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Trees of life

Saving tropical forests and their biological wealth

Makes the environmental, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of deforestation come alive for readers far removed from the jungles of Amazonia and Thailand.

Executive Summary

Tropical Forest Loss

Word of rapidly vanishing forests, particularly tropical forests, can't surprise anyone who reads newspapers or watches television. Widespread concern is deepening into conviction, even alarm, and with good reason. Half the world's tropical forests have been cleared or degraded. Every hour, at least 4,500 acres fall to chain saws, machetes, flames, or bulldozers, and another four plant or animal species die out, most of them in the tropics.

When forests die, so do traditions and livelihoods. In Amazonia, for instance, a thousand peasants, rubber tappers, and other forest dwellers have been killed in the past decade in violent conflicts over forest resources and land. Throughout the tropics, forest-dwelling peoples whose age-old traditions allow them to live in and off the forest without using it to death are losing out to cattle ranching, logging, hydroelectric projects, large-scale farms, mining, and colonization schemes.

Where land is truly well suited to agriculture or other development activities, some forest clearing makes sense. Certainly, not every tree is sacred. But, at current deforestation rates, all but scattered remnants of tropical forest--and a quarter of the earth's species--could be gone before today's preschoolers retire.

The real culprit in this massive assault on nature is rarely the person holding the chain saw or driving the bulldozer or torching the tree that holds up the forest canopy. Looking deeper, it is clear that the fate of the forest is written in population growth, poverty, and the short-sighted policies of governments and international agencies, as well as decisions made by commercial interests and far-away consumers. Some of these policies invite business interests or settlers to convert forests to farms and ranches, or to log or mine or drill for oil. Certain tax incentives support massive projects that transform entire landscapes, and decisions like those on land tenure can make it impossible for poor people to make a decent living without invading ecologically fragile lands. The mighty forces of national debt and international trade imbalances push some developing countries to sell off their forest assets to pay their nations' mounting bills. (See WRI report Backs to the Wall in Suriname, Forest Policy in a Country in Crisis). In industrial countries, commercial logging, especially of the few remaining ancient forests, and pollution also take a toll.

These different kinds of blows to a forest can compound each other. In the tropics, once choice timber has been logged off, the way is open to clear forest land for farming and ranching. As one land use leads to another, species losses accelerate. Forests afire, or felled and decomposing, release gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, amplifying the so-called greenhouse effect and thereby the global warming in store. If habitats are further fragmented while the climate changes during the next century, extinction rates will climb. In industrial countries' forests, pollution thickens the plot: a forest weakened by smog, acid rain, or other airborne ills is more likely to fall prey to insects or disease, not to mention the changed climate forecast for the future.

"Trees of Life"

These facts are painful to recite, but if you are tempted to despair as you read Trees of Life: Saving Tropical Forests and Their Biological Wealth, don't. The authors picked an upbeat title for a reason. The loss of forests, species, and cultures at risk isn't inevitable, for there are many things we can do to slow this death rate. What matters most is what governments decide to do, both at home and abroad, for whether forests live or die depends largely on government policies. Tropical nations need to revamp their policies on forestry, agriculture, population, and land tenure. The industrial countries must get serious about controlling pollution and must retool their policies on developing countries' debt, international trade, and aid, including strong initiatives to save America's own old-growth forests.

What You Can Do

You can help, too. You can encourage government to keep our forests alive and well and to provide the leadership and funds needed to help conserve tropical forests while making economic development more sustainable and equitable in tropical countries. Closer to home, you can spread the word to friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, helping to build a constituency for rescuing forests and their creatures from extinction.

Fortunately, the steps to save forests dovetail with those needed to solve many other nagging problems, from urban smog and acid rain in the United States and other industrial countries to rapid population growth and poverty in the tropics. A particularly compelling reason for action now is that protecting forests will help combat global warming, just as failing to act could invite climate changes more disruptive than those now forecast.

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