin American ecosystems by 2020 (12/07/2014)
  • Indonesian palm oil industry would support land swaps to protect forest, while expanding production (04/19/2013)
  • Degraded lands hold promise in feeding 9 billion, while preserving forests (03/29/2012)
  • Converting palm oil companies from forest destroyers into forest protectors (01/02/2011)
  • Degraded land news feed


    There is still time to save some of the most threatened species and ecosystems that have been pushed so close to extinction that they will perish unless we intervene. We can make a positive difference in preserving a species that mankind has practically destroyed. One of the most heart-warming examples is the story of the Mauritius kestrel. However, saving a single species takes incredible time and resources and can hardly be a practical solution. Instead the concentration must be on saving and restoring entire ecosystems.

    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 we provide some assistance in the reforestation process. 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.

    Tracts of replanted forest may have ecological returns in addition to economic ones. In the short term, forests absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon and the more trees that are replanted, the more atmospheric carbon will be sequestered. Replanting and rehabilitating secondary forests around the world has tremendous potential for offsetting greenhouse-gas emissions. One such project, known as INFAPRO, has been established in Malaysia in a cooperative venture between the FACE Foundation (Forest Absorbing Carbon Emissions) and the Innoprise Corporation. The objective of the project is to rehabilitate 61,000 acres (25,000 ha) of logged rainforest over 25 years using dipterocarps, forest fruit, and pioneer trees. The project uses the technique of enrichment planting where seedlings are planted in the understory of degraded forest and given preferential treatment to ensure growth.

    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 absorbs carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas.

    Articles on terra preta Terra preta news feed
    Smallholder forest conversion in New Guinea. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

    Review questions:

    • Why is increasing productivity on deforested lands important for rainforest conservation?
    • How do birds and bats help in habitat rainforest regeneration?

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    Continued / Next: Saving What Rainforest Remains

  • The backlash against genetically modified foods is outlined by the World Wildlife Fund and Kilman, S. and Burton, T.M., "Monsanto boss's vision of 'life sciences' firm now confronts reality," The Wall Street Journal 12/21/99.
  • Increasing productivity on degraded forest lands is discussed in Plucknett, Donald L. and N.L.H. Smith, "Sustaining agricultural yields: As productivity rises, maintenance research is needed to uphold the gains," Bioscience 36: 40-45, 1986; 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); Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995; and Dobson, A.P., A.D. Bradshaw, A.J.M. Baker, "Hopes for the Future: Restoration Ecology and Conservation Biology," Science 277: 515-522, July 25, 1997.
  • The rehabilitation of the Mauritius Kestrel is discussed in Peregrine Falcon Fund 1996, D. Adams and M. Carwardine in Last Chance to See (New York: Harmony Books, 1991), and Quammen, D. (The Song of the Dodo, New York: Scribner, 1996).
  • The reforestation effort of the Rio de Norte Mining Company is reported in Astor, M., "Rio do Norte's reforestation effort in Amazon focuses on replenishment," A.P. August 19, 1999.
  • Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions by replanting and rehabilitating secondary forests is reviewed in Houghton, R.A., "Tropical deforestation and atmospheric carbon dioxide," in Tropical Forests and Climate Change, ed N. Myers, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1983; Houghton, R.A., "Converting terrestrial ecosystems from sources to sinks of carbon" Ambio Vol. 25 No. 4, June 1996; and Costa, P.M., "Tropical forestry practices for carbon sequestration: a review and case study from southeast Asia," Ambio Vol. 25 No. 4, June 1996. However this ability of forests to serve as a net carbon sink has been criticized of late by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) (B. Scholes, "Will the terrestrial carbon sink saturate soon?" Global Change NewsLetter No. 37:2-3, March 1999) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (R. Watson et al. IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Changes, and Forestry, 1999).
  • Costa, P.M. ("Tropical forestry practices for carbon sequestration: a review and case study from southeast Asia," Ambio Vol. 25 No. 4, June 1996) discusses the FACE project.