The root of the problem


You’d be forgiven for your ignorance if, like me, it extended to the fact that 2011 is the United Nation’s International Year of Forests. As with all such events, the stated aim is to raise awareness of the importance of the world’s forests to one factor or another. Anecdotal evidence (a whip round some of Keble’s geographers) would suggest that such ignorance is widespread, and the fact that it came to light a considerable time into my research suggests that it has largely failed in its aim. Without wishing to sound alarmist, forests are a biggie: their importance is to the continued existence of the world, at least as we know it.

Perhaps it is not my place to make such sweeping statements. It would be the height of cliche to state that we are at a ‘critical stage’ or ‘tipping point’ in the ecological future of the world. It is entirely possible that we have already sailed past this apocalyptic event horizon, or we may not reach it for decades, possibly never; the truth is that nobody knows for sure. However, the intelligent man ought to place a sort of environmental Pascal’s Wager: by paying attention to our forests, we really do have little to lose, and everything to gain – or at least to sustain.

There are some important trends that underpin such assumptions. The first is that the world’s forests have (and are) being chopped down far quicker than they are being replenished. The second is that deforestation has been accompanied by a proportional rise in desertification, the process by which fertile farmland turns to desert. The third is that, with world population on a crash course with nine, and perhaps even ten billion, and with observable changes in regional climate, we’re struggling to feed the planet. Badly.

The causality of these factors is debated; the fact they are interlinked is not. There are choices that those in power can make to stop and reverse deforestation globally, and in the cosmic scheme of environmental solutions they are small and simple choices. However, this has become an intensely political game, and as such we can no longer palm off our responsibilities; what is needed is a popular revolution. There is very little that you as an individual can do about these things, yet by keeping forests in the popular psyche, perhaps some of the worst short-term abuses can be avoided.

Take Ecuador: the rainforest in a corner of this country sits upon an estimated one billion barrels of oil, making it hot property for corporate development. Moreover, the value of logging in the remainder of this country, and the temptation to increase the area of farmland in a society where 13% of the population live in extreme poverty, would seem overwhelming to its democratically elected government.

Take Brazil: its democratic Chamber of Deputies, responding to local pressure to boost agriculture, has voted to significantly ease its regulation on replacing the rainforest, called the Forest Code. These changes include amnesties for previous illegal logging – further undermining legislation that has been loosely enforced – lowering the amount of land that must stay forested from 80%, and reducing key areas of specifically conserved rainforest.

These are trends occurring throughout the world’s tropical forests, as more land across Africa and China becomes desert and there are more mouths to feed. However, the short-termism of such actions is blinding. A 40-year study of African, Asian, and South American tropical forests by the University of Leeds, shows tropical forests absorb about 18% of all carbon dioxide added by man-made emissions. They truly are the lungs of the world.

If this is combined with the vast forests of the north – Russian forests comprise almost one fourth of the world’s tree cover – then this figure can be doubled. By preserving forest, we can mitigate a third or more of the human carbon footprint without changing a thing. By chopping them down, we only add to the shifts in climate that are damaging our farmland and causing the extreme droughts and floods that have so disrupted food supply.  In turning forest to farmland to feed itself, humanity is doing infinitely more harm than good.

There are ways to overcome this short-termism, and like most of the world’s problems, the responsibilities lie with the wealthier countries. The solution is in making forests pay for those who rely on them in the short term, what they will be ultimately worth in the long run, for a nation cannot be expected to endure immediate chronic poverty for the good of the international community.

Ecuador’s president understands this: in a deal presented in both 2006 and this year, the Ecuadorian government appealed to the international community to contribute half of what the oil reserves under its rainforest are worth, in exchange for a guarantee of conservation. For the carbon offset of these 4000 square miles of rainforest plus that of the oil locked within, this is a bargain. Take-up has been less than enthusiastic, to put in mildly.

Likewise, the UN’s REDD Programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation – you can see why they need the acronym) is one among a number of organizations that provides a framework for making long-termism pay. In essence, this is a fund that will pay the poorer nations to save, maintain and replant forests at a rate equal to farming or logging. The carbon offset benefits from this have the potential to be enormous, and it allows natives to develop sustainable careers. Nor would such a scheme cost the earth, so to speak. Yet so far, only three countries have signed up – Norway, Denmark and Spain, to the tune of only $55 million. This is a damning indictment of our blindness and collective self-deception.

It is exactly when people begin to struggle, feeling the effects of rising food prices and failing crops within a system that we have responsibility for degrading, that democratic countries need the most resolve to keep looking ahead. The onus rests with developed countries – in short, on us. To those critics who say illegal logging and farming will continue behind everybody’s backs no matter what the system, I say that if NASA can find lost pyramids in the Egyptian desert, it can see when an hectare of forest disappears.

We have the ability and the means to establish a scheme to protect and enhance the forests of the world. They are the biggest and the best weapon we possess in the armoury against climate change, and the turning of farmland to desert. They are not the answer, but they are part of the solution. All we need is the will.


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