Saving the Amazon with Raised-Field Farming

At a northern point of South America’s vast Amazon rainforest, where the lush jungle landscape meets the sparse savanna region, researchers have found evidence of a unique farming technique employed by the indigenous peoples centuries ago.  Long before the arrival of the Europeans to the continent, bringing with them their destructive slash and burn methods of clearing fields, ancient peoples utilized what is now commonly referred to as raised-field farming.   

For raised-field farming to work, small mounds of dirt would be erected along the outside edge of the forest in order to best form a border between forest and clearer land.  These mounds would serve a dual purpose, providing both an elevated farming area and a type of protection for areas typically known for their floods and droughts.  While the mounds of earth were feats of engineering prowess in themselves, they provided the land and the people that utilized it with a higher quality of harvest and soil.  Set high above the jungle floor, the mounds were perfect for capturing rain and draining it easily to the ground below – keeping the soil in the mounds moist and constantly aerated.

Now compare this with the more invasive slash and burn agriculture and it becomes a wonder why the more eco-friendly method ever disappeared.  While the burning method proves exceptionally successful in clearing large areas of land in order to make way for new crops and harvests, it does little for the land that it touches.  After being set aflame, the land loses valuable minerals and nutrients, causing much more than superficial damage and effectively ruining the internal foundation of the land.

Working at the northern edge of the Amazon in French Guiana, archeologist Jose Iriarte and his team question the likelihood that such a method of raised-field farming could be used today.  His guess is that not only can it be applied in modern times, but it should.  “This ancient, time-tested, fire-free land use could pave the way for the modern implementation of raised-field agriculture in rural areas of Amazonia,” Iriarte explained.  “Intensive raised-field agriculture can become an alternative to burning down tropical forest for slash and burn agriculture by reclaiming otherwise abandoned and new savannah ecosystems created by deforestation.”

What this means for the Amazon now could be a breakthrough in conserving this precious resource.  Covering approximately 2.5 million square miles of landscape, the Amazon contains more than half of what is left of the planet’s rainforests.  The densely forested land is home to about one-tenth of the world’s known species, and sits atop almost 100 billion tons of the world’s stored carbon. Eliminating this forest (or parts of it) would be eliminating the buffer that keeps that carbon load suppressed. If the carbon were to be released than the damaging effects of global would speed up rapidly: putting the planet at higher risk.

By applying methods like the raised-field farming method, it is hoped that the state of the Amazon gains precedence in the global mindset and practices are put into place that would focus on this lands preservation.  “With global warming, it is more important than ever before that we find a sustainable way to manage savannas,” said Iriarte.  “The clues to how to achieve this could be in the 2,000 years of history that we have unlocked.”

 

Photo Credit: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/AmazonLAI/Images/amazon_forest_mist.jpg

Government Owned Guitars: Is Your Instrument Destroying the Rainforest?

When it comes to being environmentally conscious, musicians tend to be a group that leads the pack. Artists often use their large and captive audiences to spread the word of “going green” and how they care for the environment. Artists the likes of Radiohead and Dave Matthews and The Roots have used their fame, worldwide tours, and lyrics to spread the word about protecting our earth and doing what we can to clean up our planet. However, there is one conundrum many of these musicians face when it comes to their mission to save the planet: their guitars.

Any guitar player will tell you, the type of wood that goes in to making high end guitars has a huge effect on the tone and playability of the instrument. Guitar makers like C.F. Martin & Co., Gibson, Fender, and Taylor all seek out rare hardwoods to make some of the worlds finest instruments that sell for multiple thousands of dollars. These instruments boast some of the rarest mahoganies, ebonies, and spruces from around the globe, some of which can sell for almost $200 per square foot. Even though these historic instrument makers have been using these woods for years, the companies have not gone without scrutiny by environmentalists and government agencies.

