This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation

John Glover’s paintings show open savannahs and grasslands in Tasmania. (1838)
Art Gallery of NSW

Michael-Shawn Fletcher, University of Melbourne

If you go to the Surrey Hills of northwest Tasmania, you’ll see a temperate rainforest dominated by sprawling trees with genetic links going back millions of years.

It’s a forest type many consider to be ancient “wilderness”. But this landscape once looked very different.

The only hints are a handful of small grassy plains dotting the estate and the occasional giant eucalypt with broad-branching limbs. This is an architecture that can only form in open paddock-like environments – now swarmed by rainforest trees.

These remnant grasslands are of immense conservation value, as they represent the last vestiges of a once more widespread subalpine “poa tussock” grassland ecosystem.

The temperate rainforest in Tasmania’s Surrey Hills are a legacy of colonialism.
Author provided

Our new research shows these grasslands were the result of Palawa people who, for generation upon generation, actively and intelligently manicured this landscape against the ever-present tide of the rainforest expansion we see today.

This purposeful intervention demonstrates land ownership. It was their property. Their estate. Two hundred years of forced dispossession cannot erase millennia of land ownership and connection to country.

Read more:
Strength from perpetual grief: how Aboriginal people experience the bushfire crisis

Myths of “wilderness” have no place on this continent when much of the land in Australia is culturally formed, created by millennia of Aboriginal burning – even the world renowned Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

British impressions

Today, the Surrey Hills hosts a vast 60,000-hectare timber plantation. Areas outside the modern plantations on the Surrey Hills are home to rainforest.

On first seeing the Surrey Hills from atop St Valentine’s Peak in 1827, Henry Hellyer – surveyor for the Van Diemen’s Land company – extolled the splendour of the vista before him:

an excellent country, consisting of gently rising, dry, grassy hills […] They resemble English enclosures in many respects, being bounded by brooks between each, with belts of beautiful shrubs in every vale.

It will not in general average ten trees on an acre. There are many plains of several square miles without a single tree.

And when first setting food on the estate:

The kangaroo stood gazing at us like fawns, and in some instances came bounding towards us.

He went on to note how the landscape was recently burnt, “looking fresh and green in those places”.

It is possible that the natives by burning only one set of plains are enabled to keep the kangaroos more concentrated for their use, and I can in no way account for their burning only in this place, unless it is to serve them as a hunting place.

The landscape Hellyer described was one deliberately managed and maintained by Aboriginal people with fire. The familiarity of the kangaroo to humans, and the clear and abundant evidence of Aboriginal occupation in the area, implies these animals were more akin to livestock than “wild” animals.

A debated legacy

Critically, Hellyer’s accounts of this landscape were challenged later in the same year in a scathing report by Edward Curr, manager of the Van Diemen’s Land company and, later, a politician.

Curr criticised Hellyer for overstating the potential of the area to curry favour with his employers, for whom Hellyer was searching for sheep pasture in the new colony.

Read more:
Explainer: how Tasmania’s Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani

These contrasting perceptions are an historical echo of a debate at the centre of Aboriginal-settler relations today.

Authors such as Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) have been challenged, ridiculed and vilified for over-stating the agency and role of Aboriginal Australians in modifying and shaping the Australian landscape.

These ideas are criticised by those who either genuinely believe Aboriginal people merely subsisted on what was “naturally” available to them, or by those with other agendas aimed at denying how First Nations people owned, occupied and shaped Australia.

New research backs up Hellyer

We sought to directly test the observations of Hellyer in the Surrey Hills, using the remains of plants and fire (charcoal) stored in soils beneath the modern day rainforest.

Drilling in to the earth beneath modern rainforest, we found the deeper soils were full of the remains of grass, eucalypts and charcoal, while the upper more recent soil was dominated by rainforest and no charcoal.

Author provided

We drilled into more than 70 rainforest trees across two study sites, targeting two species that can live for more than 500 years: Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghami) and Celery-top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius).

