The shearing of the global forest

Thomas Hopkins April 26 1982

The shearing of the global forest

Thomas Hopkins April 26 1982

The shearing of the global forest


Thomas Hopkins

In Haiti, the jungle highlands have been shorn into bald caps of rock. Random peasant tree-cutting has stripped the lush slopes, and rains have washed the topsoil to the sea. In Tanzania, spreading rings of denuded forest surround villages, and gathering enough fuel for a family is a full-time occupation. In sub-Saharan Chad, also stripped of trees, women have to walk for five or six days to find enough wood to last a household one month. Around the world, the dense, moist rain forests are disappearing despite the efforts of Canadian and other Western experts to stop the devastation.

It is a bleakly familiar scenario. Half of Africa’s original forests have disappeared. Twothirds of South America’s trees have been lost or damaged. The 1980 U.S. Global 2000 Report to the President warns that if tropical deforestation continues at its current rate, the world’s equatorial forest will be halved to 1,430 million acres by the year 2000. The annual destruction has been estimated at 27 million

acres, an area the size of Cuba. Not only that, the Third World tropical nations affected generally lack the expertise, the capital and the political will to halt the pillage. Already critical, the problem is getting worse. Says Michael Arnold, Rome-based head of policy and planning for the forestry division of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization: “Things are deteriorating at an appalling rate—it’s a disaster.”

The costs everywhere will be high. The planet’s tropical forests are oxygen factories that stabilize weather patterns, and their loss will spur an alarming increase of carbon-dioxide levels. The shrinking forests will also cause global wood shortages and increased demand for Canada’s dwindling wood supply (box page 50 ). And nowhere is the problem more acute than in 2 less-developed countries where equatorial forests create fuel I and wealth—so much wealth o that uncut trees are often conii sidered a wasteful obstacle to § Third World development. Still, removing the trees sets vicious domino effects in motion. When

no trees anchor the soil, floods can contaminate rivers with silt and winds can turn croplands to desert. The result will be increased destabilization in the developing world, hitting hardest at those who can least afford it—peasants who use wood for fuel. The shearing of the forests is the poor man’s energy crisis.

It is a crisis unwittingly exacerbated by the peasants themselves. The itinerant or “shifting” farmer, using “slashand-burn” techniques to scoop out the forest, is responsible for up to 80 per cent of world deforestation, for the crude method perpetuates itself. Intensive farming soon exhausts the cleared acreage, where no tree cover can replenish the soil with nutrients. When the farmer moves on to burn new land, weed trees close over the abandoned plot, preventing useful trees from growing. In the West African country of Guinea, “slash-and-burn” has shorn the land around the headwaters of the huge Gambia and Niger river systems, leading to downstream flooding and disruption of irrigation systems because of heavy siltation. The clearing of land for grazing has further threatened the forests. Over the past decade, according to UN estimates, at least 30,100 square miles of Amazon rain forest have been sacrificed to several hundred cattle ranches.

More than obstacles in the farmer’s path, the forests are also a cheap source of fuel. The use of wood surged in the early 1970s when skyrocketing oil prices pushed the price of kerosene beyond what the poor could pay. Now, well over half of the world’s people use wood as their principal fuel—sometimes with cataclysmic results. In India’s Uttar Pradesh province, population and energy pressures have stripped the foothills of the Himalayas, causing massive erosion and deadly flash floods during monsoons. In the Sahel countries of the sub-Sahara—such as Chad and Niger—sand dunes spread as the trees are levelled, and desert continues to encroach upon once-fertile land.

The shaving of the forests is often interpreted as the last resort of desperate individuals. In fact, however, national governments have often sanctioned the cutting. As energy costs rose during the past decade, Third World payments balances shrunk, triggering a quest for exports which saw vast tracts of rain forest opened to unsophisticated “cut-and-run” forestry. In Papua New Guinea, multinational companies often use giant bulldozers linked by heavy anchor chains, which uproot everything in their path. Jeremy Williams, now working on a UN project in the Malaysian state of Sabah, says that region has already cut 70 to 80 per cent of its forest. The world recession has slowed the ravaging. But, says Williams : “There’s

no reason to believe that when the economy picks up, the cutting won’t resume at the same pace as before.” He reports that funds for reforestation are often inadequate or absent.

To make matters worse, cut-and-run forestry has left at least one bitter irony in the bulldozer’s wake. Wholesale levelling has shrunk Thailand’s forest cover to 30 per cent from 63 per cent over the past 20 years. And the country, long an exporter of timber, two years ago became a net importer.

The long-range forecast is a grim one.

Declining wood supplies will jack up the costs of both fuel and forest products, and scarcity will hurt the poorest by driving up the cost of shelter. As trees vanish, cow manure will be used for cooking fires instead of fertilizer, and agricultural yields will drop. As fuel becomes even scarcer, peasants will tend to shun foods that require cooking, and Third World nutrition will suffer. Watershed disruption from deforestation will hasten more flooding. And as reservoirs fill with silt, the developing world’s need for clean water will grow

ever more critical. So serious is the water shortage in the tree-stripped hills of Pakistan that the country’s huge Tarbela Dam was built even though silt buildup from the increasingly muddy Indus River has doomed it to a life of only 50 years.

Until recently, the decline of the global forest was a hidden problem. But international alarm has changed all that. Canada, for one, has shared forestry expertise with the Third World ever since the postwar Colombo Plan. Currently, funding for the industrial forestry-based programs of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) amounts to about $80 million a year. The smaller federally funded International Development Research Centre (IDRC) provides some $2 million for forestry-related research in developing countries. The U.S. government’s Aid for International Development puts in a hefty $140 million. In the past decade, other major international organizations have stepped up their lending as well. Moreover, World Bank forest loans will total more than $1 billion over the next four years—six times more than in the preceding four years.

The Western foresters can take heart from past reversals of wholesale treehacking. Western Europe was stripped of trees following the Middle Ages; so was Britain after the Second World War—until careful reforestation and intensive forest management brought lumber-industry needs and agriculture back into balance. Yet the task will be far more difficult in the Third World, where the agencies of the developed nations face unique and formidable problems. “Conservation is a Western attitude. In the developing world, it’s viewed as a luxury, not as a necessity,” says Toronto forester Ron Ayling, who recently taught forestry in Brazil. “Foreign scientists offering advice on how to prevent the destruction of ecosystems aren’t welcome. The feeling [in Brazil] is that these are our resources, so bugger off!”

Building forests is expensive and technical. It is hardly surprising, then, that in nations struggling to keep fed and stay warm, reforestation can seem an exotic frill. In fact, many projects fail when young trees are ripped out too soon or are used for animal forage. Other programs must grapple with a critical lack of essential supplies. In Guinea, UN forester Chuck Lankester visited more than half a dozen tree seedling nurseries. He found that they collectively owned two shovels, while the country’s entire national forest service had access to two passenger vehicles and one truck. Says Lankester: “Here is a country whose forests are declining rapidly but which has no resources to go on the initiative and re-

verse the trend.” Also lacking in many less-developed countries is the political will to stop what in many cases is profitable exploitation, and institute reforestation. Asks Robin Hallam, senior operations officer for Canada’s IDRC: “Look, what interest is a politician going to have in a harvest that takes place 30 or 40 years down the road?”

So far, reforestation programs in the Third World have produced mixed results. But there are a few bright spots. China and South Korea have demonstrated impressive reforestation gains as a result of rigidly enforced treeplanting quotas imposed on villages. But others, such as Algeria’s barrage vert—a kilometre-wide strip of trees hundreds of kilometres long, designed to hold back the march of the Sahara— are so recent that foresters can only guess at the eventual results. And nearly all are essentially stopgaps, leading many experts to fear that the shrinking of the wild tropical forests is beyond reversal. Says CIDA Forestry Chief Ralph Roberts: “You can make a strong argument that the moist tropical rain forest is not a renewable forest. It takes longer than our temperate forests to grow [60 to 80 years], and once you take out 10 to 20 per cent of the best trees, you’re talking about a disturbance to the forest that is impossible to reverse.”

If the original rain forest is indeed doomed, long-term solutions to the Third World’s need for fibre could begin with self-fertilizing super-trees, genetically engineered by scientists impatient with nature’s majestic pace. Legumes with such tongue-twisting names as Leucaena and Acacia can be planted on cut-over lands and reach maturity in six years. But opinion divides over how best to nurture them.

For industrial forestry, advocates such as Roberts believe that vast, manmade tree plantations, carefully tended by experts, can relieve the pressure on the remaining tropical forest—and supply 50 times the fibre per acre of the wild trees. Arguing that forestry should mimic agriculture, plantation boosters maintain that trees should be planted on the best machine-prepared land, then heavily sprayed and fertilized. In Kenya, Chile and, lately, India, their philosophy seems to be working.

Still, many environmentalists fume at attempts to treat wilderness forests like alfalfa fields. They fear the permanent loss of “wild” genera which could mean ecological disruption in the forests. And they point to the apparent failure of U.S. billionaire Daniel Ludwig, who, in 1967, set out to grow trees like rows of corn on a 247,000-acre plantation carved from the Brazilian rain forest at Jari. There, Gmelina trees

grew a foot a month, but breeding mistakes and government interference led a frustrated Ludwig to sell out last fall. Says William Raitanen, head of the provinical government hybrid poplar program which is bringing super-trees to Ontario: “You can’t go into a complex ecosystem like the Amazon and alter the rules massively without paying a heavy price.”

More promising for the developing world’s poor is the concept of “social forestry.” The catchall phrase describes various programs that involve local people in efforts to grow fast-growing trees that will supply the fuel, forage and windbreak needs of their villages. And in the Indian province of Gujarat, it appears to be succeeding.

The Indian project is just one sign that the disastrous consequences of forest destruction can now be impressed upon Third World leaders. Says UN forestry consultant Eric Eckholm: “Forestry has switched from being a stepchild of development to [being] a mainstream issue.” And to emphasize the need for haste, experts point out that the cedars of Lebanon once really existed, and that the bleak British moors of Yorkshire once sang with the murmur of trees.

Jackie Carlos

Nicky Holford