National Opinions

Five myths about tropical rainforests

Weiss is a manager at the Global Forest Watch program at the World Resources Institute.

Thousands of fires are burning in the Amazon, eliciting panic around the world and offers of help from the Group of Seven meeting last weekend. Tropical rainforests cover only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, but they have an outsize impact on providing habitat, storing carbon and regulating the flow of water. From the “Save the Rainforest” T-shirts of the 1990s to the sci-fi movie “Avatar,” these areas have come to symbolize the abundance of the natural world - and its vulnerability. But misconceptions about rainforests abound.

Myth No. 1: Logging companies drive deforestation.

Calling logging “perhaps the most iconic symbol of forest destruction,” the Union of Concerned Scientists lists “wood products” among its top four causes of deforestation. HowStuffWorks also claims that logging is a “primary driver” of the problem. This myth has worked its way into popular culture: The animated film “FernGully: The Last Rainforest,” from 1992, depicted a logging operation as the main existential threat to the forest’s adorable creatures. And it’s true that logging wreaks havoc on the rainforest: Often conducted illegally, it creates significant carbon emissions and reduces species richness. It can also lead to future deforestation by building roads that increase access to remote areas.

But logging is currently responsible for less than 10 percent of deforestation in the world’s largest tropical rainforests, according to a recent study in the journal Science. With deforestation, a forest is completely cut down and converted to another use, which normally doesn’t happen when loggers selectively remove valuable trees.

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Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of deforestation in the tropics, with a large portion tied to just three commodities: palm oil, soybeans and beef. These are often traded internationally and show up in everyday products like toothpaste, shampoo, dog food and granola bars.


Myth No. 2: The Amazon rainforest functions as the Earth’s ‘lungs.’

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that “the Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” a claim repeated by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cristiano Ronaldo. The phrase has also popped up throughout the reporting on the fires in the Amazon, including on CNN, ABC and Al Jazeera.

Though trees do produce oxygen, they also consume it during cellular respiration. From there, microbes and other organisms use much of the oxygen generated by rainforests, resulting in a net production of oxygen close to zero. “There are a number of reasons why you would want to keep the Amazon in place, oxygen just isn’t any one of them,” Michael Coe, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, told National Geographic. (In fact, our planet’s atmosphere is breathable thanks to phytoplankton trapped at the bottom of the ocean, which generated oxygen over billions of years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, seasonal phytoplankton blooms are still responsible for over half the photosynthesis and atmospheric oxygen production on Earth.)

Still, rainforests across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia store about a quarter of the world’s carbon, and their deforestation accounts for more than 15 percent of gross human-caused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide each year. They also influence how the atmosphere functions. For example, the water vapor that tropical forests release to the airresults in increased rainfall up to hundreds of miles away.

Myth No. 3: The rainforest is uninhabited wilderness.

Advertisements for tourist excursions often refer to tropical rainforests as “virgin” and “untouched.” To many, these places exemplify wilderness — paradises untrammeled by human intervention and thus teeming with plant and animal life. This misconception has had tragic consequences for local and indigenous people. According to a U.N. report from 2018, countries including Peru, Panama and Indonesia have forced communities from their traditional lands to create protected areas of “pristine” nature.

In truth, these areas are not naturally uninhabited. People have lived in tropical rainforests for thousands of years and continue to occupy large areas within them: Indigenous territories cover 35 percent of the Amazon, for example. Local communities have made a profound impact on the forests’ structure across time: Recent archaeological and ecological studies suggest that pre-Columbian peoples changed the plant composition of the Amazonian rainforest by domesticating and cultivating species such as the Brazil nut.

Deforestation rates inside indigenous territories are two to three times lower than in surrounding areas, according to the World Resources Institute (where I lead strategy and partnerships for satellite-based forest monitoring at Global Forest Watch). These territories do an even better job of protecting tropical forests than areas that strictly prohibit human activities. Securing land titles for indigenous territories may be one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate carbon emissions.

Myth No. 4: Tropical rainforests are doomed.

It’s hard not to be alarmed reading the headlines about tropical rainforests. As early as 2009, the Independent said that the “fate of the rainforest is ‘irreversible.’ ”

“We are destroying rainforests so quickly they may be gone in 100 years,” the Guardian said in 2017. The Economist says that the Amazon is on “deathwatch. Last year the world lost 3.6 million hectares of primary rainforest, an area the size of Belgium.

But some countries have managed to significantly slow deforestation. Global Forest Watch reported a 40 percent decline in Indonesia’s forest loss in 2018 compared with its 2002-2016 average, thanks in part to the government’s response to the massive fires in 2015. Before its recent policy reversals, Brazil actually reduced large-scale deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent between 2004 and 2012.

We know how to stop deforestation - by increasing law enforcement efforts, establishing protected areas, recognizing indigenous territories, regulating agricultural conversion and paying landowners for environmental services. If Indonesia and Brazil, historically the worst deforesters, are capable of turning things around, there's hope for rainforests as a whole. For that to happen, both tropical forest countries and the countries that consume deforestation-linked commodities will need to significantly shift their policies and practices.

Myth No. 5: We need to clear rainforest to feed the world.

With the global population expected to rise to more than 9 billion by mid-century, the World Resources Institute says the global food supply will need to increase by more than 50 percent. In recent decades, most new farmland has come from cutting down tropical rainforest. An article in Fast Company, warning that “there won’t be enough food to feed the world in 2050,” says that “growers will probably resort to clear-cutting more forests.” Brazil’s chief of strategic affairs, Maynard Santa Rosa, recently called the Amazon “an unproductive latifúndio” — a big, unfarmed estate — that needed to be developed for agriculture, mining and logging. According to Wired, “Farmers in Brazil are starting these fires not because of some vendetta against the rainforest, but because they need to feed their families.”

But it's entirely possible to feed billions of additional people without expanding agriculture into forests. Boosting crop and livestock productivity can help the world produce more food on existing farmland: In Latin America, for example, some farmers are planting improved grasses on pasturelands, or even adding trees; this helps the land grow more and better feed, and increases the number of cows per acre. The world can also alter its consumption patterns by reducing the approximately one-third of food that's wasted and by shifting toward plant-based foods, which are less land-intensive than animal-based foods.

In fact, preserving the rainforests may be necessary to meet demand for food. Tropical rainforests regulate local climate by providing shade and returning water vapor to the atmosphere, humidifying and cooling the air; they also provide valuable pollination services to nearby fields. Clearing those forests changes the volume and distribution of rainfall, and leads to drier and hotter conditions, which has negative effects on agricultural yields. For example, a study in Environmental Research Letters found that deforestation in the Amazon may decrease the productivity of pastures (due to decreased rainfall in eastern Brazil) and soybean farms (due to more days with temperatures above the optimum range).


Originally published by The Washington Post.

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