The destruction of the tropical rainforests and the inherent species extinction
is one of the greatest threats to civilization. The genetic, pharmacological and
industrial benefits of preserving the rainforests far exceed all current benefits of
destroying it for cash. The rainforests of the world have existed for tens of
millions of years, and this has allowed millions of species to evolve; unfortunately,
many of the three-quarters of the world's species in the rainforest may perish
before they are discovered. Action must be taken quickly: farming, ranching and
logging are destroying or damaging the rainforests so fast there is very little time
to save them -- most rainforest will be damaged or destroyed by 2025.
The rainforest is composed of two layers: the floor and the canopy. Contrary
to popular perception, the floor of the rainforest is not covered with impenetrable
bush -- it is easy walking, with only trees and the occasional vine growing up from
the ground. It is quite shady, as only one-tenth of the sun's brilliance reaches the
ground. Most of the activity of the rainforest is centred in the canopy, or a
continuous covering of tree-tops that starts over one hundred feet above the
Two-thirds of the way up the tree, the canopy starts. Lianas, or vines grow
up and down trees and across the canopy, each intertwined with several trees.
When one tree falls, several are pulled down with it because of the linking vines.
The canopy contains almost all of the plant and animal life of the rainforest. The
tree branches are covered with epiphytes, which are plants that do not harm the
tree but simply live on it. Many animals live in the canopy, mainly insects and
On the forest floor, the trees are supported by buttresses, triangular plates of
hard wood that serve as anchors during tropical storms. Rainforest trees do not
have deep roots, as the soil is very poor. The soil is very poor because of its age
and the high number of soil organisms -- in one square metre of leaf litter, 800
ants belonging to fifty species were found. As it is always summer in the
rainforest, trees do not lose all their leaves at once, but instead are constantly
growing new ones as they drop off old ones. The leaf litter is very thin, and just
barely enough to conceal the soil.
There is almost no wind in the rainforest. When a storm is raging above, the
wind speed on the forest floor is only 1/100 the speed of the wind above the
canopy. This is why up to 94% of rain forest trees depend on fruit-eating
mammals, such as bats, for dispersing their seeds. These seeds are large,
such as those in peaches and plums, because tree seedlings need lots of food to
survive in the poor soil.
There are two main types of rainforests: equatorial and tropical moist
rainforests. Equatorial rainforest, of which two-thirds of the world's rainforest is
composed, is found bordering the equator in Brazil, Zaire and Southeast Asia.
It doesn't have any seasons, as the temperature (an average of 27 degrees
Celsius) and the rainfall are the same year-round. The rainfall is so high in
equatorial rainforest that living there is very uncomfortable, as the annual
precipitation is several metres. Tropical moist forests are found north and south
of equatorial rainforests, and have a noticeable dry and wet season.
The rain of the rainforest comes from the rainforest itself: From morning to
noon, the trees transpire hundreds of litres of water as the sun heats the forest.
This water forms large cumulonimbus clouds that let loose a thunderstorm by
three o'clock in the afternoon that lasts one to two hours. Approximately 1/2 to
3/4 of the rain that falls on the rainforest stays on the leaves of the tallest trees in
the canopy, where it evaporates the next day to fall again as rain. This is an
example of a vertical water cycle: if the forest were to be removed, much less rain
would fall and would become a desert. "If half the Amazon jungle was cleared,
the existence of the remaining forest will be threatened by
In one typical hectare of Amazonia, there may be two hundred tree species,
but as many as half of those trees may be different just one kilometre away. As
species are not spread uniformly throughout the rainforest, the survival of a
species can be threatened very easily. There are many species of trees in the
rainforest, but the individual species may have only one or two members per
hectare. Other plants, such as orchids, were discovered and named decades
ago and have not been discovered since.
This means that most tropical rainforest species are rare, and can be wiped
out locally when an area is exploited. Animals usually cannot move on when
their habitat is removed -- the fig genus, the most widespread in the tropics, is
composed of more than 900 species, each of which is pollinated by its own
species of wasp. If a fig tree is cut down, and there are no fig trees of the
wasp's species nearby, the wasps will die.
Much of the earth was covered with rainforest 45 million years ago, so the
survival techniques of all the plants in the rainforest have been developing for a
long time. We are one species of about perhaps thirty million, of which 15 to
24 million species live in the rainforest. This number covers a wide range
because not very many rainforest species have been identified. This number is
based on the number of new species found every time a survey of rainforest
species is taken.
When communities of plants become cut off from another during ice ages or
other natural events, they tend to evolve into new species. Borneo is more
mountainous than Amazonia, so it has more species per unit area. If a species
exists only in one region, it is said to be endemic to that region. The moist forests
of Sri Lanka has the highest level of endemism in Asia, with over 800 flowering
plant species discovered there and nowhere else. The highest level of
endemism in Amazonia is where it borders upon the foothills of the Andes. These
areas have one of the highest rainfalls and some of the most fertile soils, which
promote the abundance of species. Unfortunately, the rich soils also attract
shifted cultivators, who quickly destroy the rainforest.
As equatorial rainforest grows at the same rate year-round, no growth rings
form in the wood. This means that the life cycle of rainforest trees is almost
impossible to determine, and it is not known how long it takes rainforest to
regenerate. However, 600 years ago most of the rainforest around Angkor Wat,
an ancient city in Cambodia, was cleared. The secondary rainforest that grew up
around it is still different from the primary rainforest that surrounds it.
The huge diversity of insects in the rainforest means that rainforest plants
have to defend themselves with different chemicals that act as natural
insecticides. These chemicals work just as well as synthetic insecticides, and
are less toxic to humans and animals. These natural insecticides can be
manufactured and used on domestic crops.
When a major disease strikes a major food crop, such as tomatoes, it results
in an economic disaster. The best way to prevent such a disaster is to return to
the original rainforest plants, which maintain their resistance to disease, as the
new, improved varieties lose their original protective compounds. Every five to
fifteen years, crop breeders must re-breed the wild plants with the domesticated
crops to strengthen the crops. In the last fifty years, genes from wild rainforest
plants have been used to save a number of important crops, including coffee,
sugar-cane, cacao, manioc, and bananas.
The rainforest contains over 2000 different fruits, but only a dozen are well-
The Supermarket of the Rainforest:
Coffee first came from the beans of a plant from the understory of the Ethiopian
Tea is made from the leaves of a southeast Asian plant.
Chocolate comes from the beans of the Amazonian cacao plant.
Oranges, bananas, papayas, mangoes, grapefruit, and pineapples were originally
found growing wild in the rainforest.
Ginger, black pepper, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika are spices
originally found growing wild in the rainforest.
Corn, peanuts, sugar-cane, rice, eggplant, tomatoes, and manioc, the source of
Approximately 1/4 of all prescription drugs come from rainforest plants.
This fraction could be significantly increased if wide surveys were to be
undertaken of rainforest plants for medicinal properties. An easy way to find
medicinal plants is to talk to rainforest tribes, as they have accumulated
knowledge about their surroundings for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, these
tribes are being rapidly converted to Western culture and lose their knowledge in
There are many sustainable industrial uses of the rainforests, including
rattans, essential oils, and latex. Rattan furniture is made from lianas, and is one
of the few sustainable exports of the rainforest -- they are Southeast Asia's
second most valuable export after timber. Essential oils are extracted from
almost any part of a plant and are found in perfumes, shaving cream, shampoos,
and cosmetics in general. Latexes originated in the rainforest; they include
chicle gum, which is found in chewing gum, and rubber. Natural rubber is
superior and cheaper than synthetic rubber, which is made from fossil fuels.
When fossil fuels run out in thirty years, plants will already have taken over
production of gasoline and other fuels, if large plantations are created. There are
two ways to convert plants into fuel: through processing by composting or heating
organic matter to produce alcohols, or to tap the sap of trees directly. Plants
store energy in their tissues either as carbohydrates like sugar or hydrocarbons
such as diesel fuel.
A tree in central Amazonia can be directly tapped for its hydrocarbon fluid.
This sap has a chemical composition so close to diesel fuel that it can be used
directly as diesel fuel. "One hectare of 250 mature trees might produce 60
barrels of fuel per year." Another tree, the petroleum nut tree, produces nuts
that contain a very volatile oil that the Japanese used in World War II as tank
fuel. These sources of fuel could remove the need of Third World countries to
import fossil fuels, which is the largest import.
The mentioned sustainable pharmacological and industrial uses of the
rainforest only hint at the potential uses of the rainforest; there are many more to
In temperate forests, such as those of BC, a thick layer of debris forms and
turns into soil over thousands of years, while in a rainforest, recycling is so fast,
the leaf litter is never more than a few inches thick. In temperate forests, 95%
of the forest's nutrients are contained in the soil, while 75-90% of the nutrients
of an area of tropical rain forest are in the vegetation.
Only one twenty-fifth of the land in Amazonia has good agricultural soil, and
three-quarters of Amazonia's land is so poor that a farmer is lucky to get one
monoculture crop out of the land before it is completely exhausted. Settlers
tend to cut the largest trees, thinking that the soil is the most fertile there, but the
rainforest natives know that the places where the trees have thin trunks often
have the best soil.
This infertile soil has caused the trees to develop a highly efficient system of
capturing nutrients. Tree roots extend up to 100 metres along the ground from
the tree trunk and form a root mat 30 centimetres thick. This mat can capture
over 99% of the nutrients that fall on it within weeks.
Rainforest soil is permanently damaged by erosion by water, the baking of the
soil by sunlight, and the loss of mycorrhizal fungi through the dehydration of the
soil. The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with trees, and every ranforest
tree species may have its own fungus. They enable the tree to absorb more
minerals from the soil, in exchange for energy. These fungi are the same ones
as those connected to the mushrooms seen in temperate forests - the bulk of the
mushroom is in tiny filaments that surround the tree's roots. Until the fungi come
back, the trees cannot grow there, and the fungi will not grow in the warmer and
drier soil. The degraded soil is taken over by coarse grasses and other hardy
People generally don't worry about the environmental effects of their actions
on others. In Nepal, deforestation in the foothills of the Himalayas has led to
drastic flooding In Bangladesh:
Because the rainforest is a giant sponge that absorbs vast
amounts of rain, it prevents floods. When the rainforests have been
destroyed, great amounts of water are lost in floods. Because the
water washes away so quickly, the soil cannot absorb it. In
addition, flooding water carries away huge quantities of topsoil and
deposits it as silt in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Worst of all, in
some deforested areas, floods kill many people every year. ....
When rainforests covered the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains
to the north, the flooding of the Ganges was predictable and
restricted.... But now these rainforests are largely gone, and during
the rainy season, raging floods go out of control and kill hundreds of
people every year.
When large hydro dams are built in the rainforest, little thought is given to the
effects of sedimentation. Invariably, when a large hydro dam is built, shifted
cultivators move in on the roads to the dam and deforest the watershed around
the dam. This leads to erosion and the dam fills up much quicker than expected,
decreasing its useful life-span and causing it to be uneconomical. The trees in
the area to be flooded are usually not cut. This not only wastes money, but the
trees rot slowly, emitting poisonous gases and causing the water to become
acidic, harming crops and aquatic life downstream form the dam.
The rainforests are often referred to as "the lungs of the earth." This is an
incorrect metaphor, and gives the false impression that the rainforests absorb
carbon dioxide. Rainforests are already at a climax vegetation, where no more
carbon can be stored, even though they are one of the main stocks of the earth's
carbon. If the rainforests were destroyed, the excess carbon would contribute
significantly to the Greenhouse Effect, as they contain an amount of carbon equal
to almost half of the carbon in the atmosphere.
Tropical rainforests cover about seven percent of the world's inhabitable
land. There are two ways to calculate the remainder of rainforest: by the total
amount of forest, and by the total amount of undisturbed, or primary forests. The
following chart contains the total area of forest in 1992, which is much less today:
Area of forest Share of Name of area Main Countries
(million km2) forest
3.7 1/2  Amazon Basin Brazil, Peru, Bolivia,Venezuela
1.5 1/5  Southeast Asia Indonesia, Malaysia,Philippines
1.2 1/6  Congo River basin Zaire and the Congo
1.0 1/7 Miscellaneous Mexico, Guatemala,Nicaragua
7.4  (now 7.0) Total Brazil
Before the industrial age, there were 13 million square kilometres of rainforest.
Including two million square kilometres of secondary forest, there are 7.0
million square kilometres of rainforest still standing today. To put this in
perspective, BC contains roughly one million square kilometres.
1.8 million square kilometres of rainforest are preserved in parks and
reserves. There are two problems with the one-quarter of rainforests in
preserves. Parks staff are underpaid and outnumbered by intruders, and can't
prevent timber poachers and shifted cultivators from entering. The other problem
is that the preserved areas were not selected for high levels of biodiversity -- they
were selected for dramatic scenery or location.
At these rates, which may accelerate, all primary rainforest will be destroyed
or degraded in less than 30 years, at 3% per year, or by the year 2025.
Two acres per second
43 hectares per minute
620 square kilometres per day
0.226 million square kilometres per year.
Satellite photos reveal that Brazil is ablaze with as many as 7,000 fires at
once. In 1975, only one percent of all forest in Amazonia had been destroyed.
Today well over ten percent is gone. This degradation is caused mainly by
slash and burn agriculture, which accounts for somewhere between 60-70% of
worldwide rainforest destruction every year. Logging accounts for 15%
cattle ranching for around 5% of rainforest destruction worldwide. The number
for cattle ranching is deceptive: Cattle raising is the main reason for the
destruction of Latin America's tropical forests, as over 72% of cleared forest in
Latin America is used for cattle ranching.
The scale of destruction of Brazil's forests is illustrated by the
state of Rondonia at the upper reaches of the Amazon. Between
1975 and 1986, Rondonia's population exploded from 111,000 to
over one million. (Try to imagine the disruptive consequences of a
tenfold increase in people in a city or province in only ten years.) In
1975, almost 1,250 square kilometres of the state's forest were
cleared. By 1982, this had grown to more that 10,000 and by late
1985 to about 17,000 square kilometres. That's over ten percent of
the state's forests, and the rate of deforestation continues to
The Brazilian constitution guarantees native people the land they occupy the
exclusive use of all its natural resources, but guarantees are only good if they are
respected. "Over half of the tribes haven't even had their territory recognized or
delineated, yet development and occupation are already taking place in their
All of the offences against North American Indians by Europeans are practiced
against the native tribes of the rainforest. The same ugly pattern of offering
trinkets, introducing diseases, cultural genocide and ignoring land claims
continues to this day in the Amazon as new tribes are discovered in the
rainforest. The laws of Brazil and other rainforest countries give these tribes
special rights and protection, but there are no systems in place to assure
rainforest tribes of those rights.
One third of the world's population depends on firewood as a main source of
energy. One-half of all wood cut worldwide is used as fuel, and more than four-
fifths of this amount is cut in the developing world. At least 1.5 billion people in
the Third World have difficulty finding enough fuelwood and can only get what
they need by overcutting the remaining forests. A lack of fuelwood results in
undercooked food, which may contain parasites. This problem can be reduced by
improving the efficiency of stoves. A typical Third World stove can deliver only
ten percent of the wood's energy to the food, while simple design changes
costing a few dollars can cut the heat loss by two-fifths.
There is hope in the form of a small bush which grows very rapidly, producing
lots of fuelwood. The callandria bush binds the soil with an extensive root system,
preventing erosion, and as it is a legume it revitalizes exhausted soils. Callandria
is also good livestock fodder. This plant, and many other fast-growing species
like it could be spread around the tropics of the world, relieving the stress on
original forests of all types.
The US contains one-twentieth of the world's population and is responsible for
importing about one-third of all internationally traded beef, so this chapter will
concentrate on the US, the world's largest producer and consumer of beef.
