Ghosts of Forests Time Nov 97
Critics of the unrestrained free enterprise that has over-run many developing countries and formerly communist nations have a name for the trend. They call it wild capitalism. And nowhere is the entrepeneurial spirit more savage than in the forests of Russia. That country accounts for 23% of the world's woodlands and when Moscow and regional governments desperate for hard currency opened up the forests to foreign exploitation a few years ago, there was a headlong rush to accept the invitation. Logging companiesfrom the US, Japan South Korea and European countries crashed into Russia's vast western and Siberian forests with their chain saws whirring.
The result has been destruction on a breath-taking scale. In 1996 at least 10,000 sq km of Russian trees were cut down, and experts say the figure would be much higher if the overall economy were more vigorous. Entire ecosystems are being destroyed as logging tums forests into deserts and peat bogs, melts permafrost, clogs rivers with silt and debris and ruins habitat for wildlife. Unless the tree harvesting is brought under control, ecologists predict, the loggers will turn vast tracts of Russia into a wasteland.
Russia is just one region-others are the Amazon, west and central Africa, Indonesia, Alaska and western Canada-where logging and deforestation continue as if there were no ecological tomorrow. Although the devastation was well publicized before and during the 1992 Earth Summit, the world's forests are still in as much danger as ever. The latest report from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which tracks forests, disclosed that between 1991 and 1995, tropical rain forests were 'z bumed and bulldozed at a rate of 126,000 sq Ian a year. Nontropical regions gained 13,000 sq km of forest a year, but that figure is deceptive because it includes industrial tree plantations and abandoned agricultural lands that have sprouted trees once again. There is no way to bring back virgin woodland with all the life it once supported. In the U.S., 98% of the forest has been logged at least once.
Just 40% of the world's ancient forest cover remains intact, according to the World Resources Institute in Washington. In a recent report on what it dubs "frontier forests," the W.R.I. calls for an emergency program to prevent the loss of the remaining pristine woodlands, two-thirds of which are in Canada, Russia and Brazil. "People treat forests as capital to be liquidated" says Dirk Bryant, the W.R.i. researcher who was the principal author of the report. 'If we don't do something dramatic in the next 10 years, ies a lost cause." Even forests not being logged are seriously threatened by air pollution. Much more is at stake than the chance to take a vacation hike in a national park. Forests protect water quality a,nd sofl stability. They provide habitat for most of the world's land based plants and animals, and from this biodiversity comes a wealth of foods and medicines essential to human health. Forests are home to most of the world's 50 million indigenous people. On a larger scale, forests act as "carbon sinks," absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases behind global manning. When trees burn or rot, they release carbon into the atmosphere, adding fuel to a warming phenomenon that could have disastrous consequences for humanldnd. Finally, forests regulate local temperature and rainfall-and influence climate-by a complicated interaction among ground, water, air and trees that is still not fiffly understood. Can the forests be saved? Much depends on the ability of governments to come up with plans for the sustainable'management of forests that will also satisfy the needs of those who are cutting woodlands down at an accelerating rate. So far the record is not good. At the Earth Summit, delegates signed no convention on forests because developing nations were unwilling to cooperate in what they saw as an effort by wealthy countries to restrict resource development in poorer regions. Nations like Brazil resented being dictated to by countries that have little forest left to protect. Efforts by the U.N. to restart negotiations on an international forest treaty at a conference in June called Earth Summt + 5 were opposed by all sides and got nowhere. There may be more potential in the enforcement of eldsting treaties, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, a pact reached at the Earth Summit that indirectly fosters forest preservation as a way of protecting plants and wildlife. Another promising initiative comes from the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent, international accrediting agency based in Oaxaca, Mexico. The council certifies the sources of timber, so,that buyers the op ion of getting supplies from well-managed forests. Perhaps most effective, at least in democratic nations, is direct political action-by Green parties or nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) that lobby legislators, run public information and o petition campaigns and occasionally chain themselves to trees. Hundreds of activists from all over the world converged on British Columbia in western Canada this year, confronting loggers in an effort to silence the chain saws. Groups such as Amsterdam-based Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco can claim recent victories in their quest to save forests, including Brazil's two-year suspension in the issuing of new licenses to harvest mahogany, an agreement by T Chiquita Brands to stop tuniing virgin Latin American woodland ",'into banana plantations and the sale by japan's Mitsubishi of its majority interest in a British Columbia logging operation that was chewing up forest for disposable chopsticks. For every forest-saving decision, however, many trouble spots remain.