None of the trees we measured were older than 180 years (from 1840). That’s just over a decade following Hellyer’s first glimpse of the Surrey Hills.

Our data unequivocally proves the landscape of the Surrey Hills was an open grassy eucalypt-savanna with regular fire under Aboriginal management prior to 1827.

Read more:
1 in 10 children affected by bushfires is Indigenous. We’ve been ignoring them for too long

Importantly, the speed at which rainforest invaded and captured this Indigenous constructed landscape shows the enormous workload Aboriginal people invested in holding back rainforest. For millennia, they used cultural burning to maintain a 60,000-hectare grassland.

Learning from the past

Our research challenges the central tenet underpinning the concept of terra nullius (vacant land) on which the tenuous and uneasy claims of sovereignty of white Australia over Aboriginal lands rests.

Our research drilled into the soil to learn what the landscape looked like before British invasion.
Author provided

More than the political implications, this data reveals another impact of dispossession and denial of Indigenous agency in the creation of the Australian landscape.

Left unburnt, grassy ecosystems constructed by Indigenous people accumulate woody fuels, in Australia and elsewhere.

Forest has far more fuel than grassland and savanna ecosystems. Under the right set of climatic conditions, any fuel will burn and increasing fuel loads dramatically increases the potential for catastrophic bushfire.

That’s why Indigenous fire management could help save Australia from devastating disasters like the recent Black Summer.

Read more:
Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers

The Conversation

Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Associate Professor in Biogeography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Camera traps completed one of the most thorough surveys of African rainforest yet

PNS Survey, Author provided

Mattia Bessone, Liverpool John Moores University and Barbara Fruth, Liverpool John Moores University

Tropical rainforests are the world’s richest land habitats for biodiversity, harbouring stunning numbers of plant and animal species. The Amazon and the Congo basins, together with Asian rainforests, represent only 6% of Earth’s land surface, and yet more than 50% of global biodiversity can be found under their shade.

But observing even the most conspicuous species, such as elephants and apes, is still an extraordinarily difficult task. That’s not even mentioning all the secretive species that are protected by thick vegetation or darkness.

Camera traps have led a technological revolution in wildlife research, making it possible to study species without humans needing to be present. They can be left in the depths of a forest for weeks, taking pictures of anything that moves at any time of day or night.

Installing camera traps in Salonga National Park.
Jonas Abana Eriksson/PNS Survey, Author provided

From their advent three decades ago, camera traps have allowed scientists to discover species such as the grey-faced sengi – a new species of giant elephant shrew living in Tanzania – and the Annamite striped rabbit in Vietnam. They revealed that lions still wander the Bateke plateau in Gabon, ending speculation that they were locally extinct. They also photographed the offspring of the elusive Javan rhino, which scientists had thought had stopped breeding. With fewer than 100 individuals left, this gave hope that the species could be saved from extinction.

The grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) was discovered by camera traps in Tanzania.
F Rovero/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Spotting stripes

Camera traps are becoming essential for documenting forest species, assessing their distribution and studying their behaviour, as well as counting what’s actually there.

This latter measure, called animal abundance, is perhaps the most important information in wildlife conservation, as it allows researchers to assess the conservation status of a species. But until recently, camera traps could only be used to reliably estimate the abundance of animals with conspicuous markings, such as big cats with spots or stripes peculiar to single individuals.

Big cats, like this African leopard (Panthera pardus), are among the simplest species to document with camera traps.
Haplochromis/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Counting animals with camera traps remained impossible for the majority of species that lacked these conspicuous features, as the same individual could be counted twice by different cameras at different times. Methods that account for how animals move in and use their habitat were developed to help overcome the problem of detecting the same individual at different locations.

Another method, called camera trap distance sampling achieves the same result using a different approach. It subdivides the time cameras are active into “snapshots”, taking pictures at, for example, every fifth second in an hour. At a determined moment, an individual can only be spotted at one location, not elsewhere. Double counts are avoided, and researchers get the number of animals within the area surveyed by the cameras at a given snapshot.

