Importance of Tropical Forests
The tropical rainforest is the jewel in the crown of the biosphere. No other ecosystem delivers more to enrich the natural resources that support life on earth. Anxiety about deforestation is therefore acute when contemplating the state of the world’s greatest rainforests, located in the Amazon region of South America, the Congo basin and in Indonesia.
Biodiversity is the most renowned attribute of the tropical forest and in particular “primary” rainforests, those which contain only native tree species and which have experienced very little human intervention beyond that of traditional forest dwellers. One hectare of Amazon rainforest can contain more plant species than the whole of Europe.
Less widely recognised is the stabilising influence exercised by tropical forests on regional climate and the water cycle. Water vapour emitted from the trees through evapotranspiration stimulates rainfall, whilst the roots reduce the risks of floods and drought by storing water and binding topsoil.
The squabbling over palatable solutions to deforestation has a tendency to overlook the human presence that finds a welcome home in the forest environment. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 60 million people live within tropical rainforests. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 500,000 members of Pygmy groups live inside the forest.
The richness of the ecosystem enables these forest peoples to pursue a wide range of traditional livelihoods, from wood and textiles to food and medicines. A further 300 million people live in close proximity to forest areas, largely dependent on their resources.
The far-reaching importance of tropical forests, from stabilising regional climate to underpinning rural economies, has not protected them from rapacious deforestation.
Tropical deforestation during a single year (to July 2020) in a single country (Brazil) amounted to 11,000 square kilometres, an area which would more than cover the island of Cyprus. After a long period of significant reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region, the rate has been rising since 2012 and has doubled since that year.
The global picture is also alarming, with deforestation increasing since the millennium, the worst years all occurring since 2015. In 2019, the rate was the equivalent of losing a football pitch of primary forest every 6 seconds for the entire year. Three countries, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were responsible for more than 50% of this debacle.
This rising global trend for deforestation is a major disappointment after a generation of environmental activism to protect tropical forests, supported by billions of aid dollars. However, the rapid advance of satellite technology, such as Global Forest Watch, now offers real-time accuracy for monitoring deforestation, within 100 metres of resolution, the data openly available.
Causes of Deforestation
Extracting timber, mineral and fossil fuel resources from a tropical forest prior to its clearance for agriculture remains the irresistible business model that powerful investors have relished since colonial times. Amongst these direct causes of deforestation, agricultural commodities have become by far the most important, their profile varying in each forest region.
The dominant forces in South America are cattle ranching and soy crops. Studies conclude that demand for beef accounts for more than 80% of deforestation in Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest as a whole. Oil palm plantations and the pulp and paper industries are the main culprit in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia supply almost 90% of the global market.
In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have been driven by the imperatives of extreme poverty that undermine wise management of natural resources. Poor farming communities often seek quick returns through “slash and burn” methods of shifting cultivation at the forest periphery.
The widespread lack of rural energy utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a further direct cause of deforestation. There are 789 million people without access to electricity and at least another two billion whose supply lacks capacity to power cooking facilities. The consequence is widespread reliance on traditional biomass methods of cooking, for which the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel is the dominant choice.
Solutions to Deforestation
Most tropical forest countries are forthcoming with pledges to take control of deforestation, through legislation where necessary. Both Indonesia and DRC have in recent years attempted a moratorium on granting leases for land clearance. Such endeavours have a poor track record of enforcement, with thinly resourced government departments unable to exert control.
For businesses in richer countries, product certification is a core response to pressure from consumers. Certifying bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil oversee agreed standards of commodity sourcing.
Popular global consumer campaigns have perhaps proved more effective than certification in slowing the pace of deforestation, especially those which target the reputational risk of big corporate brand names. A sequence of such campaign victories has unleashed an avalanche of “zero deforestation” commitments announced by the sector’s most significant global companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper, McDonalds and Cargill.
Hundreds of similar commitments by major companies are on record, many of them coordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of consumer businesses. Poor evidence of progress suggests that formidable challenges remain, not least to bring public pressure to bear on major timber importers such as China, Vietnam and Japan.
After years of painstaking negotiations and pilot programmes to reduce deforestation, the importance of preserving tropical forests gained recognition in both major multilateral agreements reached during 2015; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement.
more Biodiversity briefings (updated March 2021)
Importance of Biodiversity
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
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