The Rape of the Rain Forests
ONCE upon a time, a broad emerald belt girdled our planet. Trees of every kind made up its fabric, and broad rivers laced its surface.
Like a huge natural greenhouse, it was a realm of beauty and diversity. Half the world’s species of animals, birds, and insects lived there. But although it was the most bounteous region on earth, it was also fragile—more fragile than anyone imagined.
The tropical rain forest, as we now call it, seemed immense—and almost indestructible. It was not. The rain forest first began to disappear from the Caribbean islands. As early as 1671—ten years before the dodo bird became extinct—sugar plantations swallowed up the forest on Barbados.a Other islands in the region went through a similar experience, a foretaste of a global trend that has accelerated in the 20th century.
Today tropical rain forests carpet only 5 percent of the earth’s surface, compared with 12 percent a century ago. And every year an area of forest greater than the size of England, or 50,000 square miles [130,000 sq km], is felled or burned. This appalling rate of destruction threatens to condemn the rain forest—along with its inhabitants—to the same fate as the dodo. “It’s dangerous to say the forest will disappear by a particular year, but unless things change, the forest will disappear,” warns Philip Fearnside, a rain-forest researcher in Brazil. Diana Jean Schemo reported during October last year: “Data in recent weeks suggest that the burning going on in Brazil this year is greater than what has occurred in Indonesia, where major cities have been smothered under blankets of smoke that spread to other countries. . . . Burnings in the Amazon region are up 28 percent over last year, according to satellite data, and 1994 deforestation figures, the most recent available, show a 34 percent increase since 1991.”
“Trees Growing in a Desert”
Why are the rain forests, which were virtually intact a century ago, being wiped out so quickly? The temperate forests, which cover 20 percent of the earth’s surface, have not been reduced significantly in the last 50 years. What makes the rain forests so vulnerable? The answer lies in their unique nature.
Arnold Newman, in his book Tropical Rainforest, says that the rain forest has been aptly described as “trees growing in a desert.” He explains that in some parts of the Amazon basin and in Borneo, “great forests are, surprisingly, even supported on almost pure white sand.” While most rain forests may not grow on sand, nearly all lie on very poor, and very little, topsoil. Although the topsoil in a temperate forest may be seven feet [2 m] deep, in a rain forest, it rarely exceeds two inches [5 cm]. How can the most luxuriant vegetation on earth thrive in such a poor environment?
Scientists discovered the solution to this mystery in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They found that the forest literally feeds on itself. Most of the nutrients the plants need are supplied by the branch and leaf litter that covers the forest floor and that—thanks to the constant heat and humidity—is rapidly decomposed by termites, fungi, and other organisms. Nothing is wasted; everything is recycled. Through transpiration and evaporation from the forest canopy, the rain forest even recycles up to 75 percent of the rainfall it receives. Later, the clouds formed by this process water the forest again.
But this wonderful system has an Achilles’ heel. If it is damaged too much, it cannot repair itself. Cut down a small area of rain forest, and within a few years, it will restore itself; but level a large area, and it may never recover. The heavy rain washes away the nutrients, and the hot sun bakes the thin layer of topsoil until finally only coarse grass can grow.
Land, Timber, and Hamburgers
To developing countries short of agricultural land, their huge tracts of virgin forest seemed ripe for exploitation. An “easy” solution was to encourage poor, landless peasants to clear portions of the forest and stake claims—somewhat like the settlement of the American West by European immigrants. The results, however, were traumatic for both the forest and the farmers.
The lush rain forest may give the impression that anything will grow there. But once the trees are felled, the illusion of boundless fertility soon evaporates. Victoria, an African woman who cultivates a small plot that her family has recently claimed from the forest, explains the problem.
“My father-in-law has just cut down and burned this patch of forest so that I can plant groundnuts, cassava, and some bananas. This year I should get a very good crop, but in two or three years’ time, the soil will be exhausted, and we will have to clear another patch. It is hard work, but it is the only way we can survive.”
There are at least 200 million slash-and-burn farmers like Victoria and her family! And they account for 60 percent of the rain forest’s annual destruction. Although these itinerant cultivators would prefer an easier form of farming, they have no choice. Faced with a daily struggle to survive, they find conservation of the rain forest a luxury that they cannot afford.
While most farmers fell the forest for planting, others clear it for grazing. In the Central and South American rain forests, cattle ranching is another major cause of deforestation. The beef from these cattle usually ends up in North America, where fast-food chains have a huge appetite for cheap hamburger meat.
Ranchers, however, run into the same problem as the small-scale farmers. The pasture that springs up among the ashes of a rain forest can rarely support cattle for more than five years. Converting rain forest into hamburgers may be profitable for a few, but it must rank as one of the most wasteful ways of producing food that man has ever devised.b
Another principal threat to the rain forest comes from logging. Not that logging necessarily destroys the rain forest. Some companies harvest a few commercial species in such a way that the forest soon recovers. But two thirds of the 17,000 square miles [45,000 sq km] of forest that timber companies annually exploit are so heavily logged that only 1 in 5 of the forest’s trees emerges unscathed.
“It appalls me when I see a wonderful forest ripped to pieces by uncontrolled logging,” sighs botanist Manuel Fidalgo. “Although it is true that other plants and trees may take root in the cleared area, the new growth is secondary forest—which is much poorer in the number of species. It will take centuries or even millenniums before the former forest can recover.”
The logging companies also hasten the destruction of the forest by other means. Cattle grazers and itinerant farmers invade the forest mainly by the roads carved out by loggers. Sometimes the debris that loggers leave behind them feeds forest fires, which destroy even more forest than the loggers have cut. In Borneo, just one such fire consumed three million acres [one million hectares] in 1983.
What Is Being Done to Protect the Forest?
In the face of these threats, some efforts are being made to conserve the forests that remain. But the task is gargantuan. National parks can protect pockets of rain forest, but hunting, logging, and slash-and-burn farming still continue inside the confines of many parks. Developing countries have little money to spend on park administration.
Cash-strapped governments are easily lured by international companies into selling logging rights—in some cases one of the few national assets available to pay off foreign debts. And the millions of itinerant farmers have nowhere to go but deeper and deeper into the rain forest.
In a world plagued by so many problems, is conservation of the rain forests that important? What do we stand to lose if they disappear?
a The dodo was a large, heavy, flightless bird that became extinct in 1681.
b In the face of widespread protest, some fast-food chains have stopped importing cheap beef from tropical countries.