We tested this new method in one of the most remote areas of the planet – the southern part of Salonga National Park, a world heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, rangers only had data on the park’s two flagship species – the forest elephant and the bonobo. Near to nothing was known about the other animals that were more difficult to track.

A flagship species of Salonga National Park, bonobo populations are understudied in 70% of their range.
Christian Ziegler/LKBP, Author provided

What we found

Five field teams walked a forest the size of Wales to deploy 160 camera traps in 743 places. This unprecedented effort produced more than 16,000 video clips, totalling 170 hours of animal footage and revealing 43 different animal species, including bonobos and elephants.

We also captured species rarely detected by human observers, such as the giant ground pangolin, threatened by extinction, the cusimanses, a genus of social mongooses, and the stunning Congo peafowl, a vulnerable species that’s endemic to the country.

Where so far conservation of elusive species such as the African golden cat, the endemic Allen’s swamp monkey and another elephant shrew, the four-toed sengi, had to be based on little to no data, we’re now able to estimate their abundance in the wild.

Nine of 43 species captured by camera traps in Salonga National Park, DRC.
PNS Survey, Author provided

For some species, the news from our findings were good. Our study revealed that the southern part of Salonga National Park alone harboured as many peafowls as were previously thought to be present in the whole country.

For other species, the results confirmed the need for greater protection. The 17,000 km² large and intact primary rain forest contains fewer than 1,000 giant pangolins. An alarming figure given the current illegal trade of pangolin scales.

As the technology and methods of camera trap surveys improve, they’re becoming capable of monitoring a diverse range of wildlife, from the tiny elephant shrew to the mighty forest elephant. This gives an insight into the complex and delicate equilibrium of the rainforest community and the threats to its survival.The Conversation

Mattia Bessone, PhD Researcher in Conservation Biology, Liverpool John Moores University and Barbara Fruth, Associate Professor, Liverpool John Moores University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Good news on rain forests: they bounce back strong, storing more carbon than thought

Susan Letcher, Purchase College State University of New York

When you cut and burn a tropical forest, you’re left with a barren plain of cracked red mud, incapable of supporting life – the opposite of the teeming, hyperdiverse array of life that was destroyed. Once the trees are gone, the nutrients wash away and the soil degrades into a dense, brick-like layer so hardened that plant roots can’t get through it.

This was the vision of tropical deforestation held in the popular imagination for many years, but the reality is more complex – and more hopeful.

In recent decades, researchers have found that tropical forests are remarkably resilient. As long as some remnants are left when the forest is cleared to provide seeds and refuges for seed dispersers, tropical forests can grow back with astonishing speed.

In a paper published this week in Nature, lead author Lourens Poorter and a team of international collaborators, including me, found that forests in Central and South America can quickly rebound without human intervention on land that has been cleared for cattle grazing or growing crops.

This finding has important implications for climate change because these so-called secondary forests soak up large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, even without costly reforestation efforts. These regenerating forests are also crucial for protecting biodiversity and all the ecological and social benefits it provides.

Dr. Letcher in a 15-year-old secondary forest in Costa Rica.
Susan G. Letcher

Carbon sponges

Tropical secondary forests – that is, forests that grow after a major clearing, such as a fire, farming or logging – cover an increasing part of the globe. And as their extent expands, so does their potential to shape conservation strategies, both at the local and global scales.

At the U.N. Climate Summit in 2014, 30 nations and a host of NGOs and private companies endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, a document that advocates halving deforestation by 2020 and ending it completely by 2030.

One of the key points of the declaration calls for the restoration of 150 million hectares (about 375 million acres) of degraded forest land by 2020 and additional restoration in the following decade.

But active forest restoration can be an expensive process, and it may not be cost-effective or even necessary in every case. In landscapes with low levels of degradation, simply protecting young forests and allowing them to develop may be the best strategy.

In our research, my colleagues and I present the largest data set yet assembled to investigate forest regrowth in the New World tropics. The data set spans 45 sites in the lowland tropics from wet forest to dry forest, with a total of 1,478 plots and more than 168,000 individual trees.

It offers an unprecedented, and more hopeful, view of forest recovery.

According to this analysis, tropical secondary forests have enormous potential for removing carbon from the atmosphere. The net carbon uptake for these secondary forests is 11 times that of old-growth forests in the region we studied.

The rate of biomass recovery varies widely across the region, with the fastest regrowth in areas with high rainfall. The median time for a forest to reach 90 percent of old-growth biomass levels was 66 years, but recovery can be much faster in some areas.

Big win for biodiversity

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that tropical forests can grow back after major disturbances. Tropical forests can be affected by a number of different large-scale natural disasters like floods, fires, landslides, major storms and volcanic eruptions.

Even old-growth tropical forests are highly dynamic systems, marked by cycles of tree death and regrowth. The mortality rates for trees larger than 10 centimeters in diameter have been estimated at one percent to two percent per year for forests in the Amazon and Central America. In other words, at the upper end, one in every 50 large trees will fall in the course of a given year.

The gaps in the forest that result from treefalls are rapidly colonized by a riot of vines and fast-growing tree saplings. The heterogeneity of habitats produced by this cycle is a major driver of tropical diversity.

In an old-growth forest, vegetation quickly grows in to fill the gaps left by fallen trees.
Susan G. Letcher

In addition, the history of human-induced disturbances in tropical forests is longer and more complex than we often acknowledge.

Legacies of ancient human use, stretching back for millennia, have been detected in nearly every “pristine” tropical forest on earth: massive earthworks in the Amazon and modern-day Cambodia; charcoal and pottery fragments in the Congo Basin; and evidence of forest clearing going back nearly 50,000 years in Papua New Guinea.

Indeed, various forms of slash-and-burn cultivation have been practiced for millennia throughout the tropics.

As long as the cleared areas are modest in size and the period between cycles of cultivation is sufficient for recovery, diverse forests can persist for thousands of years.

Local and global benefits

Tropical secondary forests can – and should – form a substantive part of the long-term global strategy to combat carbon emissions and preserve biodiversity for the future.

Our recent research shows, for example, that in areas where biomass recovery is slow – like the tropical dry forest – we should prevent further forest loss. Where recovery is rapid, we can combine old-growth forest conservation with policies that promote secondary forest formation.

Shifting focus to the conservation of regenerating forests should not take away from the urgent imperative to conserve the remaining uncut tropical forest.

The clearing of old-growth tropical forests is a major source of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, second only to fossil fuel combustion. Clearly, keeping the carbon that’s currently stored in intact tropical forests from being released to the atmosphere should be a priority.

Old-growth tropical forests also harbor immense biological diversity – including genetic diversity – and if all of the remaining old-growth forests in a landscape are cut, there will be no seed source to promote regeneration.

Conserving secondary forests offers a different, and complementary, set of benefits.

As well as their massive potential for taking up carbon as they grow, secondary forests provide resources and livelihoods for the people who inhabit them.

Secondary forests can harbor a high diversity of ethnobotanically important species that can be used for medicines. They can serve as extractive reserves, where limited harvesting of timber, game animals and other forest products will prevent the exploitation of resources in vulnerable protected areas. They protect watersheds and prevent erosion.

Natural forest regeneration in Paraná, Brazil.
Robin L. Chazdon

As secondary forests grow back, they eventually come to resemble the forest that was cut, and in the meantime, they knit together the remaining fragments of forest into a more contiguous landscape.

As David Quammen wrote in “Song of the Dodo (1997),” isolated populations of organisms in forests lose connections to the resource base that supports them. Over generations they lose their genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to inbreeding, disease, and eventual extinction.

Secondary forests offer the hope of reconnecting habitats and creating a more resilient landscape for the future.

