No substitute for primary forest

15 09 2011

© Romulo Fotos http://goo.gl/CrAsE

A little over five years ago, a controversial and spectacularly erroneous paper appeared in the tropical ecology journal Biotropica, the flagship journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. Now, I’m normally a fan of Biotropica (I have both published there several times and acted as a Subject Editor for several years), but we couldn’t let that paper’s conclusions go unchallenged.

That paper was ‘The future of tropical forest species‘ by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, which essentially concluded that the severe deforestation and degradation of tropical forests was not as big a deal as nearly all the rest of the conservation biology community had concluded (remind you of climate change at all?), and that regenerating, degraded and secondary forests would suffice to preserve the enormity and majority of dependent tropical biodiversity.

What rubbish.

Our response, and those of many others (including from Toby Gardner and colleagues and William Laurance), were fast and furious, essentially destroying the argument so utterly that I think most people merely moved on. We know for a fact that tropical biodiversity is waning rapidly, and in many parts of the world, it is absolutely [insert expletive here]. However, the argument has reared its ugly head again and again over the intervening years, so it’s high time we bury this particular nonsense once and for all.

In fact, a few anecdotes are worthy of mention here. Navjot once told me one story about the time when both he and Wright were invited to the same symposium around the time of the initial dust-up in Biotropica. Being Navjot, he tore off strips from Wright in public for his outrageous and unsubstantiated claims – something to which Wright didn’t take too kindly.  On the way home, the two shared the same flight, and apparently Wright refused to acknowledge Navjot’s existence and only glared looks that could kill (hang on – maybe that had something to do with Navjot’s recent and untimely death? Who knows?). Similar public stoushes have been chronicled between Wright and Bill Laurance.

Back to the story. I recall a particular coffee discussion at the National University of Singapore between Navjot Sodhi (may his legacy endure), Barry Brook and me some time later where we planned the idea of a large meta-analysis to compare degraded and ‘primary’ (not overly disturbed) forests. The ideas were fairly fuzzy back then, but Navjot didn’t drop the ball for a moment. He immediately went out and got Tien Ming Lee and his new PhD student, Luke Gibson, to start compiling the necessary studies. It was a thankless job that took several years.

However, the fruits of that labour have now just been published in Nature: ‘Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity‘, led by Luke and Tien Ming, along with Lian Pin Koh, Barry Brook, Toby Gardner, Jos Barlow, Carlos Peres, me, Bill Laurance, Tom Lovejoy and of course, Navjot Sodhi [side note: Navjot died during the review and didn't survive to hear the good news that the paper was finally accepted].

Using data from 138 studies from Asia, South America and Africa comprising 2220 pair-wise comparisons of biodiversity ‘values’ between forests that had undergone some sort of disturbance (everything from selective logging through to regenerating pasture) and adjacent primary forests, we can now hammer the final nails into the coffin containing the putrid remains of Wright and Muller-Landau’s assertion – there is no substitute for primary forest. Read the rest of this entry »





Wolves in sheep’s clothing: industrial lobbyists and the destruction of tropical forests

25 10 2010

 

 

As of this morning, a group of distinguished scientists (which I have had the honour of being invited to join) has released an Open Letter to be published in various media outlets worldwide. The letter addresses some of our major concerns over the misinterpretation of facts, and openly misleading statements, by proponents of deforestation in the Asian tropical region. Professor Bill Laurance, an old favourite on ConservationBytes.com, has led the charge and organised a most impressive and shocking list of assertions. I produce the letter below – I encourage all my readers to distribute it as far and wide as possible in the social media-verse.

An Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests

To whom it may concern:

As professional scientists employed by leading academic and research institutions, we are writing to alert the general public about some of the claims and practices being used by the World Growth Institute (WGI) and International Trade Strategies Global (ITS), and their affiliated leadership.

WGI and ITS operate in close association. ITS is owned by Alan Oxley, an Australian industrial lobbyist, former trade representative, and former Ambassador who also heads WGI. According to its website1, ITS also has “close associations” with several politically conservative US think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.

