“Once, there were forests . . .”

The state of the forests, deforestation, and what we can do about it
By Kersasp D. Shekhdar
The People's Voice

Amazon Forest: World watches wildfires lash through
'lungs of the earth'

Deforestation at warp speed

Up until about the Industrial Revolution, deforestation—if it could be called that—used to be a not unnatural consequence of man’s need for timber, the expansion of human settlements, and slash-and-burn agriculture which has been practised since the Neolithic Age and is still used by indigeous or nomadic peoples and settlers. Forests have been cleared “to make space for agriculture and animal grazing, and to obtain wood for fuel, manufacturing, and construction.” Further and other drivers of deforestation vary from one geographical region to another.

Fully a third of the planet’s forests, comprising two billion hectares, have been destroyed since the Great Ice Age but the pace of deforestation has not been even—far from it. The rate of deforestation has accelerated exponentially such that, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “the fastest rate of forest destruction has been in the past couple of centuries,” as “up to 15 billion trees are now being cut down every year.” While the first half of total deforestation took place over nearly 100 centuries (from 8,000 B.C. to 1900), the second half occurred in the blink of an eye within only the past one century, culminating in the 1980s with no let up (unless one is to fall for corporate-sponsored happy statistics).

So though only a few centuries ago an old man could take his grandchild for a walk in a nearby forestland or woodland, identifying tree species and small wildlife along the way, how many grandfathers can do so today? All too few, for how many human habitations are still blessed with nearby forestlands or woodlands? And when such is the reality in our time, what forests might a grandfather show his ten-year-old only a century from now?

So what is ‘deforestation’?

The European Commission in an Impact Assessment concisely defined Deforestation as, “the direct human-induced conversion of forested land to non-forested land . . . and conversion from forest to other land use.” BBC defines Deforestation as “the deliberate destruction of rainforest to make way for areas for human use, such as farmland for cattle, crops, or wood to be used for building.” The FAO defines it as “the conversion of forested areas to non-forest land use such as arable land, urban use, logged area or wasteland . . . or the long-term reduction of tree canopy cover below the 10% threshold.”

Deforestation is not a human activity restricted to the tropics—most European and American cropland and pasture once used to be forest!

'The Emerald Forest' 1985 film directed by J. Boorman

Afforestation and reforestation, sometimes confused with one another, both combat deforestation. For simple definitions of afforestation and reforestation see WorldAtlas, for technical definitions see FAO’s Manual on Deforestation, for IPCC’s technical definitions with further links and references see their glossary, and for encyclopaedia entries see Wikipedia here and here.

Deforestation is not to be confused with (mere) Forest Degradation. Notwithstanding the official economic definitions that are en vogue, we posit an environmental definition of Forest Degradation:– The thinning of a forestland’s trees and a reduction of the forest canopy resulting in long-term loss of forest structure but without the forestland being converted for other land use, and degrading but not destroying the forest’s biomass’s functionality.

It is hard to overestimate the rate of increase of global population, and it is equally hard to overestimate the ongoing ‘conversion’ of most nations and societies to consumer- and consumption-oriented ones. A scant century ago in about 1920 the world’s population was only 1.8 billion to two billion. By the end of this year, 2021, it will be 7.9 billion. That is a fourfold increase in human population, a quadrupling, in a single century. Though it would be misleading and disingenuous to equate the ultra-light carbon footprint of a PNG or Amazonian forest-dweller, of a Maasai villager or a San bushman, with the gargantuan one of the middle-class American or British urbanite, one must face the fact that all the needs-based and demands-oriented causes of deforestation have a dual root cause: the Population Explosion and Consumerism.

The forests: Going, going . . . gone by 2100

Deforestation has gone industrial, so to speak. And this ‘Industrial Scale Deforestation’ is driven by major league ‘Big Ag’ corporations, such as ADM and Cargill (notwithstanding their pious proclamations). It must be admitted that on the flip side of the coin, one or two Big Ag corporations have made real strides over the past decade; for example, Palm Oil powerbroker Unilever not only announced it would use Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), it has followed up on its promises and—most unexpectedly—nicked top spot in Forest 500’s 2020 rankings.

[Disclosure: I own Unilever shares]

Big Ag exposed, it would be a case of tunnel vision to see only Agribusiness as the culprit and turn a blind eye to the unreformed financing and funding institutions behind it, including Brazilian ones. (Click on ‘Total Score’ to see Worst-to-Best ordering, with Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, AIG, Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments, ICICI, Met Life, Northwestern Mutual, and various leading Chinese and Brazilian institutions nailing perfect zeros.)

