Tackling Amazonian Rainforest Deforestation

This week’s edition of Nature devotes an editorial, a special report and an interview to the subject of tropical rainforests and their deforestation. The articles highlight both the proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation, and the importance of human activity as an agent of change (via fire for example), in these socio-ecological systems.

The editorial considers the economics of rainforest destruction, with regards to global carbon emissions. It suggests that deforestation must be integrated into international carbon markets, to reward those countries that have been able to control the removal of forest land (such as India and Costa Rica). Appropriate accounting of tropical rainforest carbon budgets is required however, and the authors point to the importance of carbon budget modelling and the monitoring of (via satellite imagery for example) change in rainforest areas over large spatial extents. Putting an economic price on ‘ecosystem services’ is key to this issue, and the editorial concludes:

One of the oddly positive effects of global warming is that it has given the world the opportunity to build a more comprehensive and inclusive economic model by forcing all of us to grapple with our impact on the natural environment. We are entering a phase in which new ideas can be developed, tested, refined and rejected as necessary. If we find just one that can beat the conventional economic measure of gross domestic product, and can quantify some of the basic services provided by rainforests and other natural ecosystems, it will more than pay for itself.

The special report focuses on the efforts of the Brazilian government to curb the rate of deforestation in the their Amazonian forests. The Brazilian police force is blockading roads, conducting aerial surveys and inspecting agricultural and logging operations, to monitor human activities on the ground. Brazilian scientists meanwhile are monitoring the situation from space, and have developed methodologies and techniques that are leading the way globally in the remote monitoring of forests. The Brazilian government is a keen advocate of the sort of economic approaches to the issues of rainforest destruction highlighted in the editorial outlined above, and sees this rigorous monitoring as key to be able to show how much carbon they can save by preventing deforestation.

Halting the removal of forest cannot simply be left to carbon trading alone, however, and local initiatives need to be pursued. To ensure the forest’s existence is sustainable, local communities need to be able make money for themselves without chopping down the trees – if they can do this it will be their in their interests NOT to remove forest. But developing this incentive has not been straightforward. For example, some researchers have have suggested that as commodity prices for crops such as soya beans have increased (possibly due to increased demand for corn-based ethanol in the US) deforestation has increased as a result. Although the price of soya beans may be a contributing factor to rainforest removal, Ruth DeFries (who will be visiting CSIS and MSU next week as part of the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture Series) suggests that it is not the main driver. Morton et al. found that during for the period 2001-04, conversion of forest to agriculture peaked in 2003. This situation makes it clear that there are both proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation. The Nature special report suggests:

If the international community is serious about tackling deforestation, it will probably need to use a hybrid approach: helping national governments such as Brazil to fund traditional policies for enforcement and monitoring and enabling communities to experiment with a market-based approach.

But how long do policy-makers have to discuss this and get these measures in place? One set of research suggests 55% of the Amazon rainforest could be removed over the next two decades, and the complexity of the rainforest system means that a ‘tipping point’ (i.e., an abrupt transition) beyond which the system might not recover (i.e., reforestation would not be possible). The Nature interview with Carlos Nobre highlights this issue – the interactions of climate change with soil moisture and the potential for fire indicate that the there is risk of rapid ‘savannization’ in the eastern to southeastern Amazon as the regional climate changes. When asked what the next big question scientists need to address in the Amazon is, Nobre replies that the role of human-caused fire will be key:

Fire is such a radical transformation in a tropical forest ecosystem that biodiversity loss is accelerated tremendously — by orders of magnitude. If you just do selective logging and let the area recover naturally, perhaps in 20–30 years only a botanist will be able to tell that a forest has been logged. If you have a sequence of vegetation fires going through that area, forget it. It won’t recover any more.

As I’ve previously discussed, considering the feedbacks and interactions between systems is important when examining landscape vulnerabilities to fire. Along with colleagues I have examined the potential effects of changing human activity on wildfire regimes in Spain (recently we had this paper published in Ecosystems and you can see more wildfire work here). However, the integrated study of socio-economic and ecological systems is still very much in its infancy. And the processes of landscape change in the northern Mediterranean Basin and the Amazonian rainforest are very different; practically inverse (increases in forest in the former and decreases in the latter). As always, plenty more work needs to be done on these subjects, and with the potential presence of ‘tipping points’, now is an important time to be doing it.

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