WOUNDED WOODS Charles Darwin once waxed eloquent about the 'primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man" that he encountered in his travels. The latest report on the condition of European forests, published in 1996 by the European Commission and the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, would set Darwin to weeping. Of some 117,000 trees examined in 30 European countries in 1995, one-quarter were found to be losing their leaves, while 10% suffered from significant leaf discoloration. The commission's overall conclusion: every fourth tree in Europe's 1.6 milhon sq lun of forest is sick or dying. Among the chief culprits in the death of Europe's forests are pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from car exhaust and industrial emissions, which create acid rain. In westem Europe many countries have met or are on the way to meeting new pollution standards set by the U.N. and the European Union, but so far that has made little difference. In the case of autos, says Hans Kepp, a forestry and environment expert at the Technical College in Göttingen, Germany, "although we've cut down on the emission quantity per car, the number of cars itself has grown. That's why the overall output of nitrogen oxides has increased too." Europe's many borders make consistent enforcement of environment rules difficult. While Germany, for example, has drastically reduced its release of sulfur dioxide, not all of its neighbors have followed suit. "The Czech Republic does nothing to stop, the emission sources," complains Bernd Krebs, secretary of the Association for the Protection of the German Forest in Bonn. Some Europeans take heart from studies showing that forest cover has slightly increased in recent years. But that has just meant bigger forests of sick trees.
TROPICAL TRAGEDY When the 1992 Earth Summit convened in Rio de janeiro, the single most uplifting bit of news shared by the 12,000 participants was that the levelling of the Amazon had slowed. Satellite photos showed that the amount of Brazilian rain forest bumed or cut every year dropped from an average of 21,000 sq Ian in the 1978-89 period to 11,130 sq km in 1990-91. Today those who would save the forest realize that the 1990-91 downtum was merely a pause. Analysts say that the decline in forest cutting was just a symptom of Brazil's hyperinflation malaise and that once the economy picked up, so did the rate of burning and chopping. From 1992 to 1994, the pace of deforestation in the Amazon increased 25%, to an average of 14,896 sq Ian a year, and scientists expect more recent photos, now being studied, to show the situation worsening. In 1996 Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso responded boldly to the alarming numbers. Besides placing a moratorium on new licenses to cut highly endangered mahogany, Cardoso's environment agency, iBAmA, reduced export quotas on all types of timber by 50%, limited to 20% the proportion of his property an Amazon landowner could clear and prohibited @er cutting on already degraded forest land. Environmental groups have greeted Brazil's efforts with cautious optimism. "We're seeing an investment from the Brazilian government in environmental enforcement that we haven't seen before," says Steve Schwartzman, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. 'It could be some of the best news out of the Amazon in recent years."
KILLING KALIMMTAN International pressure played a role in pushing Brazil into action. But no amount of jawboning seems to have any effect in Indonesia. There, President Suharto and large companies, some of them run by his cronies and relatives, have turned the archipelago's once vast and unspofled rain forests into money machines-and ecological disaster areas. With most of Indonesia's forests already damaged or denuded, the center of attention now is Kalimantan-the Indonesian portion of Borneo Island-which may be the site of the world's most rapid deforestation. "About half of Kalimantan's forest has been cut down already, and it's still going on," says Emmy Hafild, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). "By 2015, two-thirds of Kalimantan's forests will be gone." Of the 530,000 sq km of original Kalimantan woodland, just 300,000 remain. No fewer than 278 logging companies have concessions from the government to tear dovm the forest. An average of 8,630 sq km a year disappeared between 1982 and '93, WALHI says, and the pace of cutting has only increased since then. President Suharto, who has ruled Indonesia with an iron hand since 1966, has been deaf to protests from both local and international NGOs. Indeed, he personally abetted the forest's destruction in 1995 when he issued a presidential decree converting 14,000 sq Ian of Central Kalimantan into agricultural land. The scheme involves the relocation of 316,000 families to the area by 2002 as part of the govemment's controversial transmigration program.
