Introduction. Deforestation is defined as the removal of the forest by cutting and/or burning to provide land for agricultural purposes, residential or industrial building sites, roads, etc., or by harvesting the trees for building materials or fuel. (1) This map, (2) shows the major areas of tropical deforestation in the world right now; as you can see, all these areas occur in the tropics, and are all found in less developed-, or developing- countries. It’s easy for us to think we can remain unaffected by this, and yet it is a fact that nearly half of this world’s plant and animal species and microorganisms will become extinct, or become threatened by human action (3), notably by deforestation, of both tropical rainforests and dry forests. In Brazil, one-fifth of the Amazon Rainforest’s land has been cleared since 1980, when the government started handing out plots to anyone who wanted them. (4)
Major Causes of Deforestation. Obviously, the causes and reasons for deforestation are both too complicated and many to be touched on by a single report, so instead, I will include some that, in my time researching the field, seemed to be the biggest threats. Firstly I shall turn to the FAO, who, in an annual report, stated that 90% of deforestation is caused by unsustainable farming (5); but why we must ask ourselves, does this occur? A sad fact is that when some LEDCs with such precious resources trying to stop the conflict between landowners with large areas of forest, it sometimes results in brutal murders: or more occasionally, power fights and confrontations. The governments then put smallholders from other areas into rainforests to farm and act as a ‘safety valve’ to stop large uprisings. (6) This can also mean the forests are ‘opened up’ by building roads, which then can lead to more commercial activities, such as mining or large-scale logging.
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This is clearly a nightmare for such a fragile ecosystem in the hands of a government with not enough money to fully explore sustainable options, or survey correctly the rainforests, before accepting money from TNCs or tied aid schemes (7); coupled with a poorly paid, thinly spread, unscrupulous police force, who will easily make money from the richer landowners to turn their heads to illegal activities, is a recipe for disaster. Ecuador is another South American country that is driving migration into the forest, for a number of social and economic reasons. Farmers from the Andes and poor coastal regions, faced with degrading land quality, poverty and unemployment, and with the prospect of up to 50 hectares of land (some of which encroached on natives land rights), and a campaign of propaganda by the government (7) migrated into the rainforest; sadly, however, deforestation was almost mandatory as farmers would lose their land titles if the land was not turned into agricultural land.
Land rights of the indigenous people also is a cause of deforestation, people have been living, farming and working in rainforests for centuries with no ill effects, as the natives have learned how to respect the forest and replant what they have felled, only using the minimal requirements; however much of this land has now been lost or sold at low prices. Unfortunately, the best and most fertile lands derived from the rainforest often end up in a small number of peoples hands, causing the poorer farmers to be driven inwards, causing large and widely unregulated deforestation, a movement currently gathering momentum in Brazil is the MST or the Movement Of Landless Rural workers (8) who are attempting to redress the balance by using direct action. Even though in 2005, Brazil halted government-sponsored migration programs, last October, the then- reelected president, Luiz In ½cio Lula da Silva stated that he wished to bring about a 5% growth in Brazil’s economy, annually, following by the statement that environmental obstacles and the Indians in the forests; his opponent, Geraldo Alckmin counteracted with the statement that he was being ‘irresponsible’ and attempting to ‘privatize the Amazon.’
And now the Amazon, whose forest is decreasing at a current rate of 8,500 square miles a year (not inc. selective logging, see below), is being used, showed by Silva’s statement of January this year that the government will be selling large scale logging rights to areas of untouched rainforest with 30-year leases, stressing that the only right the winning bidders will have is to the timber. (9) Phillip Fearnside, a representative of the National Institute of Amazon Research, stressed that this would only work on areas of the forest already mostly devastated, and that to do it in untouched areas that had previously been granted protection by the government would be a catastrophic mistake. (9) Mines such as Porto Trombetas (10), the largest Bauxite mine in the world, clearly do not bode well with sustainable use of the rainforest. Not only do these large scale mines need to have roads, airports, such as Carajas, (airport code CKS) (11) and train transport, they also need to deforest, mostly slash-and-burning, to clear the land, not only for the mines but also for the villages created for the workers (10,11.)
These industries may be beneficial to Brazil’s economy for the moment, but mining can never be sustainable, Carajas mine is expected to run out in 400 years at current consumption, but just five years ago, it was expected to be 500 (12). Hardwoods such as mahogany, together with the 34 other marketable species in the Amazon Rainforest (15) can be worth hundreds of dollars at the sawmill, to a Brazilian (31% of whom live below the poverty line (16)) this is a worthwhile moneymaker; especially due to the ease of selective logging, and cheap availability of machinery (15). This may seem more sustainable than cutting large swathes into the rainforest, but on average, 30 other trees get harmed indirectly as a result of one getting chopped down, mostly due to vines being attached to others, and these other ones get pulled down too. Selective logging doubles the amount of forest that official statistics tell us are being destroyed, Nature Magazine tells us.