So harnessing the power of forest regeneration in the tropics will have benefits both locally – providing resources and restoring ecosystem services – and globally, by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

At the Paris Climate Summit, leaders took important steps toward halting deforestation. Promoting forest regrowth is another vital piece of the equation. It’s time for policymakers to recognize the benefits that tropical secondary forests provide, and to shape policies that take advantage of this enormous potential.

The Conversation

Susan Letcher, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies , Purchase College State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The world’s forests will collapse if we don’t learn to say ‘no’

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

An alarming new study has shown that the world’s forests are not only disappearing rapidly, but that areas of “core forest” — remote interior areas critical for disturbance-sensitive wildlife and ecological processes — are vanishing even faster.

Core forests are disappearing because a tsunami of new roads, dams, power lines, pipelines and other infrastructure is rapidly slicing into the world’s last wild places, opening them up like a flayed fish to deforestation, fragmentation, poaching and other destructive activities.

Most vulnerable of all are forests in the tropics. These forests sustain the planet’s most biologically rich and environmentally important habitats.

The collapse of the world’s forests isn’t going to stop until we start to say “no” to environmentally destructive projects.

Damn the dams

Those who criticise new infrastructure projects are often accused of opposing direly needed economic development, or — if they hail from industrial nations — of being hypocrites.

But when one begins to look in detail at the proposed projects, an intriguing pattern appears: Many are either poorly justified or will have far greater costs than benefits.

For example, in a recent essay in the journal Science, Amazon expert Philip Fearnside argues that many of the 330-odd hydroelectric dams planned or under construction in the Amazon will be more trouble than they’re worth.

Construction of the São Manoel Dam in the Brazilian Amazon.
International Rivers/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Many of these dams will have huge environmental impacts, argues Fearnside, and will dramatically increase forest loss in remote regions.

This happens both because the Amazon is quite flat, requiring large areas of forest to be flooded, and because dams and their power lines require road networks that open up the forest to other human impacts. For instance, the 12 dams planned for Brazil’s Tapajós River are expected to increase Amazon deforestation by almost 1 million hectares.

Furthermore, Fearnside argues, much of the electricity the Amazon dams produce will be used for smelting aluminium, which provides relatively little local employment.

Fearnside asserts that mega-dams planned for the Congo Basin and Mekong River will also cause big problems, with limited or questionable benefits.

Roads to ruin

The explosive expansion of roads into the world’s last wild places is an even more serious problem. Indeed, Eneas Salati, one of Brazil’s most respected scientists, once quipped that “the best thing you could do for the Amazon is to blow up all the roads”.

Current projections suggest that by 2050, we’ll have nearly 25 million kilometres of additional paved roads — enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.

I have led three major studies of planned road expansion, for the entire planet and for the Brazilian Amazon and sub-Saharan Africa. All three show that many planned roads would have massive impacts on biodiversity and vital ecosystem services while providing only sparse socioeconomic benefits.

Logging truck in Malaysian Borneo
(c) Rhett Butler /

In Africa, for example, our analyses reveal that 33 planned “development corridors” would total over 53,000 kilometers in length while crisscrossing the continent and cutting into many remote, wild areas. Of these, we ranked only six as “promising” whereas the remainder were “inadvisable” or “marginal”.

Progress at any price?

There is a very active coalition of pro-growth advocates — including corporate lobbyists, climate-change deniers, and die-hard proponents of “economic growth” — that immediately decry any effort to oppose new developments.

Added to this are those who argue reasonably for economic development to combat poverty and disparity in developing nations. Such advocates often assert that an added bonus of development is greater sustainability, because impoverished people can be highly destructive environmentally. The denuded nation of Haiti is one such example.

Yet the on-the-ground reality is often far more complex. For instance, the heavy exploitation and export of natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels or timber, can cause nations to suffer “Dutch Disease” — an economic syndrome characterised by rising currency values, economic inflation and the weakening of other economic sectors, such as tourism, education and manufacturing.