In August of 2011, Gibson guitars headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee was raided by armed members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reason for the raid? Nearly one million dollars worth of rare Indian ebony that was allegedly brought into the country illegally. This was the second raid in two years on the Gibson factory for possession of rare woods thought to be contraband. Gibson quickly sent out a press release stating that the company was in full compliance with the law. The statement claims that the wood seized was purchased from a certified Forest Stewardship Council supplier, that the company was not hiding the fact that they were in possession of the wood, and that Gibson will aggressively fight to prove their innocence.

The Gibson factory being raided is one of many stories of instrument manufacturers running in to similar situations. The government has used the U.S. Lacey Act as their primary basis for fighting these companies. The Lacey Act prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken or sold. This act was modified to include rare woods in 2008. Henry E. Juszkiewicz, chief of operations at Gibson, included in his press release that the Lacey Act “does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country.

The U.S. Lacey Act is only applicable when a foreign law has been violated.” Juszkiewicz is right. He argues that the wood was completely legal because it was already finished, putting it in compliance with Indian law as well as the Lacey Act.

Instances like this provide a basis for interesting discussion on both political and environmental grounds. It is easy for an environmentally minded person to look at a situation like this and see that Gibson is using rare woods from remote parts of the world which could negatively impact the environment and automatically pin them as the “bad guys”. But, there are some details to this story not often seen in the press that may change people’s reactions.

While it cannot be denied that guitar makers do use rare woods, some of which are

considered endangered, it is important to realize how big their impact really is. Take Sitka spruce as an example. This is one of the most commonly found woods used by guitar makers across the planet. This wood is harvested mainly in Alaska and shipped all over the world. To fulfill an entire years worth of guitars to be sold, only about 150 Sitkas would need to be harvested. This makes up a tiny fraction of the total number of these trees that are cut and shipped every year. In fact, a large majority of Sitkas go to Japan to build homes. An overwhelming majority of the deforestation in the world is caused by logging companies that clear cut forests to create timber for building or use as fuel sources. These trees are cut down in quantities that far surpass the amount of wood guitar companies use and the impact of this clear cutting is massive and devastating.      

In the grand scheme of things, the impact of the guitar industry on the cutting and selling of

rare woods is small, if not negligible, in comparison to other industries. Gibson still has yet to face any charges of criminal activity from either of the raids over the past 3 years and at this point, is innocent of any illegal activity. But, even if Gibson were guilty of these accusations, one has to wonder why the government would spend their time seeking out small companies with minimal amounts of these imports while illegal logging is taking place all over and in much greater quantities. Gibson is even a part of SmartWood, a program set up by the Rain Forest Alliance that audits the illegal poaching of endangered wood species. They have also worked with Greepeace to encourage logging companies to stay away from endangered forests. Gibson, along with numerous other high end guitar manufacturers, care about their impact and manage to keep their footprint as small as they can. This makes one wonder, is the guitar industry simply an easy target because of their publicised use of these rare woods?

It is vital that all industries that take advantage of natural resources be regulated and operate within the law. If Gibson were indeed guilty of obtaining wood illegally, they should be penalized and have to pay the consequences for breaking the law. But, since there is still no substantial evidence that this is the case, why has so much time and energy been put in to this situation by the Fish and Wildlife Service when there are logging companies illegally clear cutting forests,  endangered species are being poached out of existence, and oil companies continue illegal operations with little to no regulation or accountability?

These questions obviously cannot be answered by anyone except those that enforce the law. But, it does put a certain weight on the shoulders of those who fight for environmental

issues and want to see change in the way our planet is treated. In the news, we often see protests against oil companies or corporations that are having a negative impact on the environment. One has to wonder if the government should be the ones being protested. Gibson is not the only example of a lack of focus by government run environmental agencies. The EPA has been brought to court multiple times for their lack of enforced regulation and won their cases with little to no consequences. Oil companies are constantly involved in law suits in which they are cleared of charges because they can simply pay off the fines with little impact to their business. Environmental issues have to start at the top with the root of the problem and work their way down. If major deforestation and pollution are not tackled before the companies like Gibson are attacked for their “injustices”, we may reach a point where there is no wood left to build guitars, much less raid them.

