This chart from the report illustrates the improbable spurt of new timber coming out of Indonesian, likely harvested rain forest trees funneled through legal plantations.
Tropical rain forests—enormous carbon sinks, workers of regional weather, home to millions of species, sources of new drugs—have a lot more to offer alive than dead; lumber isn’t much good at curing cancer or keeping global temperatures down. Yet deforestation continues, and even getting legislation that makes the logging of rain forest illegal is probably unlikely to deter the worst offenders. Though some estimates claim rates of deforestation have dropped, according to a new United Nations Environmental Program and INTERPOL report [pdf], that decrease is simply the result of better cover-up on the part of the criminal cartels that control the $30-100 billion a year business of illegal logging. Business in so-called “black” wood, it turns out, is flourishing.
The report describes in detail how illegal logging operations work and provides analyses of the social and government factors that facilitate them. One of the easiest ways to get illegal wood out of a country is by slipping it in with wood from an above-board plantation, for instance. This means that the amount of wood coming out of legal plantations can grossly exceed what you might expect, as demonstrated in the figure above. The end result of all these stratagems is that 50-90% of the wood coming out of some tropical countries is illicit. Between 15 and 30% of the international timber market, in fact, is now in illegally cut wood.
The Mayan rain god Chac
Droughts do far worse than brown our lawns—the water shortages and crop damage they mete out, and the fires fed by dry conditions, have effects that last long after rain returns. These events may even have civilization-destroying powers: although doubts remain, many researchers consider drought one of the leading contributors to the collapse of the Maya. And a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters finds that by cutting down forests, Mayans may have directly contributed to the droughts that brought about the downfall of their society.
Like modern civilizations, Mayans felled trees in order to harvest the raw material and clear land for cities and crops. Researchers modeled how this deforestation affected local climate conditions with computer simulations. Cleared land absorbs less solar energy, which means it releases less moisture to contribute to rainfall. By comparing untampered or regrown forest to reconstructions of the tree cover during Mayan occupation, researchers found that razed land could have reduced annual rainfall by 5 to 15 percent. This means that of the estimated drought during the height of Mayan civilization, 60 percent of the rainfall decrease was likely due to deforestation.
Logging in Brazil
When the chief of one Amazonian tribe counseled his people to fight back against illegal logging of their land, the loggers wasted no time in retaliating: they put a $100,000 bounty on his head.
Natural resources are growing scarcer and more valuable, and murders of people attempting to protect them are growing. According to a report by Global Witness, an organization that investigates and counters resource-related conflict and human rights abuses, killings motivated by forests and land have more than doubled over the past three years. In the last decade, 711 people—among them journalists, activists, and locals—have been killed, totaling more than one person per week. Most of the killers are not prosecuted, and information about such murders is hard to come by, but most of the killings are reported to be in Brazil, Colombia, the Phillipines, and Peru.
The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
Indonesia, because it’s an archipelago, might not look like it has a lot of land area. But it’s home to the third largest forest area of any country, and has half the tropical peatlands in the entire world. These forested lands are home to many endangered species, and also store greenhouse gases. Now, thanks to international cooperation (and a big check), more of that area will be saved—for now.
This week, Indonesia pledged to stop giving permits for the destruction of virgin forests:
“We will conduct a moratorium for two years where we stop the conversion of peat land and of forest,” President Yudhoyono said at a joint news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The pledge comes ahead of Thursday’s climate and forest conference in Oslo, which is expected to be attended by officials from some 50 countries [BBC News].
Environmentalists are cheering the reprieve, noting that vast swaths of forest have already been cleared in Indonesia to provide wood for timber and paper industries, and to provide space for palm oil plantations.
Google.org, the non-profit division of the search engine giant Google, wants to help scientists monitor deforestation by harnessing the power of its popular Google Earth and Maps applications. Its new “high-performance satellite imagery-processing engine” can process terabytes of information on thousands of Google servers while giving access to the results online. The platform, which was demonstrated on Thursday at the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, would allow anyone using the tool to monitor whether or not trees were being chopped down in a given forest. It analyzes satellite images to show forest changes over a given time period [CNET].
The announcement comes at a time when delegates from around the world are attempting to negotiate a treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Google debuted their new program at Copenhagen because they are hoping that their software could help countries conform to the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) program proposed by the United Nations, in which industrialized nations would pay developing nations to keep their forests standing.
Nike, the world’s largest maker of athletic shoes, said yesterday it is adopting a policy that prohibits the use of leather from cattle raised in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The announcement came after a Greenpeace statement released about a month ago citing cattle farming as the main driver as deforestation in the region, and a significant contributor to global warming, as ranchers clear vast stretches of land for grazing.
The company established a formal Amazon leather policy and will give its leather suppliers until the first day of next July to “create an ongoing, traceable and transparent system to provide credible assurances that leather used for Nike products is from cattle raised outside of the Amazon Biome” [AP].