WILLIAM LAURANCE: What would it take to halt deforestation in the tropics?

William Laurance
PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURANCE LAB

What would it take to halt deforestation in the tropics?

There’s no single thing we can do, because the ultimate pressures behind forest exploitation are so potent. They include rapid population growth in tropical countries, creating pressure to expand agriculture and livestock farming. Land use pressures for biofuel production are also a growing problem—one that could get a lot bigger.

One key priority is to pressure resource-exploiting corporations that have bad environmental records to clean up their acts.

Do you think payments for ecosystem services—including safeguarding carbon, biodiversity, and water—could be effective?

Yes, especially for carbon. Quite a lot of money is going into “REDD” schemes, which refers to “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.” Norway, for instance, has offered Indonesia and Brazil a billion dollars each to reduce their deforestation rates.

There are still some significant hurdles to making REDD workable on a large scale, but the bottom line is that it’s a potentially powerful new way to save forests while reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Not long ago landless peasants practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were the main drivers behind deforestation. How has this changed?

We’ve seen a big shift in industrial drivers of deforestation. By that I mean things like large-scale cattle ranching, industrial oil palm and wood-pulp plantations, and massive soy and sugarcane farms. These activities are not being done by “little guys” with chainsaws and machetes, but by “big guys”—wealthy landowners or corporations—with bulldozers.

Other industrial activities are promoting forest loss indirectly, like selective logging, infrastructure expansion, and oil, gas, and mineral developments. These are providing a key economic impetus for road building in tropical frontier areas, which can then open up a Pandora’s box of harmful activities.

Are environmental organizations having success in saving tropical forests?

They’re definitely having an impact. Groups like Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and Rainforest Alliance, plus more mainstream organizations—WWF, Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society—are all helping to alert the world to areas suffering serious forest loss and to put a spotlight on the responsible parties. Things would be a lot worse if it weren’t for groups like these.

Any good ideas for stopping deforestation that deserve more support?

Realistically, it’s more about slowing deforestation—limiting the damage—than stopping it. Given that we’re certainly going to see more forest converted into croplands for food and biofuels, there’s a strong need to develop better farming methods that are both more productive and more benign environmentally.

Another important way to limit the damage is to focus on halting the most environmentally harmful road projects—those that will penetrate into, and open up, some of the last remaining tropical wildernesses on Earth.

Why do tropical forests matter?

They’re the “greatest celebration of life on Earth,” to quote ecologist Norman Myers. And they perform a great many ecosystem services that are important for people. These include storing hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, producing massive amounts of water vapor that help to form clouds and maintain rainfall, reducing destructive flooding and protected soils from serious erosion.

That’s just scratching the surface. We have lots more compelling reasons to save tropical rain forests. I’d probably need a week to go through them all.

Tropical Forest Ecologist WILLIAM LAURANCE

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute forest ecologist WILLIAM LAURANCE has studied the impacts of land use in all of the world’s major rainforests, from the great Amazon to the mysterious forests of New Guinea. He got his start in the 1980s working to save the dwindling rainforests of Australia before putting in decades of work in the Amazon and elsewhere.

Today he has returned to Australia, where he is a distinguished research professor at James Cook University. Given that rainforests are the world’s most biodiverse places, Laurance has eschewed specialization, studying everything from trees to mammals and birds to frogs, but always with an eye toward conservation.


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The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution in Panama, a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution based outside of the United States, is dedicated to understanding biological diversity.
www.stri.si.edu