photo credit: http://biggovernment.com/awrhawkins/2011/08/28/doj-raids-gibson-guitars-over-alleged-environmental-infractions-but-mums-still-the-word-on-fast-and-furious/

 

Amazon Rainforest or Oil Wealth? Ecuador’s Unique Approach to Solve this Dilemma

 

Amazon-CanopyThe outcry for protection and conservation of biodiverse environments and the battle against corporate greed is highlighted uniquely in the case of Yasuni National Park. This forest region, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, thrives above liquid wealth in the form of oil. However, the country is taking bold moves to preserve this valuable ecosystem: Instead of earning money and further developing the economy through the sale of oil, Ecuador proposes that Yasuni is left undisturbed and intact. Furthermore, the funding for environmental projects that would make this possible are to come from donors worldwide who would like to contribute to the responsible treatment of the planet. 

Ecuador is a haven of incredible floral and faunal variation, with particularly large numbers of birds, spiders, and orchids. Along with its cloud forest regions, the revered Amazon Rainforest is teeming with life. The Yasuni area is assumed to have the highest concentration of tree species in the entire world.

 

The Amazon jungle, also home to indigenous groups, is not a stranger to the oil industry and its negative implications on the environment. The case between Ecuador and Chevron (formerly Texaco) has been an ongoing struggle since 1998. After drilling, the oil fields were not properly treated, resulting in severe contamination of the waterways and land. Reports of sickness and cancer have risen since these operations, and the cultural traditions of native communities, like the Waorani, are threatened.

 

Ecuador has demanded cleanup and compensation in accordance to the damages left behind, but Chevron denies responsibility. This legal entanglement has highlighted the pros and cons of fossil fuel extraction. Although the sale of oil has been important to the growth of the economy, Ecuador has also recognized the degradation and toxic effects that result from this crude practice. The country has realized that guarding the natural ecological wonder  of the Amazon from harms outweighs the financial benefit that oil exports can bring.

 

Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) is the name of the plentiful oil field below below this pristine environment; estimates report that there are nearly 900 millions barrels of oil worth billions in this well. If industrial development was permitted to occur here, up to 410 million tons of carbon dioxide could be released into the atmosphere. Coupled with loss of habitat and likely extinctions in addition to destruction of indigenous homeland, this could be disastrous to the well being of the Earth. Development in Yasuni wouldn’t just directly impact Ecuador; it would affect the entire globe.

 

And so the campaign to save Yasuni was created. In 2007, president Rafael Correa announced the decision to leave the oil untouched in exchange for sustainable enterprise. In order to fund this ambitious and ecologically minded effort, Ecuador is requesting donations, which would be sent to the United Nations Development Fund and accordingly distributed to bring this project into existence. In exchange, carbon credits would be granted, reducing the donors’ ecological footprints.

 

By the end of 2011, $100 million was required to fulfill the terms of agreement, and the beginning of 2012 marked a milestone in the Yasuni National Park initiative. Through donations, $116 million has been collected, allowing to project to go on. Other South American countries – Chile and Columbia – as well as Australia, Belgium, and Turkey, have pledged for this cause. Italy has even made an agreement to allow Ecuador’s $51 million debt to remain in the country and go toward the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Celebrities and political figures are also lending to this cause; President Correa has even donated a personal sum of $40 million.

 

You can do your part in the preservation of this environment important to all life on Earth. Personal donations, no matter how small, can go toward this collective endeavor. By disseminating this novel idea through word-of-mouth or social media, you can help to spread environmental education and to recruit supporters and donors. Monetary contributions can be sent to the Ecuador Yasuni ITT Trust Fund.

 

Team up with the non-governmental organization Finding Species. Learn more about the Yasuni situation and send a message to President Correa, showing your support for this initiative and encouraging Ecuador to continue its acts of environmental leadership and solidarity with a worldwide environmental movement.

