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The Kyoto Protocol provided tropical countries with no incentives to reduce deforestation. Although the global warming agreement hammered out in Copenhagen in December 2009 was a regarded as a disappointment one bright spot was support for a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). One of the key components of the program is the compensation of developing countries for preserving forest, peat soils, swamps and fields that absorb carbon dioxide.

The United States, Britain, France. Japan and Australia have promised $3.5 billion in fast-start funds to help preserve tropical rainforests.

When deforestation rates decline it is often not clear whether this has happened because of government policies or because economic factors such as the price of beef and soy beans.

A total of 193,000 square miles of forest reserves were created in Brazil between 2006 and 2010. The land reform agency there has stopped building settlements in virgin forest. Laws limit individual land holders to deforesting 20 percent of their land. Statistics have shown that burning of the rainforest dropped to 2,703 square miles year between 2004 and 2009 from a peak of 10,588 square miles a year in the 1990s.

International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA)---which was negotiated in 1994 and went into effect in 1997---aimed to set up a framework for the sustainable management of the world’s tropical forests. It ended up having about as much impact as the Kyoto Accord on global warming. Brazil refused to sign. Other countries like Indonesia have ignored it.

Decreasing Rates of Deforestation

Michael Lemonick wrote in National Geographic, “The news from the planet's forests has been surprisingly good lately, at least compared with the news of a decade or two ago. Globally, according to a United Nations report that came out last year, the rate at which forests are destroyed---logged or cleared to make way for farms or mines---was nearly 20 percent lower from 2000 to 2010 than it had been in the previous decade.

Huge tree-planting programs, especially in China, reduced the net loss of forest even further. But vast areas are still being slashed, mostly in the tropics, including each year a Switzerland-size area of previously undisturbed, ecologically precious "primary" forest. Most of those trees are burned, and the carbon stored in their wood literally goes up in smoke. Rough estimates indicate deforestation still contributes around four billion tons of planet-warming CO2 to the atmosphere each year, an eighth of the human total.

The Economist reported: “Brazil’s deforestation rate has dropped astoundingly fast. In 2004 some 2.8m hectares (10,700 square miles) of the Amazon were razed; last year only around 750,000 hectares were. This progress is not isolated. Many of the world’s biggest clearers of trees have started to hug them. Over the past decade, the UN records, nearly 8m hectares of forest a year were allowed to re-grow or were planted anew. This was mostly in richer places, such as North America and in Europe, where dwindling rural populations have taken the pressure off forestland. But a couple of big poorer countries, notably China, have launched huge tree-planting schemes in a bid to prevent deforestation-related environmental disasters. Even in tropical countries, where most deforestation takes place, Brazil is not alone in becoming more reluctant to chop down trees. [Source: The Economist, September 23, 2011]

The global recession was good for the rainforest in that it lowered demand for agricultural goods and things produced on deforested land like rubber and palm oil.

World Bank and Deforestation

The World Bank was sharply criticized for funding programs in the Amazon and Indonesia that led widespread deforestation and destruction of the rainforest. See Amazon. See Indonesia, Transmigration.

In 1998, the World Bank proposed establishing 500 million acres of "sustainable forestry” projects by 2005 and considered removing a seven-year ban on funding logging in virgin tropical rainforests. The same year the World Bank and the World Wide Fund for Nature established the Forest Alliance, which established more than 50 million hectares of protected areas, improved management of about 70 million hectares and became responsible for 22 million hectares of forests earmarked to be used commercially. It also mobilized $50 million in direct investment and found $300 million in long-term project financing.

In 2002, the World Bank adopted a new policy aimed at helping countries manage forests effectively and sustainably. Even so, in 2005 environmental groups in claimed the bank’s forestry programs, aimed at promoting sustainable development, were threatening rainforest and harming people that lived in them.

In 2005, World Bank and the World Wide Fund announced a five year program to reduce deforestation by 10 percent a year and to increase protected areas by 25 million hectares and improve management on 75 million hectares . The program involved setting up more forest-protected areas such as national parks, more effective management of already protected areas and improved management of forest that were not protected. A WWF official told AP: “The overall to achieve a 10 percent annual net reduction of the global deforestation rate by 2010 and then gradually turn the deforestation rate into a stabilization and an increase of forest area.”

In the late 2000s, the World Bank raised $250 million to fund pilot programs and support projects that encourage governments and companies in the developed world to pay for preserving trees in exchange for carbon credits that gives them the right to produce carbon dioxide.

Land Conservation and Protected Forests

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The Nature Conservancy is a land trust that purchases land to save the flora and fauna that live on it. Biologists estimate only 5 percent of the world’s biological diversity can be secured on formally designated protected areas such as national parks. The Nature Conservancy has been around for more than 50 years. It is involved in many places around the world and employs a strategy to purchase land with critically endangered species often adjacent to protected land. It also works with individuals and companies that own land with endangered species to get them to practice responsible conservation such as sustainable forestry and protection of water catchments.