Selective logging is also more likely to go unregulated and unmonitored as mostly it is done by locals and not by MNCs; this spans over five Brazilian states, and it is easy to see how hard laws are to enforce over such an expanse. The last point I will mention, being at already past 1,000 words, is cattle ranching, which is currently occupying 23% of the Amazon (13) Five years ago, Brazil’s beef exports topped $1Bn a year. Brazil not only has the largest commercial herd in the world, its biggest exports, by value, are beef and milk. A hamburger brought in the US requires 55 square feet of lush rainforest to be cleared (14). Obviously, Brazil’s economy is dependent on cattle ranching, and it is making a profit for the country, and yet forest gets cleared for cattle ranching, after a year or so, it loses its nutrients and stalks to anchor the soil and so ranchers move on, and then the topsoil gets leached, the land becomes barren and left alone, as it is colloquial ‘plenty more fish in the sea.’
Why Should We Consider This An International Issue? Deforestation is often cited as one of the major causes of the greenhouse effect (17.) Even though it is obvious that the carbon dioxide a plant will release as it’s burned or decomposes will equal the carbon dioxide it has converted to oxygen during photosynthesis, doing such to large areas of forest that have been in environmental equilibrium for centuries means that we have no idea what such deforestation will do to the world, in the future. This has caused 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere over the last 150 years, (18) but it gets worse; not only are we releasing carbon dioxide, but we are also stopping in its tracks the biggest creator of oxygen, and fixer of carbon dioxide, rainforests. Three-quarters of the carbon dioxide is released by burning, which releases 2.4bn tonnes of it into the atmosphere every year (22).
Found in the rainforests are many compounds that could be used to create drugs, for instance in the Amazon 1,200 species of plants are used by local healers, with uses that have been passed down through many generations. In a study in Samoa, 83% of holistic, shamanic rainforest remedies were proven to have yielded biological activity in humans (19) All the drugs found in this table, (20) were found in rainforests, some of which have a multitude of clinical uses. Anti-HIV drugs were found in the Amazon Basin just weeks before their extinction was predicted, thankfully, The Singapore Public Gardens still held 100-year-old British exported specimens to breed from; (21) this is now turning into a race against time, to collect and screen plants before their habitat is destroyed and they are lost forever.
Sadly, it is easier for researchers to only scan plants that are of a close relation to other ones found to have an affect on humans, meaning that thousands of plants have died out already, many of which potentially yielded life-saving drugs. Sadly enough, only 5% of threatened species have been tested for their capabilities in medicine, and, despite their promise, this figure doesn’t look set to dramatically increase anytime soon. Another problem is simply the decrease of worldwide biodiversity (23), there are many species of both plants and animals unique to almost all rainforests in the world; by seeking such a rush of profit by the influx of deforestation in these areas, we are acting in the short term far too much, we should look to the future more; I’d like my children to see animals that I’ve never heard of and not the other way around.
Suggestions for cabinet discussions. Drop the Debt. The five countries with the largest rainforests are also among the world’s most indebted countries (24). It is impossible to ask a country to stop reckless environmentally damaging schemes that will earn it money without it having no national debts to pay off. The quicker it is paid off, the less interest is charged, which unfortunately leads to a very ‘here and now ‘ approach. The IMF’s approach to debt collecting often puts quickly achieved money by exploitation of the country’s natural resources of far more importance than sustainable development that would leave the country’s ecosystems intact.
Increase funding to give back forest areas to Indians or natives. In places such as Columbia, which gave back half of its Amazon to the Indians in 1990, whom they realized were the ‘rightful guardians of the forest.’ It has been reported that the most successful schemes to save or reconstruct areas of rainforest were constructed and decided in conjunction with natives. Over one thousand rainforest cultures still exist, despite being in conflict with International Development Agencies, who take over their land and then ignore their basic rights, or even them, themselves. It is paramount that the British Government gets involved in this travesty of justice, and attempts to reconcile these lone cultures with the governments who have isolated them for so long. It would be easy to buy areas of strategic land at auction, to be put in a trust fund, owned by separate tribes, under the condition that large-scale logging does not occur, nor slash and burn techniques to a great extent.
Educating Our Youth. As the curriculum for key stage three is currently being ‘shaken up’ (25) I feel it is time that in PSHE, or Personal, Social and Health Education, we put more emphasis on where our food and furniture comes from, with easy to understand labelling on any rainforest exports showing the area where it was grown has been suitably replanted; possibly with a national advertisement campaign if Greenpeace causes a storm over this part of the G8 meeting, possibly including a BBC made primetime series of short movies about the rainforest, promoting Britain’s role in helping it out. (Possibly unsuitable now- BBC still annoyed with cabinet over Cash For Honours storm?)
- http://www.greenpeace.org/international/photosvideos/photos/illegaltimberdelivery, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/releases/bandit-loggers-ordered-to-h
- Mining In Brazil: GCSE Geography C4 Schools, broadcast in 2004.