 

If you belong to an environment-oriented organization, fundraising for this cause could be a worthy project for the new year. It is imperative that the world works together to enable projects such as this to go on; please help protect one of Earth’s most vibrant and lively communities. 

 

Photo credit: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/AmazonDrought/Images/Vista_Floresta.jpg

Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense (?): How One Gift May No Longer be Available

It has been noted in literature since the days of the Bible, but the pungent plant product known as frankincense has since seen better days.  In a recent report published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Frans Bongers describes his six years of research and what he has found while studying boswellia (the species of tree that secretes the sap from which frankincense is derived).   

What he found was that in areas in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, where the trees most commonly grow, the number of trees is depleting at an incredibly fast rate. Bongers focused on Ethiopia, where the majority of frankincense is grown and exported, and found that numbers have dropped so steeply that the production of frankincense is going to be cut in half within the next 15 years—currently, boswellia trees are dying off at around 7 percent each year.  The next 50 years, if the decline continues at this consistent of a pace, will only see 10 percent of the boswellia trees that are alive now.  And with a loss like that, the “bitter perfume” may be left to the record books.

To get a better idea of how this plant is in danger, it should first be known that to get the extremely marketable scent and oil from within the plant, a process first begins by “tapping” at the bark of the tree.  This creates openings in the bark through which the sap is able to seep through, harden, and be collected by harvesters.  It is then bought and sold throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China where it is commonly used in perfumes and traditional medicines.  Its ability to soar in the marketplace has made it an easy target for over-farming in many areas of Ethiopia.

Past and present over-harvesting has made the trees weak and much more susceptible to attacks by insects; it is estimated that up to 85% of the fully grown boswellia trees that die are largely full of longhorn beetles. Additionally, government pressure to push residents out of the Ethiopian highlands and into the lowlands has given additional pressure to the boswellia growth areas that had not had such stress before. Cattle that graze on these areas, as well, prohibit the growth of new saplings to trees by eating them before they have time enough to do so. Smaller privately operated harvests are being favored by the government over the former more “government-controlled” operations.  This move, as Bongers mentions has given way to a type of “get what they can get” mentality. 

Getting enough conservational support for these trees has presented people, like Bongers, with a paradox.  In order to ensure that a sustainable number of boswellia trees be reached, large areas of growth need to be set aside and not utilized by harvesters, farmers, or cattle.  Yet, for those in the country struggling simply to survive and provide for themselves and their families, that would mean putting their livelihood/lives on hold and in great risk. 

Bongers explains that making a case for both sides would be equally valid and equally important: “People say, ‘Well, yes, we do understand, but at the same time we have to survive.’”  One way to support conservation efforts would be to get international governmental bodies involved to help formulate a plan that would not compromise either locals or plant species, but rather look to find an acceptable and responsible course of action. To read and sign that petition, click here.

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boswellia_sacra.jpg

Plans for Palm-Oil Plantation in Cameroon Rainforests

New York based investment firm, Herakles has its eyes set on a 60,000 square mile area of the Cameroon landscape, with the hope of turning the area into one of the world’s largest production sites of palm-oil.  In a market typically dominated by plantations based out of Asia, Herakles hopes to cash in and get a piece of this multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. 

However, many conservationists are concerned by the damage these plans will have on the already fragile environment.  Nigel Sizer, director of the World Resources Institute (WRI)’s Global Forests Initiative, explains that “Given the versatility of oil palm and so much degraded, deforested land across the tropics, surely there are better places to make this kind of investment.”

Sizer’s concern does not come without warrant.

As it turns out, the proposed area happens to be considered a High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF), meaning that this rainforest is one of the most bio diverse, and vulnerable, areas in the world.  The Herakles Farm plantation is to be set up in the midst of four already protected areas of forests including Korup National Park, Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve, Bakossi National Park, and the Banyang Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary.  The Korup National Park alone is home to a wide variety of life including an excess of 600 species of trees, 200 species of reptiles and amphibians, 400 different types of birds, 1,000 varieties of butterflies, 160 different mammals (including rare species of elephant, leopards, bushpigs), and the most diverse communities of primates in the world. 

