Fall of the forests

Fall of the forests

The problem of deforestation is reaching epidemic proportions. GAVIN MYERS did some eye-opening research to bring you the horrifying facts and the figures.

Spiders. To some, the most fascinating creatures on eight legs. To others, the thought alone is enough to spiral into a state of panic. Either way, the Poecilotheria metallica must be one of the most beautiful creatures inhabiting our planet. Part of the tarantula family, it’s described as being colourful, fast and venomous … and “critically” endangered.

According to Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research, this rare species – the size of an adult human’s face – is native to Sri Lanka and India and prefers to live in well-established old trees. But, due to deforestation, their numbers have dwindled. And, with a staggering 80 percent of the world’s documented species found in tropical rainforests, these “little guys” are not the only part of the ecosystem suffering.

Every minute, of every day, forests covering an area equal to 36 soccer fields are cut down around the world. That equates to between 12 and 15 million hectares of forest lost each year, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

A report by the Brazilian government detailing deforestation trends puts that area size into perspective; stating that in the six months between August 2012 and February 2013, an area larger than the city of London disappeared from the Amazon rain forest on its own. Greenpeace says that equals 1 695 square kilometres – or an area the size of 237 000 soccer fields.

Reasons – among others – vary from logging (whether legal or illegal), to fires (whether intentional or unintentional), to clearing land for farming or development.

The “critically” endangered Peocilotheria metallica is the size of an adult human’s face.And the rate of the epidemic is increasing. More figures by the WWF suggest that 87 percent of deforestation occurs in just 10 countries, with Brazil and Indonesia accounting for 51 percent of emissions from forest loss. It goes on to say that deforestation is responsible for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; the carbon dioxide emissions from which represent up to one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions released because of human causes; and that “the tropical forests, where deforestation is most prevalent, hold more than 210 gigatonnes of carbon”.

Forests, as it happens, cover a mere 31 percent of the planet’s land area. Yet their demise is already leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions, disruptions in water cycles and increased soil erosion. In turn this means drastically altered climates and even desertification, the extinction or migration of indigenous plant and animal species and displacement of, or conflict with, surviving cultures native to the areas.

So what is being done to alleviate these frightening realities and prevent the world’s rain forests from completely vanishing (according to a National Geographic article on the topic) in a hundred years, at the current rate of deforestation?

While it is not possible to eliminate deforestation (forestry is a necessary and, if done properly, is a sustainable activity to human existence), there are concepts which aim to re-grow depleted forests or combine the benefits of forest land with food growth. These, known as “reforestation” and “agroforestry” respectively, are however, long processes and for some, especially where the question of land is concerned, a compromise.

The reforestation organisation Greenpop states that to make up for the world’s loss of trees in the past decade, 1,3 million square kilometres of land would need to be planted. “Accomplishing that would mean planting about 14 billion trees every year for 10 years in a row,” the organisation quotes the United Nations Environmental Programme as saying.

A drastic ask, but the issue does need to be resolved if we don’t plan on changing the face of our planet within the next two generations. Unfortunately, despite all the lobbying and advocacy from organisations such as Greenpeace, Greenpop and the WWF, the final direction rests with governmental policies.

It has been noted by Greenpeace that proper sustainable forestry practices do not cause a net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because a new tree is grown for every one cut down. Besides reforestation and agroforestry – the keys to success are: conservation; careful, sustainable forest management; enhancement of forest carbon stocks; creation of protected areas (especially of ancient forests); and promoting sustainable bioenergy.

And it certainly is possible. The rate of deforestation in Paraguay, for example, has been reduced by 85 percent following the enactment of that country’s 2004 Zero Deforestation Law. Reforestation in Germany (a third of which is forest) is required as part of its federal forest law and has seen the country’s forest area increasing. In China, replanting programmes have existed since the 1970s and forest cover has increased from 12 percent of China’s land area to 16 percent.

If the WWF achieves its aim of having governments, international bodies and stakeholders make zero net deforestation a reality by 2020, future generations might just have a chance of living in a (literally) green world; where they can enjoy clean air and magnificent species like the Poecilotheria metallica.

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