Dutch Disease tends to increase economic disparity, because the poor are impacted most heavily by rising food and living costs. Further, the national economy becomes more vulnerable to economic shocks from fluctuating natural-resource prices or depletion. The Solomon Islands — which relies heavily on timber exports that are collapsing from overexploitation — is a poster-child for Dutch Disease.

The poor suffer most from inflation: Rural woman in the Western Ghats of southern India.
William Laurance

On top of this is the toxic odour of corruption that pervades many big infrastructure projects. One would need an abacus just to keep track of the allegations.

To cite just two recent examples: in Malaysia, an independent investigation has concluded that nearly US$4 billion was misappropriated from a state-owned fund set up to attract international property, infrastructure and energy investments. And in Brazil, the granting of contracts for major Amazon dams has been drowning in allegations of corruption.

In both nations, public coffers needed for education, health and other vital services appear to have been hugely defrauded.

Just say ‘no’

The bottom line is that many big infrastructure projects are being pushed by powerful corporations, individuals or interests that have much to gain themselves, but often at great cost to the environment and developing societies.

Globally, the path we’re currently following isn’t just unsustainable. It’s leading to an astonishingly rapid loss of forests, wildlife and wilderness. From 2000 to 2012, an area of forest two and half times the size of Texas was destroyed, while a tenth of all core forests vanished.

Red Titi Monkey from the western Amazon
©Pete Oxford/

If we’re going to have any wild places left for our children and grandchildren, we simply can’t say “yes” to every proposed development project.

For those that will have serious environmental and social consequences, we need to start saying “no” a lot more often.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five trends that will define the world’s forests in 2016

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The past year has been a momentous time for the world’s forests, with both good and bad news. Fasten your seat belts, because 2016 promises to be another roller-coaster ride.

Here I hightlight five factors that could have a big impact on forests this year. For further discussion, see this insightful analysis by environmental journalist Rhett Butler.

1. Collapsing commodity prices

The ripple effects from China’s slowing economy could be huge for forests. China has been an aggressive driver of mineral, fossil fuel and timber exploitation, especially in developing nations across the Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Africa and Siberia. It has pushed hard for road and infrastructure expansion into many remote wilderness regions — projects that have often opened a Pandora’s box of environmental problems for forests and wildlife.

With prices for many natural resources falling, forests could get some respite in 2016. Conservationists need to use this breathing space to create new protected areas and promote land-use planning in environmentally critical regions.

Africa, in the midst of a mining and road-building frenzy, is a particularly high priority.

Gas flare from an oil field in the Congo Basin rainforest.
William Laurance

2. The El Niño drought

The fire-breathing “Godzilla” drought ain’t dead yet — far from it. The unusual Pacific Ocean conditions feeding this monster are still strong. This could lead to serious droughts and fires in South and Central America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Indonesia, in particular, has been reeling from the drought, with massive forest and peat fires that have had much of Southeast Asia gasping for air. On a daily basis, Indonesia’s fires belched out as much carbon as the entire US economy.

3. Brazil’s imploding economy

If China’s economy is cooling off, then Brazil’s once-promising economy is entering an Ice Age — a remarkable downturn for a nation so rich in land and natural resources.

It’s hard to predict how this could affect rainforests like the vast Brazilian Amazon and the critically imperilled Brazilian Atlantic Forest, a global biodiversity hotspot that has been massively reduced and fragmented.

On the one hand, Brazil’s currency, the real, has fallen dramatically in value. That means that its export commodities such as timber, soy, beef, oil and minerals will be more competitive internationally — potentially promoting more forest exploitation.

Felling of native mangrove forests in Latin America
William Laurance

On the other hand, domestic and international investors tend to be cautious in a slowing economy. New infrastructure and land-exploiting projects, such as a slate of planned mega-dams in the Amazon and elsewhere, may well slow down.

It’s hard to call this one. The imploding economy may well lead to the political demise of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who generally has been pro-environment.