Additionally there are fears that this coming production will negatively affect the life and cultural infrastructure of the communities living nearby.  “Workers will migrate into the area seeking jobs and they will demand bushmeat,” explains the SAVE-Wildlife Conservation Fund in a statement.  “Hunters will have even more incentive to violate Cameroon law and harvest animals from inside the protected areas, where animal populations are still relatively abundant.”

But that is not how Herakles sees it.  According to the company, they view their presence as a welcoming boon to the local economy—providing both jobs and benefits to the many living in the Cameroon rainforests. Furthermore, Herakles has plans to bankroll the planting of “1 million oil palm trees” on behalf of their nonprofit organization, All for Africa– a seemingly grand gesture of environmental generosity.

–However, what they fail to explain is these palm trees will be replacing the lush canopy already there. “All for Africa is claiming that these plantations will help thwart climate change because…their plantation will absorb ‘more than 28 million tons of carbon dioxide,’” explains an anonymous source close to the issue.  “If they were planting their oil palms over concrete parking lots, then yes, their claim would be valid.  But they are not—they are removing native forests and replacing them with a monoculture.”

As of now, Herakles is meeting with opposition in raising the $300 million necessary to begin their plans.  The problem lies in that many investors may be turned away from the idea of supporting a project that has so many environmental, political, and cultural liabilities. 

And while that has not stopped them for starting, it is still not too late to stop the progress of the palm-oil plantation. To help show support for the Cameroon rainforest and stop the progress of the Herakles Farms plantation, sign the petition here

Photo Credit: photos.mongabay.com/11/0914map.jpg 

Preservation of Old Growth Forests has Surprise Environmental Benefit

In 1993, before concerns about climate change were as much in the public eye as they are today, forests on public land in the Northwestern United States came under the protection of the US Northwest Forest Plan. The goal of this plan was to preserve old growth forests from increasingly aggressive logging, and by doing so also protect endangered species like the Northern Spotted Owl. Today, researchers at Oregon State University and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station have discovered that the plan has turned the forests into significant “carbon sinks,” areas which take in more carbon dioxide than they emit.

northwest-forest-old-growth

It may seem obvious that acres and acres of verdant forest have a positive effect on the environment, but in fact this is not always the case. When unprotected, the forests on public land were heavily logged. Although new trees were being planted, new growth emits more carbon dioxide than it takes in, making the area a source of carbon dioxide emissions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, huge areas of both public and privately owned forest land were actually contributing to global warming.Under the US Northwest Forest Plan, however, harvesting dropped by 82 percent, and carbon emissions dropped too. The researchers used a combination of remote sensing and ecosystem monitoring to determine that the forests are taking in more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than they are exuding through respiration, an unintended but positive side effect.

If managed properly, a forest can be logged while remaining carbon-neutral. The same study discovered that although harvesting on private lands has remained more or less at the same level, these privately owned forests have succeeded in becoming carbon neutral areas, a positive indicator for the feasibility of responsible, sustainable timber harvesting.

Photo Credit: nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/newhalem-area-trails.htm

Tropical Countries to Sign Deforestation Agreement

More than fifty countries with large areas of tropical forests in their borders have announced they will launch an agreement to better facilitate forest conservation.  Representatives from the nations met in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo last week to discuss the fate of the world’s forests and the importance of tropical forests as carbon sinks, strongholds of biodiversity, and providers of essential ecosystem services for millions of people.  Countries represented at the summit are home to more than four fifths of the planet’s tropical rainforest cover.

Around the world tropical forests are threatened by human activities that include logging, conversion of forests to agricultural land, construction of large dams, and climate change.  Meanwhile large human populations depend on rainforests for services like flood control, drinking water, and hunting and fishing grounds.  The UN Environment Programme estimates that 1.6 billion people rely on forests to make a living.

