It’s a mind-boggling number, but the World Resources Institute claims that 80% of the Earth’s natural forests have been destroyed. Almost three quarters of the plant and animal life on Earth is found in forests, some of which are extremely fragile ecosystems. Not only that, but some are truly unique; there are patches of forest which are so special that the conditions there are not replicated anywhere else. These areas are dangerously vulnerable because they host plants and animals which have evolved to survive in a very unusual environment, and once that environment is gone, there’s nowhere else for them to go.
80% is a whole lot of trees. It’s a number I honestly can’t even begin to wrap my head around, because it’s just so very large. I can understand it on an intellectual level, I can even look at satellite photographs illustrating deforestation in action, showing what’s going on now and how much has vanished in the last decades, but it doesn’t quite sink in. It’s too vast for me to fully comprehend.
Deforestation is a problem which has been going on in human societies for thousands of years. In fact, research has suggested that several societies may have met their downfall as a result of over exploitation of forest resources. Much of Europe was deforested, multiple times, and replanted. Very few nations, Japan among them, placed a early priority on retaining and protecting trees and recognizing that forests have value. Today, these few rebels have some of the world’s last truly natural forests, and they are under increasing pressure as people demand timber products and clamor for the space currently occupied by forests.
Trees are important. We’ve been using them as years for fuel, shelter, decorative arts. But their value goes beyond this. Deforestation is a problem on multiple axes, and it’s the consistent devaluation of trees as a resource with inherent value which has led to this state of affairs. There’s an assumption that trees only have value when they can be used, and this simply isn’t the case. Trees have their own intrinsic value, just by nature of existing.
Not just because they act as carbon sinks, although that’s definitely a role they play. Not just because they generate oxygen (actually, most oxygen comes from microorganisms in the ocean). Not just because they provide shelter to countless unique species which rely on the forest for survival. Not just because they’re pretty. Not just because they create unique microclimates, hold the soil down, trap water.
Some of the world’s most vulnerable forest also happens to be some of the most overexploited; that’s the luck of the draw, I suppose. Tropical rainforests cover an estimated seven percent of the Earth’s available land, but it is estimated that they may contain 50% of the world’s life. The rainforest is a cradle of biodiversity. It’s a treasure. It’s a unique resource.
And it’s in an area of the world which has been exploited for centuries, and continues to be exploited. Trees are destroyed to make way for agriculture. Soil which has taken centuries to build up is exposed to harsh weather and it blows away, ending up in rivers and, eventually, the open ocean. Species are destroyed every day, including species which we never even knew existed before they vanished.
Millions of indigenous people are displaced, and have their lives upended. Many of these populations stewarded the tropical rainforest for thousands of years, and actively played a role in the shaping of the environment in the tropical rainforest. The West has managed to destroy in a few centuries what took millennia to build. We could pat ourselves on the back for our efficiency, I suppose, but, really, the whole thing is rather horrific.
Combating deforestation is a tricky issue. One of the mistakes the West makes is imposing its values and beliefs on others. Now that the West has recognized that deforestation is a problem, we want to fix it our way, with our organizations coming in to run things. It’s worth asking if perhaps we would be better off allowing people to fix it their way. People who actually live and work in the rainforest might have better ideas when it comes to restoration, including ideas which will actually work in their communities.
The Western instinct is to close off to “protect.” That’s not really what the rainforest needs. In fact, it could probably benefit from the same careful human stewardship which shaped it all along. Getting indigenous populations back into their homelands and providing them with the support to re-establish is probably more effective than creating “conservation zones” and insisting upon leaving the forest totally untouched.
There’s been some recognition of the fact that indigenous peoples should be involved in rainforest conservation. But it’s worth asking why we are approaching this from a perspective of “oh, they ought to be involved” when perhaps it should be the other way around. Maybe we should be “involved” and we should let people who actually know what they are doing take point on this one.
In addition to restoring the rainforest, which is the stated goal, after all, this could go a long way towards restoring autonomy.