Though several countries have reversed the trend of deforestation and are in stages of reforestation, it should be borne in mind that the situation is increasingly dire in several regions, notably the Brazilian Amazon. Net change in forest area from 1990 to 2015 at a region-by-region level is shown on Our World in Data’s interactive (and rather optimistic) map. According to a few forecasts, if present trends continue unchecked, all tropical rainforest will cease to exist by about 2100.

The functions of forests and the carbon cycle

Though the predominant (and probably accurate) perspective on forests is that they are under-threat reservoirs of biodiversity, there is much more to the roles forests play on the planet. The violent and destructive impacts of storm surges, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are significantly reduced if a forest, including mangrove forest, stands between the weather event and human habitation. In addition, the root systems of forests go a long way in preventing landslides and mudslides. Thus, forests (as well as other ecosystems) are natural buttresses against the ravages of extreme weather events and they even play a part in the regulation of weather and climate in the first place. It should be borne in mind that while forests act as shields and barriers against extreme weather events for the likes of you and me, they are the homes, markets, shops, and dispensaries of increasingly-marginalised forest-dwelling indigenous peoples.

Because forests regulate weather and climate, the largest, densest, and most diverse one of them all, namely the Amazon Rainforest, is often called “The ‘Lungs’ of the Planet.” However, to some or another smaller extent and capacity, all forests are similar planetary lungs or ‘mini-lungs.’ The Living Planet ‘breathes’ to a great extent through its large forests ‘inhaling’ carbon dioxide and ‘exhaling’ oxygen during daytime and in sunlight by way of respiration and photosynthesis of individual trees. As such, continuing losses of forestlands naturally result in proportional degradations of the Living Planet’s ability to ‘breathe’, ergo less and less carbon dioxide is converted into oxygen. But there’s even more to it than that.

Climate Change denialists correctly point out that Carbon Dioxide is both a natural and necessary constituent element of the atmosphere. What this simplistic argument neglects to mention is that Carbon Dioxide is present only in minute proportions of 0.04 percent as Nitrogen and Oxygen make up 78 and 21 percent, respectively, of the atmosphere. A slow but steady and continuous rise in the proportion of Carbon Dioxide and a corresponding decline in the proportion of Oxygen in the atmosphere would be disastrous for life on earth as we know it . . . and Britannica’s above-linked entry on Atmosphere states, “. . . carbon dioxide (0.0395 percent [395 parts per million] and presently rising).” (Emphasis ours)

Carbon Dioxide in its proper proportions is mediated on the planet and its atmosphere via the Carbon Cycle. This cycle is a complex process involving multiple reservoirs from the geosphere right down to the earth’s mantle. In simple terms, “the movement of carbon from reservoir to reservoir is known as the carbon cycle.” These reservoirs include sedimentary layers, ocean depths, peatlands, and forests of different types including both living and dead biomass.

These reservoirs play a role in the carbon cycle in that they keep the cycle in equilibrium by way of carbon sequestration as they act as carbon sinks. Though the larger amounts of carbon are stored in the earth’s sedimentary layers and ocean depths, it is forests—especially large rainforests and boreal forests with ancient trees—that play a major role in the recycling and movement of carbon—they do not merely sequester carbon; on a continuing basis they “absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and release it through respiration” and also do so by creation of new living biomass and decomposition of dead biomass. Thus, it is not an ‘excess’ of carbon per se, as sometimes commonly thought, but, rather a disruption in both the equilibrium of the carbon cycle and the balance of carbon in the carbon reservoirs and the atmosphere, among other causes, that leads to Climate Change. Hence, it is deforestation that is one of the key drivers of Climate Change. Though most of us know that forests are carbon sinks and recycle carbon, they also serve as ‘Climate Stabilisers.’

The eye of the storm—the Amazon

Since about 2020, if you say ‘deforestation’ another person will say, “The Amazon . . .” in concerned tones. And quite naturally, for the on-again off-again large-scale destruction in the Amazon Rainforest has skyrocketed since 2019 and shows no signs of going back to ‘off again’ with the “destructive fire[s in 2019] captur[ing] the world’s attention.” Connecting the United Kingdom to the Amazon is the country’s demand for beef, cocoa, paper pulp, and other raw materials sourced from the Amazon and other regions that have been, and are being, deforested. Efforts have been made to enact legislation to prohibit import of raw materials that are sourced from deforested regions but the laws are watered down and “full of holes.”

The Amazon is commonly associated with Brazil which encloses 64 percent of the rainforest; however, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia also incorporate smaller areas. It is by far the world’s largest contiguous rainforest and the one with the most biodiversity by some margin—consider that there are “more different kinds of trees in the Amazon rainforest than anywhere else on earth.” A research study has estimated that “the Amazon basin holds 16,000 tree species and about 390 billion individual trees” with 6,000 of these species being very rare.