Thirty-two of the countries at the Brazzaville summit are located within one of three great river basins that contain 80% of the world’s tropical forests.  These three regions—the Amazon Basin in South America, the Congo Basin in central Africa, and the Mekong-Borneo Basin in Southeast Asia—are also believed to house two thirds of the plant and animal species on Earth.  Countries that lie outside the three basins but still have significant areas of tropical forest were also represented, and include several from Central America, southern Africa, and western Africa. 

The summit convened in Brazzaville on Tuesday of last week, and finished on Friday with participants announcing they will be working on a formal forest protection agreement in the months ahead.  National leaders hope to have a new agreement ready for signing by next year’s Rio+20 UN Conference in Brazil.  Rio+20 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the Rio de Janeiro Summit, one of the first UN conferences on international environmental issues, held in 1992.

Forested nations also plan to present their joint framework for rainforest conservation at this year’s climate change summit in Durban, South Africa.  Slowing or halting deforestation is already regarded as one of the easiest ways to reduce the carbon emissions which contribute to climate change.  If tropical countries can show they have a plan in place to curb deforestation, it could prompt other nations to take their own steps to reduce emissions.  Brazzaville summit participants also hope to persuade richer countries to help finance forest conservation efforts.

At least some of the countries meeting in Brazzaville last week have already had a certain amount of success reducing the loss of their forests.  As a group, countries from the three great forest basins saw a 24% drop in average deforestation rates over the last decade, as compared with the 1990s.  However some individual countries, like Indonesia, continue to experience out-of-control deforestation that threatens biodiversity while releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.  And in countries where gains have been made, constant vigilance is needed to prevent the unraveling of years of conservation efforts. 

For example in Brazil, a nation where deforestation dropped to record lows last year, the nation’s lower legislative chamber recently passed revisions to the national Forest Code.  If made into law, these revisions could make it easier for farmers and agricultural companies to clear rainforest without replanting, and send deforestation rates ticking upward again.  In Brazil and throughout the rest of the world, conservation advocates must be constantly on the alert to challenge threats to tropical forests. 

If successful in achieving its stated goals, the Brazzaville summit will help make these efforts easier by allowing countries to share resources and experiences as they strive to slow and eventually halt deforestation.  It could be a critical step toward preserving the global forests that house much of the planet’s biodiversity and serve as a buffer against catastrophic climate change. 

Boy Plants One Million Trees

At only nine years old, Felix Finkbeiner created a program to plant one million trees in Germany. It all started during a presentation Felix gave at his school about planting trees and people listened.

Inspired by the example of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who has organized the planting of 30 million trees. Felix had the idea to plant one million trees in every country he could. Three years later, Felix has created an organization called Plant for the Planet and is doing work in 70 countries. Within the same time period, Germany has planted an additional one million trees under his program.

Success to Felix’s Plant for the Planet can be greatly attributed to the news media’s exposure early on leading to awareness and numerous donations. Also, his family has a strong environmental perspective. Felix’s father has his own conservation group as well.

Felix is often invited to speak at many news conferences around the world and can be away from home for weeks. His goal is to plant 212,000,000 trees worldwide under Plant for the Planet. He has only planted one million trees thus far, but has 1.4 million trees pledged to be planted worldwide very soon.

Photo Source: milliontrees.miamidade.gov

Cambodian Monks Fight to Protect Forests

In Northern Cambodia, a group of Buddhist monks have made plans to protect their forest home, Sorng Rukavorn, from illegal loggers and profiteers by registering it as an international ecological asset.  By listing it as a bank of carbon credits, the monks hope to protect the land so that the public can continue to use its resources, and to sustain their own lifestyles.

This is done through the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, an international tool of climate mitigation.  Through REDD, companies and governments of industrialized nations can make payments to developing countries to reduce carbon emissions by not cutting trees.  A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans is released through deforestation, which takes away trees and plants that help balance the levels of the atmosphere by absorbing the gas produced by natural and man-made processes like burning fossil fuels for factories and cars.  

