Tropical rainforests are shrinking at an alarming rate. As the demand for agricultural land and timber rises, rampant deforestation destroys thousands of animal and plant species and wipes out the land of local communities.
There are two main causes of this rainforest destruction: the first cause is large-scale timber and paper production and the second one is clearing for large-scale commercial plantations (sugar cane, palm oil, soja and corn). Many people and businesses clear the rainforest without any kind of permit: they grab state forestland for their own private interests, often with a mere verbal agreement from local government and money under the table. There is no government law enforcement to stop this in most developing countries. It is easy gain on free land, with no one opposing land grabbing.
That is exactly what is happening right now in Indonesia. Hundreds of people are illegally clearing the rainforest in Sumatra and Kalimantan, resulting in uncontrolled forest fires affecting all neighboring countries with toxic levels of CO2 in the air that are 100 times above safe levels for humans to breathe. It is so bad that it has been coined “the 2015 Southeast Asian haze air pollution crisis.” From March to December 2015, the fires are causing the air to reached CO2 levels of 2000 in neighboring countries and 3,300 in Kalimantan (Pollutant Standards Index or PSI) making the air so toxic that, during “red alert” weeks, governments are prohibiting children from going outside, in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, South Thailand, and Vietnam.
At this point in history, most governments of tropical countries are not taking responsibility for the destruction of their tropical forests. There is little or no understanding of the consequences of massive deforestation on public health and unemployment.
People are clearing the forest for crops, but it does not work as they had hoped: first because the good soil, the arable land layer that they were seeking to cultivate for crops, is quickly eroded by strong monsoon rains that beat the surface of the ground and wash away the fertile soil. The root system of the forest is no longer there to hold the soil in place. This leaves people with very poor, sandy soils, where crops do not grow well and grass planted for livestock grazing does not survive. This means that crops are planted for a short time only, because harvest yields become poor very quickly, 2 to 5 years. This pushes people to bulldoze new plots of forest again and again, searching for new arable land because the old plots are not producing anymore. This pushes people into further poverty and makes them dependent on endless destruction of natural resources.
Another problem with deforestation of tropical forests is drought. Once the rainforest is removed, the denuded land area becomes very dry and hot. Crop growth is stinted because rainfall does not come as often as before: the cleared land area is now too dry to attract rain clouds. Before, when the rainforest covered the land, humidity and cool moisture was maintained due to constant misting of water droplets into the air by the natural forest leaves that created a micro-climate of moisture and rainfall.
There is not much interest from the public in the United States and Europe about deforestation in the Tropical Belt. That is because the public is not informed about how deforestation in the south affects their climate in the north.
NASA Reports and Duke University Reports show:
- a direct correlation between deforestation in the Amazon and increased droughts in the United States;
- a direct correlation between deforestation in the Congo Basin and increased droughts in Europe;
- a direct correlation between deforestation in Southeast Asia and climate changes in the Middle East.
Tropical rainforests play a vital role for the climate of our planet as a whole: their vast canopy emits constant moisture into the air, keeps the atmosphere cool, stabilizes air currents, and regulates rainfall.
It is estimated that about the size of the state of New Jersey (or the size of Belgium in Europe) is the surface of tropical forests bulldozed, burned and cleared each year.
This represents enormous surfaces of tropical rainforests removed from the surface of the Earth each year, and this cannot be done without massive ecological consequences for the entire planet. When vast tracks of rainforest are removed, the natural “air conditioning” system is disconnected, moisture retention and circulation by the forest canopy stops. The result: the ground surface in these hot, tropical countries is no longer protected from the sun and heats up very quickly. This reduces rainfall. The increased ground heat then travels up into the atmosphere and creates hot air currents. These hot air currents move to other locations and affect the atmosphere in other countries.
2015 will likely be the hottest year ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Worldwide temperatures are expected for the first time to reach more than 1 degree above pre-industrial temperatures.
What can be done?
THE WILDLIFE ALLIANCE APPROACH
To stop the rapid shrinking of the Earth’s rainforests, direct on-the- ground protection must be applied. Improving policies is the approach of traditional conservation, but policies can only be effective if they are translated into action on the ground where the problems are occurring.
There are approximately 30,000 “protected areas” on paper around the world, with good laws to protect them and detailed maps delineating their boundaries. But, in most countries, there are no law enforcement rangers on the ground to enforce legal boundaries of these “protected areas”. Without rangers patrolling daily to stop forest clearings, timber cutting, and wild animal killings, these “protected areas” are nothing but a piece of paper on a shelf.
Even when tropical forests have ranger protection programs, rangers have low salaries, lack training, and are increasingly faced with armed poachers and militias. Forest protection programs throughout the developing world suffer from under-funding.
Wildlife Alliance has been lauded for its direct approach and effective results in forest protection (please see our History). What do we do differently?
The first action that we take in order to address forest crisis is law enforcement. We work directly with governments in developing countries to support them in implementing their “protected area” laws and ensuring that compliance with legal boundaries is enforced.
We help recruit rangers, train them, and equip them. We teach them how to conduct professional law enforcement, we support them in the strengthening of legal procedures through the judiciary system. We report large land grabbing cases to local and central government, conduct joint problem-solving with them, and elicit strong interventions to stop irregularities. This combination of interventions at different levels of government provides rangers with needed support in cases that involve rich and powerful business men. We teach rangers how to document cases for government interventions: all cases are documented with precise GIS data, photographic evidence, and detailed history of legal offenses.
The second step is to facilitate zoning and demarcation of land for local communities, so that they can claim enough land for permanent agriculture or other livelihoods. This is a participatory process that represents the first step in engaging communities in the responsible management of their natural resources.
Visible markers are then installed on the ground so everyone can clearly see where the agreed boundaries are. This achieves two benefits: it provides the local community with clear land ownership and also provides clear boundaries for strictly protected rainforest. Beyond these boundaries, no trees can be cut or burned.
For the third step, Wildlife Alliance works with local communities to assist them in developing livelihoods that do not damage the rainforest: either sustainable agriculture, or ecotourism, or development of small family-scale businesses. At the same time, community members are rallied to re-plant lost forest cover by enriching the soil and planting wild tropical tree species. The goal is to help the forest watershed recover and replenish water reserves in the village water wells.
Working today in the Cardamom Mountain Range in Cambodia -- one of the last unfragmented rainforests in Southeast Asia -- Wildlife Alliance works with the government and local communities to create strategic protection plans, conduct zoning and demarcation, and help develop profitable family enterprises and associations that result in highest conservation impact.
We have chosen to protect the Cardamom rainforest because, as part of the Indo-Burma Peninsula in Southeast Asia, it is one of the most threatened rainforests in the world. With an original habitat encompassing 237,300,000 hectares, only 5% of the Indo-Burma forest remains today. Cambodia represents almost 20% of this remaining rainforest.
Wildlife Alliance approach has been successful in maintaining continuous rainforest cover in the Cardamom Mountains and has achieved zero elephant poaching since 2006.
Over 5,000 people in the area have benefited from development of sustainable jobs, 8 communities have their land zoned for livelihoods, and six ranger patrol stations are conducting over 2,500 patrols per year.
Watch forest rangers of Stung Proat Station as they protect the rainforest from illegal logging, land grabbing, and wildlife poaching.