All but a fraction of the world’s tropical rainforests are unprotected according to a 2006 report by the Yokohama-based International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) that covered 814 million hectares---two thirds of the world’s tropical forest---in 33 countries. All of the forests studied had been designated by the governments and landowners overseeing them for “sustainable management”---meaning they are supposed to be protected as conservation areas, only allowing timber harvesting and other economic activities if they don’t destroy the forest---but in reality only 5 percent had been managed in a sustainable way in the previous year.

In Asia and the Pacific 168 million hectares had been designated for sustainable management but only 19.5 million hectares were protected. In Latin American and the Caribbean 536 million hectares had been designated for sustainable management but only 10.8 million hectares were protected. In Africa 110 million hectares had been designated for sustainable management but only 6 million hectares were protected.

The ITTO study said, “Some countries have already lost a significant part of their natural forest heritage and now have relatively little forest and large areas of degraded , unstable and unproductive land.” On the positive size the amount of land that is being managed is significantly larger than before (only 1 million hectares was protected in 1988) . Alistair Sarre, one of the editors of the report told AP, “Given the amount of bad press that tropical forests get, this is a major improvement...and it does give us some hope that sustainable forest management is a viable land-use option and will continue to expand.”


Reforestation programs can not return a forest to the diverse state of a primary forest in a short period but it produces forests that provide some of the environmental functions of the original forest and provides commercially exploited wood and other products. In some places reforestation has scored considerable successes but it still lags behind deforestation.

There are different figures out there for deforestation and reforestation rates. By one measure the global reforestation rate between 1990 and 2005 was 2.5 million hectares a year, compared to 7 million to 8 million hectares a year destroyed by deforestation in that period. In the 1990s, in another estimate, 14 millions hectares were lost a year to deforestation but 5.2 million hectares was gained through replanting for a net loss of 9.4 million hectares.

A study published in 2006 in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that many of the world’s forests are making a comeback and some are more thickly forested now than they were 200 years ago. The greatest gains have occurred in China, Ukraine, Spain, Vietnam and the United States while the greatest losses have occurred in Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines.

The study employed data that measured the density of trees rather than just the area they cover and found that amount of forest increased in 22 of the 50 countries studied. Huge tree planting efforts in China have offset deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.

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Reforestation Efforts

Reforestation efforts have included attracting profit-motivated businessmen to invest in fast growing teak trees and trees native to the area. Under this scheme the teak trees can be harvest for money while the other tree are allowed to remain growing to rebuild the rainforest.

Planting trees as windbreak between fields also acts as a corridor for animals to move. Tree planting sometimes requires fences to keep livestock from eating the saplings. Peru has had success with reforestation programs in which aid groups set up community nurseries and villagers to decide where the trees should be planted.

The organization Floresta has had some success providing subsistence farmers with loans so they can grow fast-growing wood and fruit trees as cash crops. They grow things like eucalyptus, oregano and vine-growing fruits, increasing their income tenfold from $300 to 3,000. The stumps of eucalyptus resprout to ensure a continual harvest for many years. Soil erosion has almost been eliminated.

Landscape Restoration

Forest landscape restoration is a process which holds great promise globally for combating deforestation, desertification and global warming. It involves replanting of native vegetation and restricting grazing and over use to rejuvenate land to support local agriculture. The new vegetation also reduces flooding by anchoring the region’s soil and acts as a large carbon sink by sucking in carbon dioxide.

Landscape restoration is a slow, complex and painstaking process. Paul Mozur wrote in the New York Times,”It can take decades for vegetation to fully return, and strict attention must be paid to mundane matters like grazing and over-planting.... Because ecosystems vary based on geography, and lasting success depends on the support of local residents, the process is pesteringly cross-disciplinary. Any forest landscape restoration project requires the know-how of engineers, ecologists and soil scientists, plus an understanding of local economics and politics.”

It is becoming harder to deny the importance of forest landscape restoration in combating climate change. A new study by the World Resources Institute shows that about 1 billion hectares of land could be restored across the globe. Rough estimates indicate that carbon sequestration through this process could eliminate 50 percent more carbon from the atmosphere than a proactive cessation of deforestation could.

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Solutions to the Deforestation Problem?

The future of the rainforests, conservationists say, is in the hands of the rural farmers. Conservationists try to teach people that maintain the rainforest is in their own interest, and that they should only take what the forest has to give. Environmentalists that get drunk with the locals and dress up in silly costumes with them often have a better success rate than those who indoctrinate them. But to really make a dent in th problem many say something has to be done about the poverty that drives many to become slash and burn farmers to begin with. Summing up the real rainforest problem rather succinctly a Columbian ecologist said: "Remember the worst enemy of nature is poverty.∩"

There is an effort to bring more forested land under protection by establishing more parks, reserves and other protected areas. Ideally parks should be surrounded by several buffer zones, with logging, farming and villages allowed only in the zones that are furthest out. Due to economic and human demands it is unlikely that more than 10 percent of tropical forests can be fully protected. An important strategy in persevering tracts of forests in developed areas is creating corridors that allow animals to migrate between large forested areas another without having to enter cleared areas. Species of birds have been found 100-hectare plots with corridors that weren't found in 100-hectare plots without corridors.

Using soil analysis, modern fertilizers and crop rotation it is possible to make rainforest land much more productive than typical slash and burn agriculture. In some places rice, corn, soybeans, and peanuts have been successfully raised over long periods of time. In other places, Asian water buffalos are being introduced. They produce meat more efficiently in the humid tropics than cattle and thrive in swamps and land unsuitable for farming.☻ ∩

Ecotourim is being promoted as a way for local people to earn money from keeping the rainforests intact. But ecotourism creates problems too. Guides eager to please their clients disturb animals to appear in front of clicking camera. Some have labeled "eco tourism" tours as "eco-terrorism."☻

Analysts at the WWF say that the existing forest could provide all the worlds’ wood and pulps needs if they were properly managed in accordance with environmentally sound practices.

Social Changes Aid Rain Forests

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Dr. Wright---an internationally respected scientist---said he knew he was stirring up controversy when he suggested to a conference of tropical biologists that rain forests might not be so bad off. Having lived in Panama for 25 years, he is convinced that scientific assessments of the rain forests’ future were not taking into account the effects of population and migration trends that are obvious on the ground. [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, January 29, 2009]

In Latin America and Asia, birthrates have dropped drastically; most people have two or three children. New jobs tied to global industry, as well as improved transportation, are luring a rural population to fast-growing cities. Better farming techniques and access to seed and fertilizer mean that marginal lands are no longer farmed because it takes fewer farmers to feed a growing population.

Gumercinto Vásquez, a stooped casual laborer who was weeding a field in Chilibre in the blistering sun, said it had become hard for him to find work because so many farms had been abandoned. “Very few people around here are farming these days,” he said.

The fate of secondary forests lies not just in biology. A global recession could erase jobs in cities, driving residents back to the land.”Those are questions for economists and politicians, not us,” Dr. Wright said.

Rainforest and Environmental Groups

Rather than categorically condemning all forms of logging, mining, road building and agriculture in the rainforest, some environmentalist are pushing environmentally-friendly versions of logging, mining, road building and agriculture.

The WWF is encourage villages to start nurseries that provide firewood and poles for construction.

Nature Conservancy buy land and logging rights. It is also involved debt for nature swaps---where debtor nations either give land to conservation organizations or promise to protect it in exchange for money to pay off their debts.

Ikea has sponsored studies into rates of deforestation.

"Again and again I heard the same story," Jere Van Dyk wrote in National Geographic, "American demanded that people stop cutting the rainforest. Americans demanding timber. Americans demanded that people stop growing coca. American demanding cocaine.

Fighting Deforestation in the Amazon

John Collins Rudolf wrote in the New York Times, “In Brazil in particular, an overhaul of logging laws and a new zeal in enforcement have led to a significant drop not only in illegal logging but also in overall deforestation rates in the Amazon, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. [Source: John Collins Rudolf, New York Times]

Bob Walker, a professor of geography at Michigan State University and an expert on deforestation in the Amazon, witnessed the crackdown on illegal logging during a recent trip into an area of once-rampant deforestation---Brazil’s so-called soy highway, where large swaths of forest have been transformed into soybean fields in recent decades. “You had tens of thousands of loggers who were out of work---people were not happy,” Mr. Walker said in an interview. “A lot of the sawmills went broke. I was amazed to see it.”

John Carter, a rancher who settled in the Amazon in the 1990s started a landowners’ environmental group, called Aliança da Terra, whose members agree to have their properties surveyed for good environmental practices and their forests tracked by satellite by scientists at the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research (IPAM), ensuring that they are not cultivating newly cleared land. Mr. Carter is currently negotiating with companies like McDonalds to purchase only from farms that have been certified.

Cattle Industry Agrees to Help Fight Deforestation

Alexei Barrionuevo wrote in the New York Times, “Environmental groups hailed a decision by four of the world’s largest meat producers to ban the purchase of cattle from newly deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest.At a conference on Monday in São Paulo organized by Greenpeace, the four cattle companies---Bertin, JBS-Friboi, Marfrig and Minerva---agreed to support Greenpeace’s call for an end to the deforestation. [Source: Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times, October 6, 2009]

But the Brazilian government, while pushing ambitious goals to slow deforestation in the Amazon, is also a major financer and shareholder in global beef and leather processors that profit from cattle raised in areas of the Amazon that have been destroyed, often illegally, according to Greenpeace.

The four cattle producers agreed to monitor their supply chains and set clear targets for the registration of farms that supply cattle, both directly and indirectly. They also said they would devise measures to end the purchase of cattle from indigenous and protected areas, and from farms that use slave labor.

Environmental groups called the decision a major step forward for climate protection. “This agreement shows that in today’s world someone that wants to be a global player cannot be associated with deforestation and with slave labor,” said Marcelo Furtado, executive director of Greenpeace in Brazil. Brazil has the world’s largest cattle herd and is the world’s largest beef exporter, but it is also the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

Daniel Nepstad, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, has mapped out large areas of the Amazon “pixel by pixel” to determine the land value if it was converted to raise cattle or grow soy, to help determine how much landowners should be paid to conserve forest. Most experts feel that landowners will accept lower prices as they realize the benefits of saving forest, like conserving water and burnishing their image with buyers.

Image Source: Mongabay

Text Sources: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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