Global Problems, Forests & Solutions

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Thomas E. Lovejoy a pioneer in the use of economics to conserve forests and other ecosystems globally is joined by John Reid, who has worked in the Amazon since 1965, in presenting a case for:

How Big Forests Solve Global Problems

Sit on a log by the Madidi River in Bolivia at dusk and you can hear what an Amazon forest should sound like. The music includes red howler monkeys, breathy thumps from the mutum jungle fowl, droning cicadas, eerie calls locals attribute to deadly bushmaster vipers and the unhinged excitement of elusive titi monkeys. Around your feet, the beach is crisscrossed by jaguar tracks and those of the pony-size tapir, a shy beast that, if you keep quiet, will saunter out of the forest and swim across the river.

This is what scientists call an “intact forest landscape.” It’s a swath of at least 500 square kilometers (about 193 square miles, equal to 70,000 soccer fields) of unbroken forest. Because of their size, these areas have maintained all their native plant and animal life and biophysical processes. These forests still adorn parts of our planet’s tropical midsection, notably the Amazon, Congo Basin and the island of New Guinea. And they form a northern belt, the boreal forests of Canada, Russia, Alaska and Scandinavia.

Intact forests today total around 11.8 million square kilometers (about 4.6 million square miles), according to estimates by a group of researchers and organizations, including Greenpeace, Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute, Transparent World, University of Maryland, World Wildlife Fund of Russia and Wildlife Conservation Society. That’s roughly the United States and Mexico combined. It’s about a quarter of the planet’s total forest area, the rest of which is fragmented by roads, mines, cities and agriculture. Over 7 percent has been lost since 2000. Keeping the rest is a key to turning around three stubborn global trends: climate change, the sixth great extinction crisis and the loss of human cultures.

In the tropics, intact forests hold 40 percent of the aboveground forest carbon even though they make up only 20 of those latitudes’ forests. And intact forests have been shown recently to absorb enough carbon to offset many Amazon countries’ (like Peru) total emissions. When forests become fragmented, edge effects (forest damage at created edges), drying and fire cause over 150 million tons of annual emissions — more than result from outright deforestation.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates suggest that those emissions cost us $6.3 billion in lost crops, flood damage, fires and other impacts. In the boreal region, forests protect permafrost, which, if it thaws, will be a huge source of heat-trapping methane emissions. Aside from maintaining the global climate, intact forests stabilize weather locally and regionally, which sustains livelihoods for millions of people.

Carbon has been fashioned by evolution into a staggering array of plants and animals, many of which are threatened by the current spasm of extinctions. The great intact forests host the most diverse ecosystems and robust populations of top predators, wide-ranging migrants and undiscovered species. They are evolutionary workshops still going full tilt. In places like the western Amazon, intact forests climb mountainsides, giving species altitudinal ladders to survive climate change.

The planet’s cultural diversity also depends on its big forests. Of the world’s approximately 6,900 languages, around a quarter are from the three great tropical forest regions (which have just 6 percent of the land area): 330 languages in the Amazon, 1,100 in New Guinea and its environs and 242 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of Africa’s intact forests are. Unesco estimates that a language is lost every two weeks. Many are blinking out as the forests that sustain their speakers are eroded.

Humanity’s very ability to think certain thoughts depends on our great forests. When the renowned Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes first arrived in the Amazon (in 1941), he found that some Indians used the same word for “green” and “blue” but had 18 terms for varieties of a sacred vine that had been identified by baffled scientists as a single species…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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