At the outset it must be stated that one commercial activity that contributes to Amazonian deforestation, directly and indirectly, has not received as much attention as it should have. This activity is mining. “Mining’s reach has extended over 1,131 distinct territories across 450,000 square kilometers . . . [and] forests disappear up to three times faster in places with mining than in places without it.” It “has impacted more than 20% of the Amazon’s Indigenous territory.” Not only does unregulated or uncontrolled mining drive deforestation, it causes what one may call ‘long-term poisoning’ of forestlands, waterways, freshwater organisms, the atmosphere, and even indigenous persons due to the leaching of mercury and the dumping of tailings, with tailings dams comparable to ticking time bombs. Finally, open pit mines scar the landscape and degrade forestlands.

[Disclosure: I have a hobbyist’s interest in Mining & Metals.]

Though mining is a clear threat, as one might expect the bulk of Amazonian deforestation stems from logging, burning, agriculture, and cash crop plantations, with the number one driver of deforestation being cattle farming: “Of all the Amazonian regions that have seen deforestation, 63% of that was directly due to the cattle farming industry,” as “Brazil’s Amazonian region held over 86 million cattle” in 2018. Indeed, cattle farms in the Amazon have been linked to 2020’s devastating infernos in the Amazon which have caused extensive forest degradation and deforestation.

So what is the extent of Amazonian deforestation? Merely consider this stupefying statistic: until the turn of the 2000s, “each year, an area of Amazon forest approaching the size of Belgium—up to 3 million hectares — was being destroyed.” Thanks to environmentalist cum photographer Richard Mosse we can now see the hows and whats of Amazonian destruction. In 2019 Mosse leveraged the same technology used by agribusiness and mining, a multisensor camera with which to produce multispectral topographic images that colour-code and map the states of the forest. Mosse’s real-life abstract art was exhibited in New York, and vividly exposed various kinds of illegal destruction of the Amazon.

Years back socialist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had put dampers on illegal logging and forest destruction but then came the self-professed anti-indigene reactionary Jair Bolsonaro who not only undid what little good work Lula and his government were able to do, but brought a new level of terrifying destruction to the Amazon and its indigenous peoples. As of 2021 the knob is being turned to ‘Max,’ thanks to Jair Bolsonaro and his government’s shocking policies. On Bolsonaro’s watch, somehow tens of thousands of fires devastated large swaths of the rainforest.

As for the outlook, a study forecasts “a bleak scenario for some of the species that have evolved to thrive in forests, which may lose up to 50% of their range by the end of the 21st century” with consequent wildlife dispersions and extinctions, as the Amazon rainforest gradually turns into savannah in a process called ‘savvanization.’

Of Indonesian rainforest and cash crops

As the world population ticks closer to 8 billion, the population explosion in nations with oil-based diets triggers a chain-reaction explosion in mass-produced and affordable but unhealthy cooking oils. These include corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, palm oil, rapeseed oil, ‘canola’ oil, and also even unknown and untraceable oils.

Commercial oil crop plantations have been and are the proximate cause of destruction of rainforests, and nowhere more so than in Indonesia, which is—no, make that ‘was’—one of the most heavily-forested nations. Decades of clear-cutting forests for various monoculture cash crop plantations have decimated the country’s rainforests with Borneo, and perhaps also Sumatra, the Ground Zero of deforestation. Now, the unique fauna including various primates of the hitherto-spared island of Sulawesi are endangered. And why? Clear-cutting for palm oil plantations.

Just as Brazilian rainforest has been, and is being, destroyed to clear land for, among other things, soybean, Indonesian rainforest and peatland are being razed to make way for, specifically, palm oil. As for all those felled trees, Indonesia is one of the top producers of wood pulp and paper except that it does so unsustainably and destructively. The depressing upshot: though “Indonesia’s rainforests contain 10 percent of the world’s known plant species, 12 percent of mammal species . . . and 17 percent of all known bird species,” the country “leads the world in the number of threatened mammals at 135 species, which is nearly a third of all of its native mammals.”

As for those mass-produced cheaper oils there’s a (comparatively) new game in town: Sustainably-Produced Palm Oil—Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). One must acknowledge that it is the least of the evils.

Be the rainforest in Indonesia, the Amazon, or Western Africa, deforestation and the replacement of forests by monoculture cash crops (not to mention GM crops) has the counter-intuitive effect of a reduction in the biodiversity of even the cash crop itself. Monoculture cash crops are bred and cultivated, and even genetically engineered, to achieve uniformity in size and form so that the crop can easily and quickly be harvested by machines.

Astonishingly, when indigenous peoples grow crops, exactly the opposite occurs. They may even ‘refuse’ to accept any form of monoculture: the Sateré-Mawé of the Amazon “refuse to use standardised guaraná varieties that are today cultivated in large-scale operations.” To the contrary, any given vegetable or crop that one or another indigenous tribe favours is purposely bred and cultivated for diversity: “from their 38 crop species, the Aluku grow a total of 156 different varieties—they differentiate between about 90 varieties of manioc. . . . The Baniwa . . . grow no less than 78 different varieties of pepper.” Furthermore, “the inhabitants of the Amazon basin [in general] are also highly skilled in the diversification of such exotic plants as sugar cane or beans.” The Ecologist calls them “world champions in the diversification of manioc tubers.” In view of ‘Civilized Man’s spiralling descent into monoculture and even ‘patented seeds’ (a violation against both Natural Law and Natural Rights), perhaps we should see the Amazon’s indigenes as “World champions in diversification, full-stop,” and see if we can learn from them?

Not forgetting Europe’s ancient forest

One might be inclined to think that the largest forests and old growth forests are all located in the tropics. In fact, it is Russia that has the distinction of being the most forested country with about 763 million hectares of forestland. However, most of these forests are taiga—boreal forests that comprise by and large of coniferous trees. These are not anywhere as biodiverse as tropical rainforests, nor are they renowned for including primaeval growth.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is in Europe that we find an ancient forest, this being the Białowieża Forest and Belovezhskaya Pushcha that abut each other along (part of) the Belarus-Poland border. These two national forests, covering a contiguous land area, combine to form what is essentially a single forestland that is Europe’s one and only large primaeval forest—its beginnings date back to 2000 B.C. That said, old growth forests still dot Europe in a fragmented patchwork.

The Białowieża-Belovezhskaya complex provides a fascinating look into the far distant past of the European landscape: “towering, awe-inspiring old trees . . . remind us that nature works on timespans longer than our lifetime.” The forest has 26 species of trees and is a refuge for European bison, wolf, boar, and lynx; large mammals that are endangered or extinct in Continental Europe. It also is home to over 250 species of birds, plus reptiles and amphibians. Who would have thought that such a hotspot of biodiversity existed in Europe!

A royal hunting reserve in centuries past, Białowieża-Belovezhskaya as a wildlife habitat has see-sawed between conservation and imperilment over the centuries. Now, its status as a repository of plant life and as a site for carbon sequestration are at risk. The forest has ancient trees of which “some were saplings when Christopher Columbus was born,” and, in spite of the forest’s great age, “parts of [it] have never been cut by man”—until about 2016: this UNESCO World Heritage site is severely threatened by the irresponsible Polish government of Andrzej Duda who gave the Logging Mafia a free hand to fell 100-plus-year trees.

Sadly, no matter where you look, the grim news outweighs the good news.

With Białowieża-Belovezhskaya’s wildlife increasingly under threat and reforestation efforts underway in various regions of Europe, it would make sense to establish wildlife corridors between this primaeval forest and other forestlands. The first step could be to link it to the European Green Belt Corridor.

The West African rainforest: What was; what is

Having spoken about deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia, what about deforestation in that land so beloved of Golden Age Hollywood? Where Mogambo, Hatari, all those Tarzan movies, and more recently, feature-length docudramas Born Free and Gorillas in the Mist were set?

Early explorers who landed on the west coast of Equatorial Africa encountered jungles (tropical rainforests) so thick and dense as to be impenetrable. Moreover, the jungle stretched endlessly: back in 1905 big game hunter James J. Harrison wrote, “Congo Free State . . . [which] stretch[es] from the Nile to the West Coast, may be called one huge forest.” Over a century before Dian Fossey turned the gorilla into a celebrity primate, European explorer Paul du Chaillu ‘discovered,’ and hunted and killed, these abundant apes in the 1850s in the Belgian Congo—that ‘one huge forest’ which was interrupted only by native villages in clearings.

Near the other coast of the continent, the aptly-named John A. Hunter, an experienced big game hunter (later staunch conservationist), plied his trade in in what is now Kenya and Tanzania, and was very familiar with the then-wildlife-rich Serengeti-Maasai Mara complex. But even so, he was clearly astonished when he descended into the Ngorongoro Crater (actually a caldera) in the 1920s and found it verily teeming with wildlife so dense that one might say it matched the denseness of the jungle on the western coast.

Alas, little of that has come down to us, and what has is under severe threat.

Now, the ‘one huge forest’ is not even a memory; as for those gorillas, the Mountain Gorilla’s numbers have gradually increased while the Eastern Lowland Gorilla’s hitherto greater population has plummeted, and both have a conservation status of ‘Endangered.’

