The world's forests will collapse if we don't learn to say 'no'

Bill Laurance

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia www.archive.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

An alarming new study has shown that the world's forests are not only disappearing rapidly, but that areas of "core forest" ‒ remote interior areas critical for disturbance-sensitive wildlife and ecological processes ‒ are vanishing even faster.

Core forests are disappearing because a tsunami of new roads, dams, power lines, pipelines and other infrastructure is rapidly slicing into the world's last wild places, opening them up like a flayed fish to deforestation, fragmentation, poaching and other destructive activities. Most vulnerable of all are forests in the tropics. These forests sustain the planet's most biologically rich and environmentally important habitats.

The collapse of the world's forests isn't going to stop until we start to say "no" to environmentally destructive projects. Those who criticise new infrastructure projects are often accused of opposing direly needed economic development, or ‒ if they hail from industrial nations ‒ of being hypocrites. But when one begins to look in detail at the proposed projects, an intriguing pattern appears: Many are either poorly justified or will have far greater costs than benefits.

For example, in a recent essay in the journal Science, Amazon expert Philip Fearnside argues that many of the 330-odd hydroelectric dams planned or under construction in the Amazon will be more trouble than they're worth. Many of these dams will have huge environmental impacts, argues Fearnside, and will dramatically increase forest loss in remote regions. Fearnside asserts that mega-dams planned for the Congo Basin and Mekong River will also cause big problems, with limited or questionable benefits.

The explosive expansion of roads into the world's last wild places is an even more serious problem. Indeed, Eneas Salati, one of Brazil's most respected scientists, once quipped that "the best thing you could do for the Amazon is to blow up all the roads". Current projections suggest that by 2050, we'll have nearly 25 million kilometres of additional paved roads ‒ enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.

I have led three major studies of planned road expansion, for the entire planet and for the Brazilian Amazon and sub-Saharan Africa. All three show that many planned roads would have massive impacts on biodiversity and vital ecosystem services while providing only sparse socioeconomic benefits. In Africa, for example, our analyses reveal that 33 planned "development corridors" would total over 53,000 km in length while crisscrossing the continent and cutting into many remote, wild areas. Of these, we ranked only six as "promising" whereas the remainder were "inadvisable" or "marginal".

There is a very active coalition of pro-growth advocates ‒ including corporate lobbyists, climate-change deniers, and die-hard proponents of "economic growth" ‒ that immediately decry any effort to oppose new developments. Added to this are those who argue reasonably for economic development to combat poverty and disparity in developing nations. Such advocates often assert that an added bonus of development is greater sustainability, because impoverished people can be highly destructive environmentally. The denuded nation of Haiti is one such example.

Yet the on-the-ground reality is often far more complex. For instance, the heavy exploitation and export of natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels or timber, can cause nations to suffer "Dutch Disease" ‒ an economic syndrome characterised by rising currency values, economic inflation and the weakening of other economic sectors, such as tourism, education and manufacturing.

Dutch Disease tends to increase economic disparity, because the poor are impacted most heavily by rising food and living costs. Further, the national economy becomes more vulnerable to economic shocks from fluctuating natural-resource prices or depletion. The Solomon Islands ‒ which relies heavily on timber exports that are collapsing from overexploitation ‒ is a poster-child for Dutch Disease.

On top of this is the toxic odour of corruption that pervades many big infrastructure projects. One would need an abacus just to keep track of the allegations.

The bottom line is that many big infrastructure projects are being pushed by powerful corporations, individuals or interests that have much to gain themselves, but often at great cost to the environment and developing societies.

Globally, the path we're currently following isn't just unsustainable. It's leading to an astonishingly rapid loss of forests, wildlife and wilderness. From 2000 to 2012, an area of forest two and half times the size of Texas was destroyed, while a tenth of all core forests vanished. If we're going to have any wild places left for our children and grandchildren, we simply can't say "yes" to every proposed development project.

More information: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160128113837.htm

Bill Laurance is director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University and founder and director of ALERT ‒ the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers.

Abridged from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/the-worlds-forests-will-collapse-if-we-dont-...