Although it was not determined whether Canada imports unprocessed rainforest
beef, as it seems highly improbable, Canada nevertheless imports rainforest beef
by buying convenience foods from the US and Brazil, such as corned beef.
The typical cattle rancher acquires land for next to nothing, either from the
government or for about $110 per hectare from subsistence farmers who have
already cleared part of the land. If the farmer does not want to leave, "it
remains common in the Amazon for businessmen to employ pistoleiros (hired
gunmen) to get land for them. A few hundred dollars puts ten or twelve armed
men at your disposal." Once the area to be ranched
is "acquired," the cattle
rancher cuts and burns all the trees. The area is then planted with grass,
establishing the ranch.
Immediately after a ranch is established, it can sustain one cow per hectare;
after five years, it can sustain only one cow per every five hectares. Former
rainforest converted to pasture is quickly and permanently exhausted of nutrients,
as the bare soil allows the very heavy rain to wash them away (some areas have
over 3.5 metres of annual rainfall.) This means that ranches can become
unprofitable after only a few years; this is no problem for the ranchers, as they
simply acquire a new patch of undisturbed forest.
As the price of ground beef is considered to be the main cause of inflation in
the US, beef amounting to one percent of all US beef consumption is imported
into the US from Central America, and this keeps the price of beef about a nickel
per pound cheaper than it would be otherwise.
There is a large environmental cost to the importing of rainforest beef: a single
1/4 lb burger produced on a rainforest ranch requires the permanent destruction
of seven square metres of rainforest. Cattle raising is the main reason for the
destruction of Latin America's tropical forests, as it uses 72 percent of the
cleared forest areas, and there isn't much time left -- 66 percent of the
rainforests of Central America have been converted to tropical grassland.
Cattle in Central America are raised on grass, so the meat is very lean, unlike
the marbled meat of North American grain-fed cattle. This lean beef is only good
for the increasing fast-food and processed-meat markets in the US, so "the
demand for cheap, lean beef is unlikely to slacken." Fast food chains can
claim that they use only domestic beef. The may appear to be true, but they may
unwittingly be using rainforest beef because the US Department of Agriculture
categorizes imported beef as domestic beef before it is released on the open
Heavily subsidized by government, cattle ranchers in Brazil own huge blocks
of land -- though less than one percent of all landowners own property over 10
square kilometres, this small group occupies half of the available farmland.
The situation is just as bad in Guatemala, where 2.2% of the population owns
seventy percent of the agricultural land. Well over half of Central America's rural
families own no land or too little to support themselves. Land reform could
redistribute some of the agricultural land among the landless peasants, as
happened after the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, and reduce the pressure of
these impoverished peasants into lowland forest zones. The reason that
governments do not redistribute land is mainly because of politics and culture:
To own land and cattle fosters both social standing and political
power. Ranchers include many professionals, notably government
officials, who retire to their country estates on weekends to ride
horseback and enjoy an image as gentlemen stock raisers. By
contrast with the small-scale peasant, who of necessity must make
very intensive use of his small holding, the prestige rancher is often
content to use his land in an extensive fashion, which usually means
an inefficient and wasteful fashion. Many of these large-scale
landholders feel little incentive to intensify their beef-raising methods,
especially when they believe there is plenty of untouched forest left
"out there." Thus those who control the largest amounts of agricultural
lands are those with the least motivation to use it efficiently; and
because of their privileged position in the political structure, they are
unlikely to meet serious opposition.
There are several ways to reduce the amount of rainforest destruction caused
by cattle ranching. The easiest way would be to eliminate imports of rainforest
beef, which is only one percent of total beef consumed. The US could use its
influence to persuade ranchers to become much more efficient and sustainable
through better management. "Beef exporters could be obliged to demonstrate
that they raise their cattle on already established pastures, not on newly cleared
forest lands." More land could be conserved in reserves through international
pressure, reducing the amount of land available for ranching.
As long as businessmen of Latin America and Brazil see cattle ranching as a
prestigious activity, and the demand for rainforest beef from the US and Europe
continues to exist, ranching will continue to destroy the rainforest. An irony is that
Brazil could meet its people's entire animal protein needs if it were to fish the
Amazon River system, which has over 2000 known species of fish.
By far the number one factor in disruption and destruction of
tropical forests is the small-scale farmer [shifted cultivator]. In
strong contrast to the next two most significant contributors to forest
depletion, that is the timer logger and the cattle raiser, the farmer
sees no alternative to what he is doing. He simple does not believe
that there is any other means available for him to gain a livelihood.
Being much more numerous, moreover, than the timber logger, the
cattle raiser, and the fuelwood cutter combined, he affects much
larger areas of forest.
There are two types of subsistence farmers, or slash-and-burn cultivators in
the rainforest: natives who have lived in an area of rainforest for several thousand
years, and landless peasants who have recently migrated from the city, where
population pressure has prevented them from owning land. In most Latin
American countries, the only way to establish legal ownership of land is to prove
that it is being used, and the easiest way to do that is to clear it. As mentioned
above, these farmers are very numerous: they are roughly five percent of the
Slash-and-burn rainforest tribes, or shifting cultivators, use the fallow system:
they clear an area and farm it until it becomes less fertile, and then plant orange
or rubber trees on it. In the ten to twenty-five years or so it takes the rainforest to
overrun the orange and rubber trees, the farmer benefits. The field is then ready
to be reused as farmland. This is a sustainable form of agriculture, as the
same fields can be used every ten to twenty years, and no more primary
rainforest is chopped down. These farmers are cutting down the rainforest faster
than it can regrow, exhausting the soil.
Migrant peasants, or shifted cultivators, destroy primary rainforest without
knowing how to reclaim it. They farm until the land become less fertile, like
shifting cultivators, and burn more forest. The difference is that they do not
replant it -- once stripped of its nutrients, a field is allowed to degenerate into
scrub, or it is sold to cattle ranchers. The soil is destroyed so effectively that the
rainforest will never return.
In Brazil, from 50% to 90% of the people don't legally own land. These
people live mainly in urban areas, and the opportunity of owning land is enough to
entice many out into the rainforest, as land is free. The settling of desperately
poor peasants from overcrowded cities in the rainforest is both a developmental,
environmental and political issue: As the soils of the rainforest are very poor,
people can barely maintain a subsistence living, and have very poor living
standards as a result of their poverty and isolation.
The governments refuse to officially admit that these forest farmers exist, and
wish that they would just disappear. This is reflected by statistics that deliberately
underestimate their numbers. These people are not recognised as citizens
because to do so would admit that there was a problem. If the plight of forest
farmers (on the forest or of themselves) was made into a political issue, the
credibility of the politicians involved would be reduced because of the influence of
The only way to solve the problem of shifted cultivation is to encourage and
promote sustainable farming. Farmers don't need to cut down trees if they plant
them in multi-species gardens. The trick is to grow plants that support each
other, rather than compete with each other. Farmers would grow leguminous
plants among their other crops, such as climbing beans, clovers, and various
trees and shrubs, because these plants `fix' nitrogen from the air and add it to the
soil, fertilizing the plants around them.
No area in such a plot is covered with just one species: the garden would
supply all of the farmer's needs, from food to medicinal herbs to fuelwood. "The
main secret of the multi-storied structure is that it efficiently exploits the sun's
energy through plants of many forms that absorb light and warmth in many
ways." If this type of farming is done correctly, the patch of forest need never
wear out. The farmer does not get as much cash with this system as he does
with monoculture crops, but he would be much more self-sufficient and never
wear the forest out. If he needed cash for utensils and other essentials, he could
grow cash crops between the other plants in his garden.
The problem are that farmers may be resistant to this type of farming, as they
are so used to the monoculture farming of more temperate lands, and it requires
a lot of work to teach farmers to farm in this way. A great deal of international
effort is needed to halt the problems of shifted cultivation. This would be found in
the form of volunteers and international pressure on governments to teach
farmers how to plant multi-species gardens.
Third World countries' need for hard currency is the main reason to log the
rainforests, as most of the logs are exported to First World countries. Ironically,
developing nations pay almost half of their total earnings from tropical hardwood
exports for paper pulp, as they buy their wood chips back as pulp. Almost two-
thirds of paper pulp produced is manufactured into packaging materials, tissues,
and convenience products such as paper cups and plates.
Japan is heavily dependent on foreign sources of wood chips: it seeks about
half of its sources overseas. If US and Canadian softwood chip prices
increase, Japan and Europe will turn to Southeast Asia and tropical America for
hardwood chips. Canada's forests are only a few thousand years old and will
disappear under ice during the next ice age in twenty thousand years. Some
forests of southeast Asia have existed continuously for seventy million years, or
since the days of the dinosaurs.
It could take hundreds of thousands of years for new species to evolve if the
rain forest was cut down, while most species in Canada are not endemic: they
migrated north as the ice melted away at the end of the Ice Age. Therefore,
B.C.'s forests are more disposable than the rain forest (when examined purely on
fragility and biodiversity.) B.C.'s forests are no less beautiful than the rainforest,
so it will be hard to convince people that B.C.'s forests are any less valuable than
Almost all exploiters of tropical forests could get what they need from
secondary, or disturbed, forests alone if plantations were established. This would
make more sense in the long run, as secondary forests grow much faster and can
tolerate disruption more than primary forest.
Naturally, logging is widespread in regions where human numbers are higher.
Logging roads open up a previously uninhabitable area to landless peasants.
The peasants, used to soil and rain of drier, more fertile climates, practice such
intensive slash-and-burn agriculture that the forest has no chance of recovery.
The peasants, wiping all species except for the crops they grow off their piece of
land, damage the rainforest much more than the logger does.
Because the trees are worth, on average, $20 000 of foreign exchange per
hectare, and since the majority of people in rainforest countries are impoverished,
it is hard to argue in favour of the rainforest.
However, poverty and the need for
foreign exchange are the two main reasons that the rainforest is destroyed.
There is an alternative method to selective logging called "full forest
harvesting," whereby all the branches of a tree are chipped up and turned into
pulp and then paper. The chipping machine can reduce an average-sized tree,
branches and all, into chips, each about the size of a dollar coin, in about one
minute. This means that a smaller area of rainforest is destroyed, but it is
destroyed permanently. Felling one tree with selective logging can fatally
damage up to seventeen other trees. In the end, up to 70% of the rainforest in a
selective logging area is destroyed for the sake of a few trees.
Selective logging leaves a damaged, but still existing, secondary rainforest,
with a slight chance of eventual recovery. The problem with taking all the wood
in the tree, and not just the trunk of the tree, is that trees store most of their
nutrients in their extremities rather than their trunks. When the whole tree is
removed, almost all of the nutrients are removed from that patch of rainforest, as
almost all of the nutrients in a patch of rainforest are stored in the tree.
Tropical hardwoods constitute only one-seventh of global trade in all forest
products, but most tropical hardwood is exported as raw logs: high tariffs on
imported finished products and a lack of cash to buy the processing equipment
remove the incentive to process tropical hardwood. Rainforest countries would
cut down less primary forest, have more jobs, and get three times as much
foreign exchange if they processed raw logs rather than shipping them to Japan,
Taiwan, and South Korea.
Both of these obstacles are caused directly by the First World. The superficial
reason to put tariffs on imports of processed wood is to protect industries and
jobs, but the real reason is to keep Third World currency undervalued so that the
Third World debt can never be paid off.
One of the main reasons for inaction on the part of the Third World countries
to save their rainforests is their massive debts. In 1970, Third world countries
owed about US$72 billion to foreign lenders; today, they owe approximately
$1.3 trillion. Two so-called "development"
agencies, the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, are forcing Third World countries, mainly Latin
America and Brazil, to destroy their rainforests to reduce their debt. The World
Bank has suggested to Brazil to "bring under control and management" 50 000
square kilometres, or 1.4%, of its rainforest.
