The clearing of tropical forests is killing the planet.
Of course, it can be hard to stomach criticism of deforestation from wealthy countries that decimated many of their own natural spaces centuries ago, and reaped enormous economic benefits that have snowballed over the years.
At the same time, the urgency of curbing climate change now means that heavily forested countries can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of industrialized nations.
Moreover, drawing on his experience in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Eliesio Marubo points out that it’s faulty to assume that razing forests will somehow magically translate into higher GDP. The attorney for Univaja (the Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari) points out, “A lot of deforestation is taking place, but you’re not even using it.”
Indeed, one of the tragedies of deforestation as it’s currently practiced is that often that land isn’t even put to use after being cleared. According to a study published in Science in September, between a third and a half of the land being deforested for the sake of agriculture doesn’t actually get used for that purpose. Half of this deforestation for agricultural production comes from the expansion of cattle grazing.
Florence Pendrill, who researches land-use change at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, and who coauthored the Science paper, comments, “It would in most cases of course be better to not clear the land at all, but IF the land is cleared, then better use it productively and thereby hopefully spare a bit of pressure on other lands.”
So not only are we losing the plants that do the invaluable work of sucking down CO2, but no one is gaining anything either. This is a waste all around.
One reason is that some forested areas are clear-cut speculatively, as a potential earner in the future.
Another reason is that land clearers may have unrealistic expectations about the fertility of the land underneath all that thick greenery.
I see this on the bumpy clay road from the Brazilian city of Manaus to Camp 41, a small research base 41 kilometers into the Amazon rainforest. This road used to be well maintained, as part of a cattle ranching operation encouraged by the Brazilian government’s previous subsidy program for such activities.
Now there are ghostly reminders of the previous attempts to ranch out here: the odd rusting farmgate, dung from now-wild cows. Here the disturbed forest, often spindly and scrubby, is between 5 and 36 years old.
The failure to establish a ranch here isn’t surprising to ornithologist and ecologist Mario Cohn-Haft, of Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA). The Central Amazon isn’t suitable for ranching. Perhaps surprisingly, the soil here is poor.
“It’s not the soil that is responsible for all this lush growth,” Cohn-Haft explains. Instead, it’s the vegetation that sucks up the nutrients. And “if you remove the vegetation, then you’ve removed all the nutrients.”
Cohn-Haft believes this wasted deforestation represents a “cultural lag time.” Beef remains a symbol of wealth, status, and security, and it can be hard to convince older people that it’s not the path to riches.
“Raising cattle just seems like a guaranteed way of making money,” says Cohn-Haft. And some people aren’t realizing that the Amazon often isn’t a good fit for rearing cattle.
Land grabbers can temporarily inject some nutrients into the ground by burning down the trees, but the fertility effect would only last two or three years at most.
Biologists and conservationists in the Brazilian Amazon are frustrated by the repeated patterns of waste. As noted by Thairine Mendes Pereira, a microbiologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, “There are more profitable areas to do this. They don’t need to do this in the Amazon. “
So what should be done to avert the economically and ecologically bad idea of tearing down forests to no end?
There’s a lot of attention in wealthy countries on curbing the trade of particular deforestation-linked products across borders. But the Science study suggests that this isn’t enough, and that it’s crucial to also pay attention to needs and demands in the countries where the deforestation is actually happening.
One reason is that it’s not always clear-cut that a particular parcel of forest has been cleared just, say, for soy. There are complex reasons for deforestation and complex ways that the land is then used.
Also, there’s a risk of ignoring how domestic habits are linked to deforestation. Most meat from livestock reared in Brazil is consumed within the country (although most soy, used primarily to feed livestock elsewhere, is exported). Beef consumption in Brazil is more than three times the global average. Importing countries clearly bear a huge share of the responsibility for driving deforestation, but it’s not the full picture.
Overall, a more complex and multipronged approach to curbing deforestation is needed.
Pendrill explains, “Our findings point to the need for policies that also go beyond specific commodities, towards partnerships between producer and consumer markets and governments. These should include incentives that make sustainable agriculture economically attractive, while disincentivizing further land conversion and supporting vulnerable smallholder farmers. The private sector has an important role to play in supporting these reforms, and demand-side measures can help leverage and enable supply-side measures to be more effective. “
In other words, it’s a little bit of everything, including addressing poverty in communities in and around forests. “A common theme for all the examples we have seen so far of interventions that have been successful in reducing deforestation is precisely that they have included a combination of measures,” according to Pendrill.
One small bright spot is that forests can recover when segments of them are destroyed and then abandoned – up to a point. “I see the Amazon as a very resilient system,” says Rita Mesquita, a researcher and outreach coordinator with INPA. Indeed, even a 5-year-old forest fragment in this area can look fairly dense and, well, foresty to the untrained eye.
But that initial glance wouldn’t reveal all that has potentially been lost, from an incredibly specialized species that no longer has its tiny ecological niche and may have not found any other refuge, to the diverse canopy of trees from different eras. And, of course, deforestation interrupts the crucial work of carbon storage that forests perform.
To return to the original biodiversity would take longer than 200 years in central Amazonia, estimates Mesquita.
So cutting a scar into this forest for a hazy idea of a potential investment, or to flirt with the idea of raising cows, can be a short-term decision by a few with an extremely long-term cost for all.
This reporting was made possible with support from the UN Foundation’s Thomas Lovejoy Memorial Press Fellowship.