Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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A plea to preserve the megaforests

Richard Schiffman

THE WASHINGTON POST – When asked about a proposed Redwood National Park in 1966, Ronald Reagan, then running for governor of California, said, “A tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”

The quote appears in Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet by John W Reid, an economist and conservationist, and Thomas E Lovejoy, a renowned tropical-forest ecologist who died in December.

The authors offer an eloquent and fact-filled refutation to the Reagans of the world who see untamed nature as a blank space on the map that cries out to be developed for human uses.

They detail why forests are a critical life-support system for the Earth, moderating temperatures, storing carbon, preserving watersheds and generating “flying rivers”, moisture-laden currents of air that bring life-giving rains to regions both near and far away.

The good news is that five almost unimaginably vast megaforests remain largely intact: the Amazon, the North American boreal zone, the Taiga of Russia and far northern Europe, the island of New Guinea, and the Congo Basin. They are the Earth’s greatest depositories of biodiversity, where evolution continues to this day and untold thousands of species are yet to be discovered.

You don’t really know what a megaforest is until you’ve had the experience of flying over one, as I did during a reporting trip to the Amazon in 2015. For more than an hour in the middle of a flight from Brasilia to Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin, I saw virtually no roads or towns – only an ocean of green striped by oxbowing rivers and stretching from horizon to horizon.

Since that flight seven years ago, Brazil alone has lost tens of thousands of square miles to forest cutting and the massive fires that have followed human incursions. The authors write that we are moving perilously close to a point of no return when losses in Amazonia may trigger an unstoppable transition of the entire ecosystem to a drier, savanna-like landscape.

The prospects are a bit less dire in the other great forests, where population pressures are not so acute. But all of them face threats from logging and road-building as well as from climate change, which will make it difficult for many highly adapted species to continue living where they are now.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for preserving forests intact is that they are the planet’s first line of defence against global warming.

Big forests “metabolise the carbon” that our industrial civilisation spews into the air. The boreal forests in the Arctic and the Congo rainforest also safeguard, just below the surface, huge deposits of peat, the largest storehouse of carbon on the planet. Trees also shade the Earth, and their leaves transpire, cooling whole regions of the planet in much the same way that sweating prevents our bodies from overheating.

Moreover, maintaining forests is far cheaper than implementing technology-intensive schemes for lowering the temperature, such as carbon capture, or weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. “Keeping carbon in tropical forests costs a fifth as much as reducing emissions from energy and industry in the United States or Europe,” the authors report.

They are not arguing against reducing emissions. But, they say, “the math of keeping our world livable doesn’t add up” without preserving megaforests, which exercise a critical stabilising influence on global climate.

To their credit, Reid and Lovejoy don’t limit themselves to making these utilitarian arguments for forest preservation, which are persuasive but a bit dry. They intersperse the science with accounts of what forests have meant to the peoples who live in them.

In New Guinea, where the terrain is divided by isolating mountain ridges, more than 1,000 languages survive, more than all the Indo-European languages combined. Megaforests, we are told, are not just hot spots for biodiversity, they are spawning grounds for a dazzling diversity of cultures, “each with its own unique way of perceiving reality”.

One group, the Maybrat of New Guinea, has no separate word for “nature” as a realm apart from humans, and no single word for “forest” – but a plethora of terms for different places within them and relationships to them. In one Brazilian Indigenous language, there is no way to say that you own land, and in another there is no way to call an animal an “it”.

Kenampa, a Korubo Indian from the Javari Valley in Brazil, spoke for many of the Indigenous people in the book when he said, “The forest is part of our family. When we look at a forest, we don’t just see forest. We see lives. Lives that need us just like we need them.”

Rather than dismissing such views as primitive, the authors contrast tribal peoples’ keen sense of the interdependence of all living creatures with our own myopic economic system, which prioritises short-term profit for a few individuals than the long-term survival of the biosphere of which we are all a part.

When they asked their tribal informants what they wanted to say to the readers of the book, Reid and Lovejoy expected to hear warnings about climate change, streams drying up or the loss of permafrost. Instead, the most common message was an invitation: “Tell them to come!”

Didn’t these forest-dwellers know that the people they were inviting to their homeland belonged to a civilisation that was rapidly destroying forests and the natural systems that support them?

Undoubtedly they did know. But I suspect they were motivated by the simple faith that once we saw their magnificent forest up close, we’d grow to love it too.

That was clearly the case for the authors of this book. Ever Green, for all its scholarly precision, is ultimately an impassioned plea to save the world’s last great wild places by two men who had come, through long professional acquaintance, to love them. Readers will find their passion to be contagious.