i-76e99ba21f9c5b9d3bfcae327e1e1656-200608261953.jpgAsk A ScienceBlogger:

The destruction of the rainforest was a hot-button topic in the early ’90s, but I haven’t heard anything about it in ages. Are the rainforests still being destroyed wholesale? Are they all gone? Is it still important? Is the coffee I drink making it worse, and is “free trade” and/or “shade grown” coffee any better?

It is still a problem, and I’ve been remiss in not answering this question.

The simplest guide can be seen in this satellite image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On the Haitian side, where forests nationwide have declined 5% between 1990 and 2000, the land is bare. On the Dominican side, stable governments and a national interest in ecotourism have left large patches of forest intact.

A quick search through the 2005 report on forests by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization tells more of the story. They gathered data on forest cover, including secondary forests planted after harvesting. That makes these numbers very conservative, since silviculture won’t produce a forest with the complexity of native forests.

In El Salvador, 5% of the forests were lost between 1990 and 2000. In Belize, 2.3%; Guatemala, 1.7%; Honduras, 1%; Guatemala, 3%. Burundi, in tropical Africa, has lost 9%, with much of central Africa off 2-5%. Indonesia, Myanmar (once Burma), Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have all lost about 1.5% in that time.

The problem is best seen from space, so click through for a tour, and an answer to the coffee question.

The example of Haiti and the Dominican Republic tells us something important off the bat. The problem is a social and economic one, not essentially a resource problem. Haiti has had about a government per year for decades, and no infrastructure for regulating logging or clearing for agriculture. As such, hurricanes cause more damaging mudslides in Haiti than in the DR. Haiti’s environmental damage also undermines its economic growth, keeping it unstable and poor, which only worsens the situation.

The same forces of poverty drive most deforestation. The pattern goes like this:


This image, from NASA’s MODIS satellite, shows deforestation in progress. The herringbone lines running parallel to the Amazon (the white river along the top edge) are roads being cut into the forest. Poor farmers and cattle ranchers follow those roads deeper into the forest, cutting and burning along the way. It’s easy to see that the eastern (right) side of the image, near the mouth of the Amazon, is greener, less wooded, than the deeper parts of the forest. As roads are cut, it’s easier to harvest wood, and easier to make new fields. Rainforest soil is weak, because organic matter rots so fast, so the fields only last for a few years before poor farmers have to move down the roads to a new plot.

Brazil has been working hard to slow the rate of forest destruction, but with limited success. It’s estimated that the rate of increased rainforest loss has been rising steadily since the ’80s. And Brazil is considered something of a success, because the rate hasn’t been rising as badly as some feared it might.

The story in Africa is worse. Refugee crises, failed governments, and raging wars leave natural spaces without reliable defenses. Consider a patch of Guinea near the border of war-torn Sierra Leone. Between 1974 and 1999, refugees built villages and slashed the forests, creating what NASA describes as inverses:

In 1974, small village clearings (appearing light green or tan) are surrounded by green forests; in 1999, small islands of dark green forest are surrounded by mostly cleared land.

i-a83311aeceed39aa8870715895435c6f-200608270126.jpgThe situation is harder in Congo, where Africa’s World War has raged for decades, and where invading armies and genocide has swept the land. The image here shows the edge of a park. Rangers and staff in the park have been funded by international conservation groups, but agriculture has come right to the park borders, and the mountain gorillas resident in the park are in increased danger. The NASA report (yes, I love me some NASA) explains:

In a single week in June of 2004, farmers created pasture for their cattle by clearing 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles), or 6 percent, of the 264-square kilometers (102 square miles) of mountain gorilla habitat in the southern “Mikeno” sector of Virunga National Park. Because mountain gorilla numbers had increased by close to 56 individuals over the last 10 years, the recent loss of land was a considerable step backward.

Again, poverty and weak governments allow forests to be destroyed. Nations’ national resources are squandered, poverty remains, and treasures that all humans ought to be able to share are lost forever.

The answer cannot simply be to demand that people stop cutting down forests. That’s their only way to survive at all, and no calculus can justify allowing people to starve in order to preserve a few acres of forest.

The solution has to be political and economic. Farmers have to have ways of making a better living with the land they have, and have to be given ways of leaving the forest in place while still making money. That’s the concept behind fair trade goods. “Fair trade” means that the goods ? whether beef from Brazil or coffee from El Salvador ? were bought at a price that is sustainable for the grower. Pay too little and the farmer has to expand production and cut corners on fertilizer. Pay enough, and the farmer is better off maintaining existing fields. Pay too little and it’s cheaper to abandon a field and slash and burn a new one.

As for shade-grown coffee, the question is a bit trickier. Those coffee plantations are in what the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center describes as “forest-like settings.” The underbrush is still cleared out, and many species that might require true forest won’t be able to live there, but migratory birds that need the canopy can still find refuge there. On its own, that movement may not be a solution to deforestation.

However, both fair trade and shade-grown agriculture promote a different ethic. When farmers can earn more by being responsible with their lands, it changes how they see the forests around them. They aren’t just unexploited resources, they are riches in their own right, and worth protecting.

Uganda managed to get the same effect during the years of civil war in Rwanda. Refugee squatters fleeing into its mountainous rainforests were told that they could either be relocated or they must serve as forest rangers. In exchange for being allowed to keep the land they’d cleared in mountain gorilla habitat, they were obliged to protect that land against later refugees. Uganda gained a dedicated force of rangers, and the refugees gained safety. Everyone won, because people involved recognized the root of the problem, and rather than focusing on the forest, focused on the social and economic problems. Once those were settled, the environmental issues are easier to sort out.


  1. #1 Julia
    October 1, 2009

    I agree with you Josh, rainforest destruction is the burning issue of our time. Emergency action will be needed to prevent run-away climate change. Everyone can tell the world to stop tropical deforestation by sending a Rainforest SOS. Many have already done so, but every voice counts. I encourage you to visit The Prince’s Rainforest Project http://www.frogme.org/ where you can watch videos featuring HRH The Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry as well as Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama, Daniel Craig and Robin Williams. Each supporter appears in the film, with a very cool 3D Argentinean Horn Frog – the project’s rainforest ambassador. The website also allows you to create your own video, so you can share your Rainforest SOS message with others. Go on get frogged- please check it out now!

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