Narco-deforestation blitzes Guatemalan rainforests

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 solution?

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.

Rainforests Could Be Extinct in 100 Years – And So Could We

“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.

Justin Trudeau says ‘no’ to Great Bear Forest pipeline

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.

Deforestation Shame in Australia

Think deforestation and Australia doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Maybe it should. According to the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania conference in Brisbane held in the summer, eleven regions of the world have been highlighted as in the most danger from deforestation. And eastern Australia is the only one in a developed country.

Rampant destruction and deforestation must be stopped

At the conference more than 200 senior scientists from Australia and beyond signed a statement ‘describing the rampant deforestation taking place across the continent and offering solutions’. It looks like fast-accelerating destruction of the nation’s forest, woodland and grassland is one of the biggest threats to the county’s unique wildlife, putting 60% of Australia’s 1700 or more endangered species at risk.

100 million native creatures lost in Queensland alone

Habitat disturbance sits at the heart of the problem, introducing predators and invasive species, and restricting the mobility of native species. Around 100 million native birds, reptiles and mammals perished between 1998 and 2005 thanks to habitat destruction in New South Wales and 100 million more in Queensland between 1997 and 1999.

Planting replacement trees just isn’t good enough

On the bright side, the nation’s government has promised to plant 20 million trees by 2020. On the downside, it just isn’t enough. Over 20 million trees are cleared in Queensland alone every year.

The scientists at the conference recommended ‘completely’ protecting habitats with high conservation value, restoring cleared landscapes, recognising biodiversity in every policy decision, and assessing  the impact of every single land clearing request in fine detail. All of which illustrates just how far the problem has already been allowed to go.

World Environment Day heralds a new National Park in Indonesia

World Environment Day saw a brand new national park established in Sumatra, in a move that should threaten the Palm Oil producers who are busy destroying the region’s legendary rainforest. On the other hand corruption means the region’s national parks remain far from secure, far from safe.

Zamrud National Park – the third national park in the Riau region

The Zamrud spans almost 31, 500  hectares and contains two big lakes, Pulau Besar Lake and Bawah. It’s home to 38 bird species, including 12 protected species, as well as the super-rare Sumatran tiger and sun bear.  The Zamrud National Park is Riau province’s third national park. The new park is in the Siak district of Riau province, a place where unique peat swamps have already been drained for oil palm and pulpwood production. As a result they’re experiencing fierce annual wildfires that give off a toxic haze and cause even more distress to the forest and the creatures who live there.

Weak enforcement, greed, short term thinking and corruption mar Indonesia’s national parks

The saddest thing of all is that the illegal deforestation happens because of weak law enforcement and corruption, the reason why Riau’s older national parks have been so badly damaged. Tesso Nilo in particular is full of illegal oil palm plantations, linked to the supply chains of household name brands like Unilever and Nestle. Both organisations have promised to eliminate deforestation from their supply networks, but progress is extremely slow – if not non-existent – on the ground.

More than 40% of Riau’s forests have already been cleared 

In September and October 2015 wildfires emitted more CO2 than the entire EU, a shameful indictment of the palm oil and pulpwood industries’ greed and short-term thinking.

Since 2001 over 40% of Riau’s forests have been cleared for industry, according to the World Resources Institute.

While we’d like to congratulate the Indonesian government for setting a new national park in place to protect their precious rainforests, we must also lay the blame at their feet for ongoing deforestation. As long as corruption and greed continue to rule the day, the world’s rainforests will remain  under threat.

Alpine Forests Suffering from Droughts and Rainstorms

There’s more to rainforest conservation than lush, hot tropical rainforests. Research by the Technical University of Munich reveals cool Alpine forests will also suffer if there are more frequent droughts and torrential rain. Apparently the glorious mountain forests of the Bavarian Alps have seen a ‘significant reduction’ in topsoil organic matter over the last thirty years, and the study’s author recommends increasing the amount of soil humus to safeguard mountainous forests for the future.

Humus is vital for all sorts of reasons

Good stocks of humus are vital for soil fertility. They also support a good water balance and soil nutrient supplies. The thing is, carbon bound up with soil in cooler mountain regions reacts strongly to warmer weather caused by climate change, released in huge amounts by micro-organisms. Eventually the soil loses its capacity to store carbon altogether.

Humus reduced to a poor state over a very short time

The new study looks at changes in humus stocks in Alpine soil, based on data from 35 mountain forests and high altitude pastures going back 30 years. And it looks like there’s been a dramatic, rapid and statistically significant humus loss in the mountain forest soils studied.  The topsoil organic matter stock in the Bavarian Alps declined by an average of 14% and limestone and dolomite-based soils suffered the most, losing just under a third of their humus.

Warming Alpine climate dates back to the ’70s

Weather stations have recorded climate change in the area since the 1970s and the changes have been observable for the past century, especially in the badly-affected Berchtesgaden region where the average temperature rise has been ‘drastic’ through the summer months. In contrast there’s been very little humus loss in mountain pasture soils, but they’re always less humus-rich than nearby forest soils anyway.

What can be done?

The authors of the study recommend humus-promoting forest management to mitigate the effect as the climate continues to warm and we see more extreme weather.  A healthy humus layer helps store water to nourish trees and Alpine flora, and also help reduce floods. To keep things working as they should, proactive humus restoration is essential.

The proof – Rubber plantations destroy biodiversity

Everyone knows palm oil plantations are wreaking havoc in rainforests all over the world. Now rubber plantations have come under equal scrutiny, and it’s no surprise to see they bring about a ‘sharp decline’ in the overall biodiversity of an area.

Rubber – The fastest-growing agroecosystem in Asia

A team at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University have been studying rubber plantations, the most rapidly spreading agroecosystem in Southeast Asia, and it looks like they’ll have a  profound impact on biodiversity through disrupting the natural landscape.

The research centred on ants in Xishuangbanna, China, in a forest converted to a rubber plantation, and used the creatures to establish the effects of the change on other invertebrates. The results revealed a dramatic drop in the overall biodiversity of ants in the plantation.

Why ants?

Ants are a good surrogate for other invertebrates, as well as being functionally vital, doing a wide variety of tasks in the forest ecosystem including helping with decomposition and dispersing seeds. And because ants are everywhere, they’re relatively easy to study.

Watching a rubber plantation do its evil work

The team collected 186 different ant species at 11 sites on a rubber plantation in China, and 24 sites from the surrounding forest. They sorted the ants by species and measured how they interacted with their home ecosystem. Stuff like body size, eye dimensions and leg length were all noted, as well as the creatures’ phylogenetic diversity – in other words how closely related they were to each other. And they looked at  biodiversity in different dimensions, to check what was happening as the forest was converted to grow rubber.

Sadly they realised that there was a striking decrease in ant biodiversity, with fewer different species and less variety in species function after the natural forest was disrupted. And the decrease was bigger than anyone expected. Worse still, the data revealed only a small subsection of the forest species could survive in the rubber plantation, which acts very like an ecological filter.

Decimating the ant population is bad news for rainforests

Combine the ant species loss with a reduction in their functional diversity and the news isn’t looking good for countless other species who depend on the ants, and the complex natural processes that maintain the delicate ecosystem.

Will rubber become the new palm oil?

With more and more rubber plantations springing up, it looks like rubber might become the next palm oil, something else to avoid, protest against and raise awareness about