For instance, Rousseff did everything she could to staunch recent efforts to weaken Brazil’s Forest Code — a legal framework that’s been crucial for protecting the nation’s forests. Over the last decade, annual deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon have fallen by more than 75%, but rural and industrial lobbies have incessantly attacked the government land-use controls that have helped make this reduction possible.

4. Zero-deforestation agreements

A remarkable development in the last two years is that scores of corporations producing or using oil palm, wood pulp, soy, beef and other commodities have declared their intent to halt or sharply curtail forest destruction. Pressures from eco-conscious consumers and environmental NGOs have been a key driver of this trend.

Overall, this has been a hugely positive step. However, Indonesia and Malaysia — which collectively produce around 85% of all the world’s palm oil — appear determined to stop or erode zero-deforestation agreements for corporations working there.

Southeast Asia’s biodiversity is among the highest on the planet.
(c) Rhett Butler /

Bottom line: they want to continue clearing large expanses of native forest for oil palm and industrial wood-pulp plantations, and the zero-deforestation agreements are getting in the way of this. Indonesia alone plans to fell another 14 million hectares of native forest by 2020.

This is truly a critical issue to watch. If corporations start to backslide on their zero-deforestation agreements, then conservationists are likely to let them know — loudly and emphatically — that they’re doing the wrong thing.

5. The Paris Climate Accord

I attended the recent Climate Convention in Paris, where there were two key developments relating to forests.

Firstly, a formal agreement for advancing REDD — which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” — was finally approved.

In theory, this means that more international funding should start flowing for forest conservation — to slow deforestation, encourage forest regeneration and promote more-sustainable logging — all in the interest of reducing carbon emissions and thereby limiting global warming.

An illegal gold miner scours the forest soils in Suriname, South America.
William Laurance

There’s no question that this is good news — though it’s time to stop talking and start acting.

In particular, wealthier nations such as the US, Japan and Australia must amp up their funding for REDD initiatives, especially in the tropics.

Secondly, the world’s nations agreed in principle to limit global warming to 2℃ — and to strive for an increase of just 1.5℃. It’s wonderful that nations have made this broad commitment, but actually achieving it is going to be a tremendous challenge.

There’s no time for complacency. The Paris Agreement will only be effective if it’s followed by concerted actions by nations to reduce their carbon emissions and conserve forests.

Seriously, forests are important

Conserving and regenerating forests really is one of the smartest things we can do for our planet’s health.

For one thing, protecting large expanses of forest makes these biodiversity-rich ecosystems much more resilient to future climate change.

Forest tracts that span large gradients in rainfall, elevation and other environmental factors give species the opportunity to migrate or find local refuges during heat waves, fires, storms and other extreme weather conditions.

Protecting and regenerating forests could also have a huge impact on the global climate. Forests cool the Earth’s surface while emitting trillions of tonnes of water vapour that generates much of the planet’s rainfall.

A dawn mist rises over the Amazon rainforest.
William Laurance

But most of all, forests can rapidly absorb and store a great deal of carbon. It has recently been estimated that a concerted effort to halt tropical deforestation and regenerate forests on degraded tropical lands could get us halfway to our global goal to reduce carbon emissions over the next 50 years.

As we follow the dramatic events unfolding for the world’s forests in 2016, we should bear in mind just how vital these imperilled ecosystems are for all of us.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Do you want trees with that? How to stop consumer products destroying the rainforests

Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

If we are to succeed in tackling climate change, it is vital that we preserve the terrestrial carbon locked up in our forests and soils. Even putting the climate benefits aside, the value of our forests is immense. Rainforests cover just 6% of Earth’s surface but are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, with many species still to be discovered and named.

With the US National Cancer Institute having already commercialised products from rainforest plants, better treatments for many of humanity’s most intractable illnesses may lie hidden in forests that are currently being cut down or burned.

An estimated half a million square kilometres of forest – two and half times the size of Great Britain – were cut down between 2000 and 2010. But while numbers can be hard to visualise, flying above the forests of Sumatra or Kalimantan gives a clear view of the often industrial-scale exploitation that has occurred.

It is a problem of epic scale. No longer is it sweaty men with large saws, a couple of trucks and a bulldozer. When the forests of Southeast Asia are cleared it can be a military-sized operation: thousands of people with hundreds of machines clearing the land of all its biodiversity, stored carbon and unaccountable value. A job that would once have taken months is now over in hours.

The wood from these majestic, unique places goes on to make not only identifiable products like paper, tissue and kitchen towel, but also the cardboard packaging, stickers and paper that surrounds much else of what we buy. And with forests also cleared for agriculture, the palm oil alone produced on previously forested land is found in about half of the products on our supermarket shelves.

Tracking the sources of all these products is hard – so hard that it is tempting just to disengage. But, as with climate change, we can’t abstain from trying just because it’s difficult.

Taking action

And there are reasons for hope. Over the past five years organisations such as Greenpeace have done an outstanding job in revealing the scourge of landscape-scale deforestation. Their global, highly creative campaigns against companies like Nestle, Mattel and Disney have urged consumers to think hard about the deforestation behind the products on their shelves.

Greenpeace targeted Mattel after alleging that Barbie’s packaging comes from rainforest destruction.

In turn, this has prompted major agribusinesses and paper companies that supply those brands to commit to zero-deforestation practices.

Having had a role to play in some of the regional forest agreements in New South Wales in the 1990s, I know how challenging implementing these commitments would be, even in a developed country like Australia. It is harder still in the muddled, multilayered and complex bureaucracies of many Southeast Asian countries.

Ignitions and emissions

Two weeks ago I was Singapore. The air was choked with acrid smoke from the forest and peat fires in nearby Sumatra. Schools were closed, sporting events cancelled, and people told to stay indoors. The last major Indonesian forest fires in 1997 not only had a devastating effect on the landscape and human health; they also produced an estimated 40% of the all the world’s greenhouse emissions that year – the biggest annual jump in carbon dioxide on record.

The costs for Singaporeans are massive – not only to their health but also to the reputation of the island state. How these fires were set, and who is to blame, is unclear.

The sole benefit of this ongoing tragedy of the commons is that it serves to focus attention on the problem. And there is potential that the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Paris could deliver real progress on avoiding deforestation.

From peat fires to Paris

Several factors are coming together. First, the UN has worked hard on getting major businesses to acknowledge the need to halt deforestation. The New York Declaration on Forests pledges to halve the rate of global forest loss by 2020, and seeks to end it completely by 2030.

Of course, that is weaker than what is required. But at least it is a start, and through signing the declaration, major businesses like McDonalds, WalMart and Unilever have shown their concern and will now have to deliver.

Second, following Greenpeace’s high-profile campaigns, companies that operate in Asia such as Asia Pulp and Paper, Wilmar and others have now made far stronger commitments than the New York Declaration. We should hope fervently that they succeed, because if they can’t find a way to satisfy consumer demand using plantations, there is little hope for native forests.

Third, the Forest Stewardship Council, having played a key role in helping educate consumers, retailers and producers through its certification schemes, recognises that there is now a need to go beyond certification and to ensure responsible forest management is driven by clear principles and a process of constant improvement. Placing a logo on a product and hoping to insulate yourself against criticism is very different to the strategic choice that, as a business, you are committed to eradicating native forest material from your products.

Finally, climate finance targeted at developing countries is beginning to chip away at the economic incentives to exploit forested land. To date, the issue has been impenetrable to anyone lacking the patience to decipher the jargon-laden negotiations behind the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. But with the UN’s renewed focus, the desire of businesses to commit to zero deforestation, and the political need for the Paris talks to deliver tangible progress, a powerful market driver to protecting forests could yet become a reality.

No sensible person wants the things they buy to come with a side serving of environmental destruction. With progress on international policy, effective advocacy, public awareness and business commitments, we may just still be able to protect what’s left of the world’s great tropical rainforests.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.