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “forests that were once dense, impenetrable and continuous are increasingly fractured by deforestation” (emphases ours), reports Mongabay. The Ituri region, home to the Efe and (Ba)Mbuti pygmy peoples (and just possibly remnant cannibals whose existence is disputed by our day’s science even though such atrocities are reported to this day) as well as the Okapi Wildlife Reserve are losing primary forest as agriculture, fuelwood, logging, mining, and human settlements all encroach into, and expand in, wilderness areas.

It turns out that neighbouring Republic of Congo harbours “the world’s largest tropical peatlands, storing an estimated 30 billion tonnes of carbon.” This enormous carbon reservoir may become a carbon emitter if a controversial oil exploration concession moves ahead. But that is only part of the story because these peatlands are located in the “Cuvette Centrale [which] is a vast swath of forest and wetlands . . . forming part of the world’s second largest tropical rainforest” (after only the Amazon). That oil exploration concession puts forest, wetland, peatland, and threatened wildlife, all at risk.

It’s not only wildlife—Western Africa’s flora is also gravely threatened. “West Africa, the Ethiopian highlands, central Tanzania, and southern Democratic Republic of the Congo could lose 40 percent or more of their current plant diversity,” reports Mongabay, in a report titled New assessment method finds close to one-third of tropical Africa’s plants are potentially facing extinction.

Still in the Congo Basin but over in Cameroon, the Ebo Forest has seen its fair share of deforestation. This “massive biodiversity hotspot” is home to the indigenous Banen people, tool-using chimpanzees, and critically-endangered wildlife such as western gorillas. Just recently the Ebo Forest was put under further environmental pressure with a logging concession but collective public protests from various environmental groups forced the Cameroonian government to back down—at least for now—from its reckless plans.

Then there are a few solid victories amidst all the gloom. “Botswana is indeed one of the success stories in wildlife conservation on the continent,” says African Wildlife. The country has a tough law that “criminalizes a wide range of activities which may impact negatively on wildlife and their habitats.” Bangweulu in Zambia is another success story since it was accorded protected status. Its “fish stocks have significantly improved, poaching has been reduced, bird populations are up and Bangweulu Wetlands is the largest employer in the region,” the Ecologist reported in 2019.

So, though West Africa’s rainforests remain under severe threat, one can see a few rays of hope.

A world without rhinos: Endangerment and extinction

Surely the most obvious and harrowing fallout from deforestation is the reduction in large animal life, both in species diversity and in raw numbers. Consider that magnificent denizen of the savannah and veldt, the White Rhino, an incredibly beautiful, and—unlike its relative the Black Rhino—also an even-tempered but doughty animal. Although 18,000 members of this near-threatened species exist, all of them are of the Southern White Rhino. The Northern sub-species, whose range used to be north of Zimbabwe, is now extinct. It is still an open question whether the grand Southern White Rhino will make it. In all honesty, the answer has to be ‘Yes,’ for, after all, the Indian Rhino or One-Horned Rhino “has rebounded from fewer than 100 individuals to more than 3,600 today.” (And plaudits to India’s and Nepal’s forest and wildlife authorities.)

Of course it’s not just White Rhinos—it’s all wildlife: the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2020 summarizes that we have seen “an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016. A 94% decline in the [Living Planet Index] for the tropical subregions of the Americas is the largest fall observed in any part of the world.”

These jarring and nearly unbelievable statistics are neither an exaggeration nor an error. The Ecologist, not known as being an echo chamber for anyone, did a piece on the WWF’s 83-page research report and reiterated that “monitored wildlife populations have declined in size by an average of 68 percent between 1970 and 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. In Latin America and the Caribbean populations have crashed by 94 percent on average.”

So have rhino numbers ‘crashed’? Consider this: the near-threatened White Rhino with a population of only 18,000 is the most populous rhino species! Fewer than 80 individuals remain of each of the Javan Rhino and Sumatran Rhino, and both are classified as Critically Endangered. Although efforts are ongoing to save these species, the prospects are bleak, especially for the Sumatran Rhino which “remains on a trajectory to extinction.”

Better believe it, baby. The grandchildren’s grandchildren are looking at a world without rhinos. Or tigers. Or orang-outans. Or pandas. Or . . . wrens and robins?

And then it may be Man’s turn, for— “What is man without the beasts? / If all the beasts were gone, / Men would die from great loneliness of spirit. / For whatever happens to the beasts, / Soon happens to man, / All things are connected.” — Popularly but perhaps incorrectly attributed to Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Native American Nation

From forest to desert?—‘Desertification’

The world’s biomes are not forever; one type of biome can transition to another. As has recently been brought to light, about 6000 years ago the Sahara Desert used to be a grassland, and a fairly lush one at that. Though this transition from grassland to desert took a millennium or two and was a consequence of climatic shifts, during our Anthropocene Epoch it would appear that (some segments of) Mankind really want to make their mark—they seem to want to turn rainforest into savannah . . . and not over millennia but during our lifetimes.

Adjacent to the Amazon, the Cerrado Belt suffers from “disproportionate warming [which] is driven not just by global temperature rise, but also by local deforestation and fragmentation of wooded areas. As pastureland and cropland have eaten away into forests, their cooling effect is becoming muted.” Implicitly, this is a vicious cycle. Another Mongabay report makes this explicit: “dwindling tropical forests can have the opposite effect, creating ‘a vicious cycle’ in which less rainfall leads to drier forest more susceptible to fire and further loss.” On the bases of observations and data, scientists made the “striking finding that 40% of the Amazon rainforest is at risk of turning into savanna.”

As for savannahs, scientists have observed and confirmed that some dryland areas, including savannahs, of West Africa, North America, and other regions are desertifying. For instance, according to the IPCC “It is estimated that 46 of the 54 countries in Africa are vulnerable to desertification, with some already affected.” As yet another example, the savannahs of Northern Peru “are threatened by desertification.” Thus, we know that savannah can ‘regress’ into desert—‘desertification.’

Deforested rainforest can flip over into savannah, and savannah can slip into desert; therefore, we may posit, with some justification, as follows:– The ‘final stage’ of deforestation is desertification and the process’s ‘terminal state’ is desert.

And so, could the Amazon someday turn into desert? That’s the question posed by BBC’s Science Focus magazine. Some might call it sensationalism, others, prescience. However, the alarm bells are too numerous and too well-researched to just turn a deaf ear to.

A grim struggle: Deforestation and reforestation

Deforestation is not necessarily terminal and does not have to end in savannization, let alone desertification, though it is a clear and present threat.

Forest degradation, at least, is reversible and forests can regenerate with concomitant recovery in biodiversity and wildlife. A study undertaken in 2016 in “regenerating tropical forest” in the Peruvian Amazon concluded that “under a best-case scenario of effective conservation management, high levels of biodiversity can return to heavily disturbed tropical forest ecosystems.”

And so it is being proved.

Mongabay actually maintains a Reforestation Directory featuring over 350 projects, each with a transparency rating on five criteria. These are funded or otherwise supported by individuals and organizational entities.

Consider the Amazon Reforestation Project “which aims to conserve tropical rainforest and conduct forest restoration on deforested lands in the Brazilian Amazon,” underway since 2009 on one million-plus hectares. This is a local, boots-on-the-ground outfit working from Santarém Pará in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. The project’s lofty goal is to “plant 80 million trees on farms” in “the place where most environmentalists are murdered in the world [and which is] deforested and burned by criminals every year . . . [and] clearing [what] is left of the forest to turn into pasture or crop,”

In view of widespread and accelerating Amazonian deforestation, reversing it may be a losing battle but it is not a lost battle.

Other battles and rearguard actions are being waged, and many can be found on Mongabay’s Reforestation Directory. The dozens of countries conducting reforestation projects include Indonesia and Zambia.

About 200,000 trees have been planted on 65,000 hectares in Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Central Kalimantan Indonesia. The endeavour also attempts to save several vulnerable and endangered species from extinction. Extensively documented and audited, Rimba Raya Reforestation would appear to be a model project (though one must wonder as to the costs of the project’s unusually slick, professionally-produced website).

Zambia’s Miombo region is the site of an ambitious reforestation project in “a region that has suffered from mining and charcoal production” where 2.4 million trees have been planted on 2000 hectares with the side-objective of training and empowering local farmers. Next door in the Katanino Forest Reserve in the same region, it is a similar story as local farmers learn sustainable farming even as they reforest degraded lands on which 5.9 million trees have been planted on nearly 5,000 hectares.

Evidently, on the one side we have a conglomeration of ‘Eco-Outlaws’ like Big Ag, the Logging Mafia, illegal cattle ranchers, unsupportable mining interests, runaway soy and palm plantations, and so on, all of them with very deep pockets (and goon squads as well). On the other side, a thin straggle of poorly-paid but determined ‘Eco-Ninjas.’ It’s an uphill battle but the unswervingly resolute Eco-Ninjas have not waved a white flag, nor will they ever.

So all is not lost, but it’s very late in the day and we—individually and collectively—better do something about it. Like, do it yesterday.

What can we do? Curse the darkness and light a candle

So what can we do?

Whatever one person does will scarcely make any difference but on the principle of it being better to light a candle, to live by one’s conscience, and to ‘do one’s bit,’ we offer some suggestions. But first, a message from our sponsor, Sir David Attenborough:–

“The Anthropocene [is] the Age when humans dominate the earth [and] when innumerable natural connections were broken. . . [but] it is not yet beyond us to create a new stable state. . . . Doing so will require systemic shifts in how we produce food, create energy, manage our oceans and use materials. But above all it will require a change in perspective. A change from viewing nature as something that’s optional or ‘nice to have’ to the single greatest ally we have in restoring balance to our world . . . [for] if we have become powerful enough to change the entire planet then we are powerful enough to moderate our impact—to work with nature rather than against it.”