Currently, the monks bid for their forest needs to be   jointly validated the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate Community and Biodiversity Standard, who are third party auditors, and also needs to attract a buyer.  

The forest’s importance to the monks stems not only from its resources in medicinal herbs and food for the locals and their livestock, but also from their religious beliefs.  Forests are an important symbol to Buddhist monks, who believe that Buddha was born, meditated, reached enlightenment, and died underneath a tree.

Over the past two decades, Cambodia’s forests have declined over 22%, according to the UN.  It could have been much worse, as at point there was 40% of Cambodia’s land signed over over to loggers, but was later cancelled by the government.  

Photo Credit: state.gov/cms_images/cambodia_temple_2006_06_08.jpg

Developing Countries to Sign Treaty on Deforestation

rainforest-conservation-summitMore than thirty developing countries are coming together to find ways of cooperating on protection of the world’s tropical rainforests.  In what may be the largest and best-coordinated international forest conservation attempt ever, the different nations will meet at a summit in the Republic of the Congo later this spring in hopes of coming to agreement on a treaty.

This is just the latest example of developing countries taking initiative on global environmental issues, and has important implications for the fight against climate change.  Though less important than the burning of fossil fuels for energy, deforestation is believed to be responsible for 15-20% of global carbon emissions.  Part of the impetus for developing countries coordinating forest protection efforts is their desire to be able to bring an organized forest strategy to international climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa this December.  Countries working on a new forest treaty say they will also be writing a “declaration on tropical forests, climate change, and sustainable development” to present to the world in Durban.

The tropical forests summit where countries hope to sign a treaty will take place in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, from May 31st to June 3rd of this year.  Most of the participating countries come from one of the planet’s three great strongholds of tropical forests: the Amazon Basin of South America, Africa’s Congo Basin region, and the peninsular and island countries of Southeast Asia.  According to Henri Djombo, Republic of the Congo’s minister of sustainable development, these three regions are home to 80% of the world’s tropical forests and two-thirds of the planet’s biodiversity.

Some tropical countries have already shown dramatically curbing deforestation is not only an achievable goal, but can be an effective way to cut carbon emissions.  The best example so far probably comes from Brazil, which also has a larger area of tropical forest cover than any other nation.  Once considered the poster child for unsustainable deforestation, Brazil has brought down deforestation rates significantly over the last six years, providing a model other countries could follow.  In February of this year Brazil announced it had reduced deforestation to 67% below the average annual rate from the decade between 1996 and 2005.   

Brazil’s success seems to be due to a combination of factors, which include stricter enforcement of environmental laws, turning over more tracts of land to the control of indigenous peoples, and a growing national environmental movement.  Also important was monetary support supplied by Norway as part of an international climate mitigation effort.  In 2009 Norway made the first stage of payments in a program that will eventually deal out $1 billion to Brazil to help with forest conservation work.

Yet the job of protecting Brazil’s rainforest is not done, and many other countries continue to suffer from sky-high deforestation rates.  In Indonesia for example, the razing of forests is being fueled by rapid expansion of palm oil and timber plantations.  Government corruption and inefficiencies left over from the Suharto dictatorship, which controlled Indonesia from 1967 until 1998, has made enforcement of existing forest protection laws difficult.  Meanwhile other countries like Madagascar also continue to suffer from high deforestation rates. 

By encouraging communication and cooperation between tropical countries that seek to conserve their forests, the Brazzaville summit later this year could help nations like Indonesia and Madagascar learn from the successes of others like Brazil.  It is also very likely any declaration on deforestation and climate change issued by developing countries will call on richer industrialized nations to help provide funding needed to bring deforestation under control.  If tropical countries across the globe can dramatically curb loss of forests, it could set a promising precedent for international efforts to avert climate change.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried