Brazil is suffering from serious political unrest. The current government might not be around for much longer. And the Brazilian Amazon is under greater threat than ever as a result of the turmoil. The forests provide a fifth of our planet’s oxygen but the country’s Congress is talking about removing existing legal protections in an area of forest extending to at least 600,000 hectares.
Deforestation is increasing again, wildfires are back
At the same time deforestation has increased by 30% in the past 12 months and as a result destructive wildfires are back again. It looks very much like the current situation could undo all the good Brazil has done over the last decade in record time. And it’s a tragedy in the making.
The American magazine Science has revealed how Brazil cut deforestation by 72% between 2004 and 2016. The latest reports say that between July 2015 and August 2016 loggers cleared almost 8000 square kilometres of Brazilian rainforest. At least half of Brazil’s CO2 emissions are as a result of deforestation. And many experts insist that Brazil must mend its wicked ways immediately before things get any worse.
The tipping point is closer than ever
There’s so much at stake. Figures reveal that if Amazonian deforestation tips over from 20% to 30% of the total forest, it could result in a horrific tipping point and lead to the whole forest turning into a dry savanna-like landscape in record time, which would have a profound impact on the world’s already-spiralling climate.
Not so long ago Brazil promised to cut its CO2 emissions by 43% by the year 2030. It just isn’t happening. In 2015 emissions grew by three and a half percent, say Brazil’s Climate Observatory NGO group. At the same time Brazilian politicians profess to be horrified by Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement on his country’s behalf. It just doesn’t make sense.
A world-scale tragedy in the making
This is clearly madness. It’s one of the biggest threats to South America’s vital rainforests and it seems highly unlikely, right now, that Brazil is going to protect the forests it and every other living being on the planet depends on. And it’s all down to short term thinking and greed. Shame on you, Brazil.
Narco-deforestation does exactly what it says on the tin, cutting down huge swathes of precious jungle to grow drugs, namely opium poppies and coca bushes. It’s been going on for a long time but a growing market for heroin in the USA is putting extra strain on the nation’s extraordinarily biodiverse forests, home to rare jaguars, tapirs, and the stunningly lovely scarlet macaw.
Deforestation in Guatemala is a growing problem that’s being made worse by drug traffickers, who are busy ripping up trees to create landing strips, farms and money laundering operations. And the USA’s infamous opioid epidemic is at the heart of the problem. According to the motherboard website (https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/americas-opioid-epidemic-is-destroying-the-rainforest), the latest conservation, drug policy and healthcare stats reveal America’s chronic addiction to painkillers is playing a leading role in the destruction of the forests.
The US is addicted to opiates – Demand is driving deforestation
Opioid painkillers like OxyContin are the worst offenders, having increased the US’ demand for the almost chemically-identical heroin, which is cheaper than prescription painkillers. In response to the fast-growing demand drug cartels across Central and South America are slashing the forest down faster than ever. Locals say that the drug trade in the area has got a lot worse in recent years, and that drug cartels are responsible for the bulk of the deforestation.
Vast tracts of rainforest already lost
Guatemala can’t afford to lose any more of its already decimated rainforest. Images from the European Space Agency reveal that in the the 15 years between 1990 and 2005 they lost an enormous 17% of it, representing around half a million hectares of precious trees. Things have not slowed down since then – quite the opposite, in fact.
The past four years have seen a sharp increase in deforestation in Guatemala. Agriculture and logging have a role to play but drugs like cocaine and heroin are having a growing impact. This is borne out by the numbers in other countries – according to the Organization of American States, 2.5 million hectares of the Peruvian Amazon alone have been chopped down to grow coca, and a million hectares in Colombia have already been destroyed to grow opium poppies.
The USA needs to do more to tackle its desperate painkiller addiction problem, already a piping hot political potato but something that’s going to be a lot easier said than done.
“At current rates of deforestation, rainforests will vanish altogether in a century. Stopping climate change will remain an elusive goal unless poor nations are helped to preserve them.”
So says an article in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year, which reveals that humans are destroying rainforests so quickly that they could all be gone within the next 100 years.
Scary rainforest statistics
Every year an area of rainforest the size of England and Wales is cut down. The past four decades have seen an area the size of Europe destroyed. Half the world’s rainforests have been cut down in the last 100 years. If we carry on like this, they will vanish completely in a century’s time. And, if the scientists are right, that will prove catastrophic for the climate, and therefore for the human race.
Without forest cover CO2 lingers in the atmosphere and traps solar radiation, heating the planet and powering climate change. 12% or so of human-led emissions currently come from deforestation, mostly in tropical countries. The more trees are felled, the greater risk of runaway climate change. Our chances of slowing climate change becomes slimmer by the day and our chances of stopping it in its tracks are already vanishingly small.
Conservation isn’t just the right thing to do – It’s essential
All this means that conserving forests isn’t just a good thing to do, the decent thing, a choice we can make. It’s absolutely critical to long term human survival. It sounds scary, and it is scary. But it’s nothing new. We have long known that deforestation will probably send the planet into an uncontrollable climate change spin, leaving billions of people starving or flooded out, and countless climate refugees driven from their homelands.
Will the climate change penny finally drop?
It’s a dark message. Will governments, commerce and ordinary people finally stand up to preserve the vast forests that every one of us ultimately depends on for survival? Or will we just carry on as we are? Sadly it looks like runaway deforestation is still the name of the game. Greed still wins out over long-term thinking. And our job, as a rainforest conservation charity and pressure group, is more important than ever.
One of the biggest issues for rainforests is illegal logging. It’s often hard to spot in remote areas, and causes mass destruction to precious tracts of ancient forest. In the Philippines, Secretary Gina Lopez set up a strict directive for all workers of Department of Environment and Natural Resources to save the nation’s remaining forest. And it’s proving much more than mere words. The people are taking action.
1 million Pesos worth of illegal timber confiscated
In early March environmental officials seized more than 1 million Philippine Pesos worth of forest products in Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao, all of which were illegally taken from the regions’ remote rainforests. Around 35,800 feet of hardwood boards were seized after its alleged owner couldn’t provide the legal documents required to prove the haul was legal.
The wood was intercepted during transport to an undisclosed destination. In the nearby town of Datu Blah Sinsuat, the police and anti-illegal logging unit also seized another 5,800 feet of illegally cut timber, which was en route to Cotabato City. The seized wood is all being held by the police in Datu Blah and Kalamansig.
Local villagers foil the illegal loggers
Datu Blah Sinsuat’s municipal police chief told the press that local villagers from Nalkan tipped off the police about the illegal timber, great news because it means locals are playing a vital active role in protecting the forests they rely on, a burden that’s too extensive for the police and authorities to shoulder alone.
The more locals get involved in protecting rainforests, the better
As a general rule, the more local and indigenous and local people get involved in protecting their precious forests, the better protected they will be. The more likely they are to be caught and lose their illegal harvest, potentially attracting large fines and even imprisonment, the less likely lawbreakers will be to get involved with illegal logging.
The Amazon is the world’s biggest forest, and it holds around a third of the carbon stored in all the planet’s forests. Logging releases a great deal of stored carbon into the atmosphere, to be recovered again by by surviving trees and new growth.
Now the very first maps revealing post-commercial logging carbon recovery in the Amazon’s rainforests have been published in the journal eLife. And it looks like trees that survive logging might be better at storing carbon than young trees that fill the spaces left behind. This is the first such study to be carried out Amazon-wide.
Predicting post-logging carbon sequestration levels across the Amazon
A team from the Tropical Managed Forest Observatory have modelled the way different forest environments impact carbon changes in surviving trees and new trees grown post-logging, examining data from 133 permanent forest plots in 13 experimentally disturbed sites, looking at regional differences in climate, soils, and the surface biomass. These were linked with changes in carbon stocks caused by both surviving and new trees in an attempt to predict carbon recovery potential right across the Amazon.
The Guiana Shield wins the carbon stakes
The results reveal carbon recovery is highest in the Guiana Shield, an area of north east South America, and the western Amazonian forests, where surviving trees have sucked up a lot more carbon than they have in the south of the region. The Guiana Shield forests are denser, living off nutrient-poor soils, but in the south high seasonal water stress is the main barrier to carbon recovery. As a general rule stress-tolerant trees are not as good at sucking up carbon, which could explain the difference.
We can’t just rely on new growth to suck up carbon
The results of the research hint that it’s unwise to rely on new growth to store carbon in forests disturbed by logging, since newer growth is very vulnerable to water stress. The trees that survive logging seem to be a better bet, which delivers clues about how to predict a forest’s responses to carbon loss from climate change.
A Scotland-based business has just netted a £14m contract to help protect tropical forests with their clever new satellite data. The company is called Ecometrica, head quartered in Edinburgh, and their software is the first to be able to interpret satellite imagery at high speed. This means researchers can pick up on threats like illegal logging and encroaching agriculture before it’s too late, a really important development for rainforest conservation.
Ecometrica wins a UK Space Agency contract
The UK Space Agency has offered the contract, and inventors Ecometrica are soon set to start work with experts in six more countries – Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico – to help protect threatened ecosystems and direct conservation efforts and resources. The project is called ‘Forests 2020’ and is set to improve rainforest management and protection across a whopping 300 million hectares of tropical forest.
Bringing in extra expertise
Ecometrica will be sub-contracting experts from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester as well as another Edinburgh-based company called Carbomap. The funding comes courtesy of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, which is designed to join the dots between British space knowledge, undeveloped nations and developing economies.
Making a real difference on the ground
It’s hoped that the initiative will make a real difference to the people on the ground working to preserve the world’s forests, which are crucial to the survival of the world’s ecosystem and ultimately to our survival . The Earth Observation platforms will detect threats like fires and illegal logging faster, which in turn will make on-the-ground response quicker, cheaper and more effective.
Our leaders are rarely known for their ecological responsibility. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s incredibly popular Prime Minister, is a bit different. And it’s more than just talk. Trudeau has just sealed his comparatively green reputation by turning down controversial plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline project, designed to ferry filthy crude oil across the stunning wild salmon rivers and Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia.
Canada’s pre-Trudeau Conservative government had approved the Great Bear Rainforest project in 2015, but the plans were stalled thanks to a group of indigenous people, who won a court challenge against the pipeline. As Trudeau said, “This project is not in the best interest of the local affected communities, including indigenous peoples.” Sadly he has approved two other pipeline projects, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project running from Edmonton to Vancouver, and the Enbridge project designed to replace more than 1000 miles of pipeline from Alberta to Wisconsin.
On the bright side, Canada’s PM supports limits on greenhouse gases, and has announced a new Canadian tax on carbon emissions to kick off in 2018, part of its battle to meet Paris climate change accord targets. And he has his reasons for okaying the two pipelines set to go ahead. As he said at a conference in Ottawa, “We are able to approve pipeline projects because we have significant measures in place, including a price on carbon pollution, a world class oceans protection plan, because we’re phasing out coal, because we’re demonstrating real climate leadership.”
The two pipeline projects approved by the PM have, apparently, been ‘thoroughly studied and deemed safe’. On the other hand promoting the use of fossil fuels will never be an environmentally responsible thing to do in a fast-warming world. While Trudeau has taken an impressive stand, it isn’t quite impressive enough.
Canada’s government has also announced its intention to bring in legislation for a moratorium on crude-oil tankers working their way along British Columbia’s north coast. Let’s hope Mr Trudeau keeps up the good work and refuses to bow to pressure from the oil industry.