Taking heart from Attenborough’s inspiring and urgent clarion call, let’s see if we can light a candle or two—

To start with, we have to accept such evils as are necessary (and curse the darkness!) but not accept them lock, stock and barrel. Mining is a prime example of such a necessary evil. Try to have governments, distributors and supply chains contract with and patronise those Mining & Metals companies that practise responsible and environmentally-sound mining that is not disruptive to indigenous peoples or destructive to forests (or other biomes), and explore the possibility of (genuinely) ‘Sustainable Mining.’ Sustainable Mining is incredibly difficult to achieve as mining causes great environmental degradation; also, the industry uses the term ‘Sustainable Mining’ as an anaesthetic and in a perversive sense; therefore, it would be good practice to define and understand the term.

(As a rough proposal, all mining projects must—among other stipulations—incorporate quantifiable and verifiable sunset provisions and include an executed backfilling and mine-closing pre-contract with 67 percent of the estimated fee deposited in an intermediary escrow account.)

Buy wood and wood-derived products from countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland because (timber merchants in) these countries sell new-growth wood that is sustainably produced. Over a century ago “in 1903 Sweden’s first forestry act ordered that all felled trees must be replaced directly by planting new ones.” But in the 1950s “the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest [was converted] into a new, more uniform forest . . . [and] the number of species was reduced (often to monoculture) . . .” So environmentalism it may be but conservation it is not, and should not be mistaken for such: “environmental NGOs criticize that Sweden continues to be largely covered by plantations rather than mixed and biodiverse forests.” Though Sweden is no model of conservation, its forestland’s and trees’ “growth is greater than the amount felled, and has been for the entire 20th century onwards.” So, at least, Sweden’s timber plantations and tree harvesting is unquestionably sustainable. Norway and Finland follow similar sustainability practices.

Perhaps an easy way of ‘Buying Sustainable’ would be to look for the FSC logo. The Forest Stewardship Council—FSC—is a 25-year-old organization whose mission is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests” predicated on ten core principles.

Notwithstanding FSC certification, try not to buy furniture as you would buy smartphones. Buy a fine well-crafted sideboard or bookshelf of teak or cherrywood and value it for life; even pass it down through the generations. And put into use and treasure the fine furniture that you may inherit from grandparents. (As for buying a smartphone every few years, they contain parts made of rare earth metals that are found almost exclusively in Western Africa, Equatorial Africa, and China, and the mining of which is a major cause of environmental degradation and even devastation, socio-political upheaval, and inter-ethnic conflict.)

On the issue of furniture and wood products, look into Sappi which utilizes sustainable forestry and renewable solutions to produce a variety of paper products and to “develop[] new processes and biomaterials which extract more value from each tree.”

The one substance that can’t be produced sustainably is all-pervasive plastic. If and when recently-developed biodegradeable plastic is adopted by industry we can talk about ‘sustainable plastic’ but we are not even close to that point. Traditional plastic is made from petroleum and, though it is not biodegradeable and is virtually indestructible in landfills (and in oceans), it is very much recyclable! So though we can hardly avoid plastic in this, our Synthetic, Plasticky World, we can recycle it.

At the same time, be aware of (usually corporate) ‘greenwashing’ and be wary of greenwashed products. Learning about greenwashing will open your eyes as to the extent of the wordplay and deceptions in publicity and marketing materials, and make you a savvier (and really ‘greener’) consumer.

But don’t be only a consumer; also be a ‘recycler.’ Recycle everything—paper, metals, plastics, the lot. Give nothing to the landfill and send everything to your recycling facility. Recycling is actually one way toward offsetting your ecological footprint.

But is there such a thing as offsetting your carbon footprint? Well, yes. If you own a sizeable yard or compound, turn over some of it to Nature—let a little bit of forest take over your yard or compound. And be proud of it! (Those with dinky ‘backyard forests’ know that the bonus of small wildlife is complimentary.)

You can reduce your carbon footprint by reducing (or altogether eliminating) consumption of electricity derived from fossil fuels and using solar power and other renewable sources of energy. If your dwelling has a private roof and you live in a region with sufficient sunshine, install a solar-panel system to generate some or all of your household electricity. Use minimal air-conditioning, and if you live in temperate climes consider ditching it altogether. Air-conditioning is not a necessity for generally healthy persons; it is a luxury or, at least, a nice-to-have that requires inordinate amounts of power.