However, the Third World debt can never be paid off even if the rainforests
are completely liquidated: Brazil spends over 40% of the money it earns on
exports on the yearly interest on its foreign debt, which totals over $100
billion. This has come at the expense of social programs, which are the first
thing that these agencies cut -- it's a hard fact of life that the ideals of socialism
and high finance don't mix.
The debt was created in the first place when various countries borrowed
money to build expensive mega-projects and to gain military power. The World
Bank and International Monetary Fund built the Trans-Amazon Highway right
through the middle of Amazonia for $457 million -- which failed miserably,
because shifted cultivators moved in along it instead of more "profitable"
enterprise, such as cattle ranching.
The World Bank has planned to build 125 hydroelectric dams in Amazonia by
the year 2010, which would flood 2300 square kilometres of rainforest. The
problem with hydro dams in the rainforest, besides the obvious destruction of
forest, is that settlers move in on the roads built to service the dams and strip the
surrounding hills of vegetation. The loss of soil causes erosion. That silts up the
dam, which decreases its capacity. That cuts the expected lifetime of the dam in
half or less, and the costs of building the dam are not recovered. This allows the
development agencies to loan even more money to the countries for the purpose
of more capital projects, and the amount of power that they have over the Third
World country's economy increases.
The reader may wonder from where all this money comes. It doesn't come
from governments, but from government-regulated banks and trust companies.
All six major Canadian banks are contributors to a commercial bank loan of $5.2
billion to Brazil. One sees advertisements such as "Latin America growth
funds" in the newspaper advertising bonds that pay 17-20% -- these bonds are
loans to companies to "develop" the rainforest in Latin America. This means that
the reader may be unwittingly loaning money through their RRSP or bank account
to Third World countries to destroy their rainforest.
One of the developing nations' most critical needs is to get rid of their debt
and improve their economies. Without that, the need to destroy rainforest for debt
payment will not end. One way the First World can improve these countries'
economies is to help them reduce their debt. One can do this by petitioning
the main six banks of Canada to stop loaning money to Third World countries for
any non-sustainable use of the rainforest. Another more effective way is for non-
profit groups to purchase debt from Third World countries in what are called
The Nature Conservancy, A US-based nonprofit
group .... bought $5.6 million of Costa Rica's debt for
$784,000 from American Express Bank. The
Conservancy will then turn this money into Costa
Rican currency bonds worth $1.7 million. The group
expects these bonds to pay an average of 25% a year
over five years, yielding more than $3 million for Costa
Rican national parks.
The best thing one can do about the rainforest is to educate themselves and
others about the value and potential of the rainforest. The next thing to do is to
write to one's representatives and tell them that you want them to support
legislation and/or international pressure on other countries to stop rainforest
destruction. If it were made illegal for the large banks of Canada to loan money
to rainforest countries for the purpose of hydroelectric dams, and if payments on
the debt owed by rainforest countries was conditionally deferred, these countries
would be much more likely to preserve their rainforest.
Obviously, one should discontinue buying non-renewable rainforest products,
and buy renewable rainforest products if possible. However, the Japanese
company that used rainforest cardboard to package one's VCR will continue
doing so unless they are told to stop -- it is not good enough to have no
mahogany furniture and be satisfied with that - much more, in the form of protest
letters, can be done.
The reason that people, whether a lowly migrant peasant from the city or the
CEO of a multinational corporation, choose to destroy their environment is that
they see no value in the rainforest as it stands, and do not understand its
importance -- as the rainforest is alien to them, they can only see dollar signs or
next year's crop. If people can only have a reason, whether emotional or
financial, to keep the rainforest as it stands, that can overrule all other reasons for
cutting down the rainforest, they will fight for its survival.
reason that most people see the rainforest as an impenetrable tangle of
vegetation is that explorers traditionally explored forest regions by boat
along waterways, where the forest receives lots of sunlight, which causes
lots of tangled vegetation. Footnote: as #2, below.
Norman Myers, The Primary Source (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984) 29.
Feldmann, "A Third World Debt-For-Nature Swap," Christian Science Monitor, Jan 18, 1989: p.7.
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