MAKING A STAND If Indonesia gives cause for ecological despair, on the Malaysian side of Borneo shines a ray of hope for rainforest preservation. In the state of Sabah, whose disappearing forests once helped make Malaysia the world's premier exporter of tropical hardwoods, an experiment unique in Asia has begun. Under the auspices of the government-run Sabah Foundation, once in charge of exploiting the trees, and the Dutch Electricity Generating Board, which is involved in forest regeneration around the world, large tracts of Sabah's woodlands are being replanted. Since 1992 some 3,000 hectares have been seeded, and 85% of the saplings have survived. The current goal is to add 2,000 hectares by the end of this year. The replanted tracts adjoin one of only two conservation areas, totaling 828 sq Ian, left in Sabah. The Foundation and intemational environment groups are trying to find ways to preserve them. Their two answers: ecotourism, already in a preliminary stage of development, and a new technique called reduced-impact logging. Developed in Australia, RIL is simply very careful logging, in which trees are harvested with a minimum of damage both to surrounding trees and to the rain forest's floor. It costs a good deal more and takes a third more time than conventional clear-cutting, but biologists expect areas where iuL has taken place to return to a near-natural state in as little as 10 years, compared with 100 years for ordinary logging.
NAMING NAMES In authoritarian countries, applying political pressure on behalf of the environment is generally a futile exercise. But in free-market democracies, both governments and companies have to worry about image, which is one reason activists convened from June through August in the forests of British Columbia. "If you can't tum around a country like Canada," says Christopher Hatch, a program director for the Rainforest Action Network, "how can you save the Amazon?" Besides staging stunts like chaining themselves to a barge full of red cedar logs, as six protesters did in June, activists from RAN, Greenpeace and other groups have kept up a constant barrage of press conferences, petitions and boycotts designed to embarrass logging companies and hurt their profits. Among the corporations singled out: Mitsubishi, Georgia-Pacific and the Canadian firms Intemational Forest Products (INTERFOR) and Westem Forest Products. "These companies are dinosaurs," says Tzeporah Berman, a forests campaigner for Greenpeace, spealdng Of INTERFOR and Western. "They've been unwilling to seriously address environmental concerns." The companies have some harsh words of their own, particularly for the in-your-face Greenpeace activists. "As far as I'm concerned we're the underdogs; they're the international corporation," says a beleaguered Fred Lowenberger, senior vice president at INTERFOR. "The harder the industry tries to do better, the harder Greenpeace complains." Mitsubishi, which is the object of a four-year-old campaign to boycott its cars, electronics and other products, points to positive responses. While denying that it is an ecological buccaneer, Mitsubishi has started a raft of pro-environment projects, including financing a Japanese forestregeneration project in the Malaysian state of Sarawak that is intended to develop methods of helping tropical forests grow back more quickly. No industry initiative is more closely watched than an agreement by Canadian timber giant MacMillan Bloedel last January to stop logging on British Columbia's Vancouver Island in Clayoquot Sound and sit down with the local Nuu-Chah-Nulth people to plan for sustainable management of the company's forest operations. When logging resumes in 1998 or 1999, says Dennis Fitzgerald, a MacMinan Bloedel spokesman, it will likely be at 10% of its previous level. "We've come up with a plan that's a very progressive illustration of sensitivity to environmental values," Fitzgerald says. But he adds that it might also shoot a bullet into the company's bottom line. That is one of the reasons such agreements are too rare. 'There's been a lot of words spoken over the last five years," says Don Henry, chair of the forest group of the World Wide Fund for Nature, "but the world's forests continue to fall at an ever-increasing rate." It's a trend that cannot continue indefinitely-because the world only has so much forest and little left to spare.