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Preventing an Ecological Disaster

By PAM BERNS
   Recent, yet-to-be-released UN reports have found that if the world’s 3,000 largest companies were required to pay for the damage and use of the environment, nearly a third of their profits would be lost, according to the Guardian/UK.
One study found that harmful environmental practices combined by these companies would cost more than $2.2 trillion in 2008 alone. Half of that amount is due to greenhouse gases. If that isn’t shocking enough, this amount does not cover the related costs of damage like particulate matter in the air, freshwater pollution, toxic waste clean-up and the costs that impact societies such as mass migration of displaced people. Special adviser to the UN Environment Programmes and economist Pavan Sukhdev “is likely to argue for abolition of billions of dollars of subsidies to harmful industries like agriculture, energy and transport” and suggests that tougher regulations and taxes will prompt concerned governments and the large companies that damage the environment to take actions to avoid these repercussions.
   The earthquake in Haiti brought that country to the world’s attention. What we saw there was not only the crumbled infrastructure, but also a country that has been an ecological nightmare for decades and a political hellhole since its inception. In 1923, well over 60 percent of the country was forest. By 2006, forests covered a mere 2 percent of Haiti. It is difficult to understand how such a devastating loss of forestation could occur, but there were several forces at work that spurred the loss. These serve as an illustration of how small countries like Haiti, Madagascar and Costa Rica, as well as the massive rainforest of Brazil, are vulnerable to economic and ecological catastrophes. The domino effect of natural disasters like Haiti’s repeated hurricanes, killer storms and quakes left downed trees throughout the country. This then led to massive logging for more wood and charcoal for fuel—competition for scarce resources to satisfy a growing population. Meanwhile, Haiti was ordered to pay reparations to the French to compensate heirs of the ousted plantation owners, forcing the country into staggering debt. The deforestation also caused soil erosion. The loss of topsoil triggered flooding and mudslides during tropical storms in 2004, 2008 and again this year. This has also led to desertification. Poor farmers have migrated to the slums of Port-au-Prince. This does not have to happen.
   It is our responsibility to protect the forests in our own country, as well as the rainforests and the rest of the world’s mangroves. When we define forests, we often think of trees, but many species are supported by forests. Forests are made up of trees whose upper branches spread to create a kind of canopy that envelops the flora and fauna that reside there. When we disrupt any part of this habitat by logging, over-harvesting the plants or culling undergrowth for charcoal, we upset the delicate balance of life. By protecting our forests, we protect an ecosystem that we all rely on for our medicines and forest products for our future. Without managing our forests, we will continue to destroy the 140 rainforest-inhabiting species that are lost every day.
    The Amazon jungle is a 1.7 billion-acre basin in South America, of which 1.4 billion acres are rainforest, encompassing nine countries, including Brazil, Peru, and Colombia—making it more than half of the world’s rainforest in an unbroken tract of land. It hosts over “75,000 kinds of trees and 150,000 species of higher plants,” according to Conservation Biology.
   Since the 1960s, cultivation of crops involved the slash-and-burn method of clearing the land of forest. The term “slash-and-burn” refers to the practice of cutting down the trees and then burning what remains, creating land that is free of parasites. For a brief time, the ash created by burning is used for farming or cattle grazing. However, in a short time, the soil is left depleted and infertile for more than a decade, therefore causing poor farmers to seek new areas to slash-and-burn. Since the 1970s, the cleared land has become lost to pasture for cattle due to our demand for lower-priced beef and soybeans. These markets created a need for transportation into deforested areas, and new roads have fragmented the existing forests, disrupting the habitat. Precious rainforest land is exploited for the profitable hamburger and chopstick markets, along with illegally logged wood purchased by businesses that do not even realize that the wood is illegally harvested. Planting new trees will never replace old forests and the species that the forest provides. And many times, well-meaning people plant different trees than the originals. This will not replace a lost forest. It is gone forever.
   National Geographic predicts that we will lose more than 40 percent of the Amazon Rainforest in the next 20 years. Unfortunately, if more measures are not put in the hands of those who protect the area, the loss of the rainforest will accelerate global warming, and the higher temperatures will lead to less rainfall and more desertification. Unfortunately, in the last few years, the Amazon basin has experienced severe drought.
   According to Nature, “One hectare [2.47 acres] in the Peruvian Amazons has been calculated to have a value of $6,820 if intact forest is sustainably harvested for fruits, latex and timber; $1,000 if clear-cut for commercial timber (not sustainably harvested); or $148 if used as cattle pasture.” And for this we threaten our future?
   Despite Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s good intentions in 2008 of setting goals to combat deforestation, slashing-and-burning to accommodate cattle-raising has accelerated.
   We let our rainforests disappear at our own peril. More than 100 prescription drugs are derived from rainforest plants. There are literally thousands of tropical rainforest plants that have not been tested for their medicinal properties, according to E/The Environmental Magazine. They cite the now-extinct periwinkle plant that came from Madagascar, which “increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to 80 percent.”

Published: April 05, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue