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Our rainforests are running out of breath

Most people are aware of the rapid and accelerating destruction of our rainforests, the so-called lungs of our planet, yet it seems practically impossible to stop. The situation has not improved after Brazil’s decision in March to make deforestation of the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, easier due to changes in legislation. The timing could not have been worse, as scientific reports are now being released claiming that the Amazon rainforest may be close to reaching a tipping point. It may be irreversibly changed into something looking more like the dry savannahs of Africa, rather than the green rainforests with high biodiversity we are familiar with.  So, if we cannot trust our governments to protect the rainforests, are there other solutions?

In order to combat deforestation in Brazil, legislation collectively known as “The Forest Code” was established in 1965. These laws established what proportion of rural land must be maintained permanently as forest, while also making it illegal to clear certain areas deemed especially sensitive. The Forest Code dictated that landowners had to keep 35 to 80 % of their land forested. While laws such as these might seem to be a suitable solution to the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest, they have been notoriously hard to enforce due to reasons such as lack of resources, corruption and the absence of adequate ownership records.

And now this insufficient but well-intentioned legislation has become even more hollow and ineffective, as the Supreme Court of Brazil has decided to make illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest easier by choosing to not veto revisions made to the Forest Code in 2012. These revisions grant, among other things, amnesty for people who have been involved in illegal deforestation before 2008, while at the same time reducing penalties for illegal deforestation. These changes that have been made also reduce the deforested land that has to be restored by an area approximately the size of Italy. Studies show that the revised Forest Code could lead to very negative consequences affecting an area the size of Italy, Austria and Germany combined. This is a great setback for environmentalists who believe that the revised laws will create a culture in which illegal deforestation is more acceptable, making it much more difficult to protect the planet’s largest rainforest.

Deforestation in Brazil. Photographer: Rhett A. Butler

But how dire is the rainforest’s situation really? Quite dire indeed, it seems. According to an editorial published in the journal Science Weekly, the state of the Amazon rainforest may be dangerously close to reaching a threshold, beyond which the forest’s own ecosystem will not be able to support itself. This may lead to irreversible changes that will likely transform the once lush rainforest into something more akin to a savannah characterized by low biodiversity. Because the Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall, the question scientists have been trying to answer is exactly how much of the forest can disappear before it can no longer generate the rainfall that is required for its existence. Earlier estimates were that the tipping point would be reached when around 40 % of the forest disappeared. Recently these estimates have changed, partly because of climate change, and it is now believed that not much more than 20 % of the forest can be lost before desertification will turn large parts into a dry savannah. And the deforestation of the Amazon is dangerously close to reaching 20 %.

The government of Brazil has shown us that we cannot rely on the people in power around the world to create sufficient laws to protect rainforests such as the Amazon. So, what can be done? First, we need to ask ourselves what the main cause of deforestation is. Even though the answer to such questions of course are very complex, poverty seems to be a crucial part of the equation, perhaps even the root of the problem. Statistics show that forests contribute to 90 % of the livelihood of around 1.3 million people worldwide who live below the poverty line. Even though these people may of course realize that their lifestyles have a negative impact on the forests, the choice between preserving the rainforests for future generations and providing for their families is quite simple, and therein lies the problem.

Deforestation in Indonesia Photographer: Rhett A. Butler

In a completely different part of the world, in Indonesia, where the forests are facing similar difficulties, they might have come close to the solution, or at least a small part of it. In the remote town of Sukanda a very special health clinic has opened. What makes it so unusual is that the patients can pay for health care with non-cash means – everything from manure and seedlings to hand-woven baskets and their own labor. Patients from areas where illegal logging activity has ceased also receive discounts. The idea behind all this is that people should not have to need to log in order to pay for health care for their families. The operators of the clinic had noticed that when the people of this remote jungle town received healthcare, they more often than not paid for this and travel expenses by partaking in illegal logging. The clinic’s mission is to improve the health of residents, while at the same time creating social pressure to stop illegal logging.

Even if a solution such as a clinic in a remote jungle town in Indonesia might only have limited reach and impact, perhaps similar methods and solutions in the same creative spirit could be used on a larger scale in all parts of the world where there is a clear connection between deforestation and poverty, such as the Amazon. What is clear is that the solution will probably come from somewhere else than our governments, and starting with peoples’ healthcare might be a good idea.

Alexander Strandman

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