Lost battle

It is no use trying to save the rainforests, warns a new study

Published: Monday 15 February 1999

Will efforts to save rainfores (Credit: Greenpeace)SCIENTISTS of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) inIspra, Italy, recently came up with a rather depressing forecast. After mapping the tropical deforestation 'hot spots' for the first time, They announced that attempts to save most of the world's remaining tropical rainforests are doomed to failure and should probably be abandoned. Pressure from farmers and loggers has meant that much of the rainforest is already beyond repair.

"The pressures to remove the forests are too great to be stopped, especially in places such as Southeast Asia," says Frederic Achard, coordinator of the JRC study. The team believes the conservationists should concentrate on preserving the handful of areas still spared from such pressure, "what one might call 'cool spots'".

The report, which was published in 1998-end, comes from the research centre's Tropical Ecosystem Environment Observation by Satellites (TREES) project, which monitors deforestation in detail from space. TREES called in 12 leading experts in tropical forests to identify where it should focus its remote sensing satellites.

Their conclusions on the area they had selected were more than distressing. There is no hope of stopping deforestation by logging companies and farmers in major rainforest regions such as Indonesia or much of the Brazilian Amazon. "There is very little we can do to change the politics of these countries," says Achard. Parts of the rainforests of the central Amazon Basin, Congo and New Guinea might still be saved, however, and priority should be on focusing on the high biodiversity in these areas and protecting these, he says.

One of the people who helped compile the JRC report was Tim Whitmore, a forestry scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK. "We used our collective personal knowledge of where deforestation was happening to compile these maps," he says. Whitmore also echoes JRC's gloomy conclusion: "Southeast Asia has had it. There is little old-growth forest left there."

He named the Indonesian island of Sumatra as the hottest of the deforestation hot spots. In just a quarter of a century, Sumatra, an island twice the size of Britain, has lost virtually all its lowland forests along with animals that lived in them. A similar situation is developing fast in Kalimantan, says the JRC report. And one of the last forested areas, the 'golden triangle', along the Myanmar-Thailand border, is now facing serious threats from the Chinese plans to open up access to its Yunnan province by building roads and rail links to the Bay of Bengal.

The JRC team found that the driving forces behind deforestation differed from one region to the next. In Southeast Asia, most of the land is grabbed for oil palm, coffee, rubber or commercial forest plantations. In the Amazon, cattle farmers clear forests for pastures while in central Africa logging companies usually dominate.

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