Moving from consumption of electricity to consumption of foodstuffs, try to buy minimal imported beef and cash-crop derivatives, and consume more locally-grown, organic produce, and locally-sourced, fresh seafood.

On the subject of foodstuffs, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance may come to mind. Though products with the Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance seal are, perhaps, better than nothing, it would be smart to try to see through these organizations’ ‘green-talk’ and approach both with a dose of cynicism.

Fairtrade is probably not working the way one believes it to be and its rigid pricing and onerous stipulations are among the causes of concern. Rainforest Alliance’s purported standards seem to be made to be violated as the ‘alliance’ really looks like a stalking horse for large corporate interests with no deforestation safeguards. However, there is Direct Trade, “an initiative launched by CEOs of Latin American companies that believe that [of the] current certifications on fair/direct/ethical trade . . . none of these certifications were really benefiting the farmers or the manufacturers.”

Equally as much, beware of those polished and corporatish institutes, centres, and such that ostensibly work towards ecological and conservationist goals but are linked to plutocratic and big business interests, have huge administrative expenses, emit more hot air than put feet on the ground, inseparably mash up every left-lib position and ideology with the environment in a ‘package deal,’ and not infrequently even tend to hinder, impede, or derail in some or another way exactly that which they proclaim as their missions and goals.

However, you can cast any cynicism aside where some bona fide forest-focussed good causes are concerned. Join, fund, or support in other ways! We propose some good choices, all of which are related somehow or another to forestlands, conservationism, or (preferably) both. In no particular order, and with sincere apologies to worthwhile groups that may have been omitted, here are some candles worth lighting:– Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Trust, Global Forest Watch, Reforest’ Action, Amazon Reforestation, Peruvian-Bolivian Amazon, Tree-Nation, Mongabay, Global Witness Forests, ALERT, WWF Directory, WWF Website, FAO-Forests, IUCN RedList, and Nature Conservancy.

When selecting a good cause it is generally a good idea to include the organization’s areas of expenditure as an important criterion. The most dedicated and well-run ones usually have minimal administrative, advisory, and legal costs, and expend maximum funds on the cause’s mission itself.

Just as much, it is wise to remain vigilant and try to ensure that corporate careerists, left-lib dogmatists, or imposters who are covertly linked to one or another doctrinaire lobby do not infiltrate and co-opt, or even hijack, the good cause you support. If it happens, don’t just curse the darkness—cast a spotlight on it! Try to validate that the persons leading the show have a demonstrated history of naturalism, environmentalism and conservationism, or are the affected native persons themselves.

You can indirectly support forest-related good causes by sponsoring or undertaking sustainable ecotourism such that neither the indigenes suffer nor are forests degraded, but, instead, funds are generated for conservation and other ecological purposes. (And let’s not do to any forestland what climbers have done to Mount Everest.)

From a purely moral perspective and retaining one’s humility, one hardly wants to float concerns like ‘overpopulated’ and ‘carrying capacity.’ But want to or not want to, rationally it would be disingenuous to deny that there is more than a grain of truth to these concerns, and we must have the courage to face the facts.

Reduction of the global population by any means—war, famine, abortions, purported ‘pandemics’ real or contrived—as a solution is an absolute non-starter and absolutely cannot be brooked. Birth control, however, is a before-the-fact method that is a viable and ethical solution. The need of the hour is a Birth Control Master Plan for the world, starting with those nations that overbreed vis-a-vis their respective habitable land areas and respective capacities to support themselves, such as India, Pakistan, and China, all of which produce such an overabundance of people that they necessarily ‘overflow’ into other countries. As a starting point, all kinds of birth control paraphernalia should be made available to one and all free of charge. And when we have ‘Carbon Credits,’ why not ‘Population Control Credits’? And ‘Overpopulation Penalties’?

After all, if we want to save the forests, we had better think about the Living Planet Herself. For if the Living Planet goes, everything goes. Too many notable scientists opine that it may already be too late (but that is not stopping millions of driven and dedicated environmentalist, naturalist, and conservationist organizations and their workers and supporters from trying to turn the tide, nor should it).

It can go either way. If we all pitch in, perhaps the Living Planet and its severely threatened forests may turn the corner. On the other hand, matters may so pan out that several generations hence, a century and change from now, and with Humankind herself on the brink, an old man may cradle a grandchild on his knee and—like grandparents so often do—entertain the child about things past and gone, and say— “Yea my bonny, once, there were forests... when I was a boy your age I even saw the last one...”


Kersasp (‘Kersie’) Shekhdar is a writer. He also composes music. Also see https://www.buymeacoffee.com/Kersie
AWIP: http://www.a-w-i-p.com/index.php/2024/06/21/once-there-were-forests


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