In our personal view, WGI and ITS — which are frequently involved in promoting industrial logging and oil palm and wood pulp plantations internationally — have at times treaded a thin line between reality and a significant distortion of facts. Specifically, we assert that: Read the rest of this entry »





Greenwash, blackwash: two faces of conservation evil

21 11 2009

Beware false prophets, and especially those masquerading as conservationists (or at least ‘green’) when they are not, in fact, doing anything for conservation at all. But this blog site isn’t about typical greenie evil-corporation-making-a-mess-of-the-Earth sermons (there are plenty of those); it’s instead about real conservation science that has/should/could have a real biodiversity benefits. This is why I highlight the bitey and the toothless together.

With the slow (painfully, inadequately, insufficiently slow) maturation of environmental awareness and the rising plight of biodiversity in general (including our own health and prosperity), it has become almost chic to embrace a so-called ‘green’ perspective. This approach has blown out into a full-scale business model where in many wealthier nations especially, it’s just plain good business to attract the green-conscious consumer to buy more ‘environmentally friendly’ products. Problem is, so many of these products are the farthest thing from green you can imagine (see examples here, here & here). This stimulated the environmentalist Jay Westerveld to coin the term greenwashing in 1986. Greenwashing is basically defined as activities that misleadingly give the impression of environmentally sound management that thereby deflect attention away from the continued pursuit of environmentally destructive activities.

Well, not that the problem has disappeared, or even dissipated (if anything, it’s growing), but I don’t want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to highlight a recent paper in which I was involved that outlines too how environmental groups can be guilty of almost the same sin – claiming businesses, practices, individuals, corporations, etc. are far more environmentally destructive than they really are. This, we termed blackwashing.

The paper by Koh and colleagues entitled Wash and spin cycle threats to tropical biodiversity just came out online in the journal Biotropica, and therein we describe the greenwashing-blackwashing twin conservation evils using the oil palm controversy as an excellent example case. Just in case you didn’t know, much of the tropical world (especially South East Asia) is undergoing massive conversion of native forests to oil palm plantations, to the overwhelming detriment of biodiversity. I’ve covered the issue in several posts on ConservationBytes.com before (see for example Tropical forests worth more standing, Indonesia’s precious peatlands under oil palm fire & More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry).

Briefly, we demonstrate how the palm oil industry is guilty of the following greenwashes:

On the either side, various environmental groups such as Greenpeace, have promoted the following blackwashes:

  • Orang-utan will be extinct imminently – A gross exaggeration, although something we believe is eventually possible.
  • Avoided deforestation schemes (e.g., REDD) will crash carbon-trading – Again, even economists don’t believe this.

For details, see the paper online.

Now, I’d probably tend to believe some of the less outrageous claims made by some environmental groups because if anything, the state of biodiversity is probably overall worse than what most people realise. However, when environmental groups are exposed for exaggerations, or worse, lies, then their credibility goes out the window and even those essentially promoting their cause (e.g., conservation biologists like myself) will have nothing to do with them. The quasi-religious zealotry of anti-whaling campaigns is an example of a terrible waste of funds, goodwill and conservation resources that could be otherwise spent on real conservation gains. Instead, political stunts simply alienate people who would otherwise reasonably contribute to improving the state of biodiversity. Incidentally, an environmental advocacy group in Australia emailed me to support their campaign to highlight the plight of sharks. I am a firm supporter of better conservation of sharks (see recent paper and post about this here). However, when I read their campaign propaganda, the first sentence read:

Almost 90 % of sharks have been wiped out

I immediately distanced myself from them. This is a blatant lie and terrible over-exaggeration. Ninety per cent of sharks HAVE NOT been wiped out. Some localised depletions have occurred, and not one single shark species has been recorded going extinct since records began. While I agree the world has a serious shark problem, saying outrageous things like this will only serve to weaken your cause. My advice to any green group is to get your facts straight and avoid the sensationlist game – you won’t win it, and you probably won’t be successful in doing anything beneficial for the species you purport to save.
CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgKoh, L., Ghazoul, J., Butler, R., Laurance, W., Sodhi, N., Mateo-Vega, J., & Bradshaw, C. (2009). Wash and Spin Cycle Threats to Tropical Biodiversity Biotropica DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2009.00588.x





Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage ConservationBytes.com readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw





More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry

17 11 2008

© ?

© ?

A recent article from Mongabay.com. What the good doctor Basiron appears to gloss over rather well is that his own country’s very economic future, well-being of its citizenry and long-term sustainability absolutely depends on maintaining large tracts of intact primary forest. The value of its forests far outweighs the short-term ‘development’ gains from palm oil. The backflips, greenwashing and overt profiteering will only be a blip in Malaysia’s economic development, so keep on with the propaganda while you can, Basiron. Why don’t you call a spade a spade – it’s greed, not so-called ‘development’ that’s raping your own country.

Dr. Yusof Basiron, the controversial CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), blogs about the sustainability of palm oil.

Scientists should compare the biodiversity oil palm plantations to other industrial monocultures, not the rainforests they replace, said Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), in a post on his blog.

“I would also like to encourage environmental scientists not to compare the biodiversity of an agricultural crop such as the oil palm with that of rain forests,” he wrote. “The findings would not win you a Nobel price [sic].”

“If a comparison is to be made, the biodiversity of the oil palm, an agricultural crop, should be compared with that for soyabean or rapeseed, corn or sugarcane or other agricultural crops,” he continued. “Biodiversity that exists in the oil palm plantations is a bonus for all to benefit, while we enjoy the supply of oil for our food need, in addition to palm oil – an agricultural commodity – helping to promote economic growth not only in the developing countries but also in all other countries involved in using the product.”

Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.
Basiron’s comments are noteworthy because until now he has maintained that oil palm plantations are “planted forests” rather than an industrial crop. Oil palm plantations are indeed biologically impoverished relative to even heavily logged forests – a study published earlier this year showed that oil palm plantations retain less than one-sixth the biodiversity of old growth forests and less than a quarter of that in secondary forests. However when compared with soy or rapeseed farms, which support almost no wildlife, oil palm plantations look a little less like biological deserts. Small measures – like maintaining and restoring forest cover along waterways, conserving peatlands and high value conservation areas, and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides – can help augment the biodiversity of existing plantations.

Basiron also noted that oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market – far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable – especially during the recent boom in palm oil prices, which recently ended, coinciding with falling oil prices – it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops. The problem, say environmentalists, stems from the practice of clearing natural forest for oil palm plantations, which reduces biodiversity, hurts ecosystem functioning, and results in greenhouse gas emissions. While Basiron and the MPOC have flatly denied that natural forest has been cleared for the establishment of oil palm plantations, ground and satellite evidence proves the claims quite false. Nevertheless there are opportunities to covert degraded and abandoned agricultural lands for oil palm, mostly in Indonesia, rather than Malaysia where most land is already under cultivation or forested. While returns would be lower without the “logging subsidy” generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm, such plantations would face less criticism from the environmental community.

A third point made by Basiron is that Malaysia is a sovereign nation that has same rights to develop its economy as industrialized nations have had. The same concept has been put forth by Brazil over deforestation of the Amazon and China with regards to its rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Basiron writes,

“It is also unethical, immoral and somewhat patronizing for NGOs of the developed countries in Europe to ask developing countries such as Malaysia to stop developing its land. Asking Malaysia to stop developing its land will lead to conflicts and misunderstanding because some states in Malaysia have not yet had the opportunity to develop their agricultural land as they were until a few decades ago under oppressive colonial rule.”

“Sarawak [a state on the island of Borneo] which achieved independence from the British later than Peninsular Malaysia had only developed 8% of its land for agriculture compared to the UK which has over 70% of its land under agriculture. But there are still opportunities in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia to develop degraded logged over land for planting rubber and oil palm to increase the country’s sources of foreign exchange while not involving the deforestation of the pristine permanent forests.”

While Basiron’s comments will likely be dismissed or ignored by many environmental groups, his points are not the sort that typically provoke outcry from the green lobby. MPOC lands in the most trouble with the environmental community when it attempts to deliberately mislead the marketplace on the environmental performance of palm oil, an approach the group has used repeatedly in recent years with advertising campaigns, “greenwashing” and “astroturfing” techniques, and other propaganda. Of course MPOC is not alone in using these tactics – it follows the model employed widely by industries ranging from U.S. ethanol producers to big oil. The problem for MPOC – and other industries – is that misleading campaigns are only providing more fodder for its enemies. But MPOC is hedging itself. The palm oil marketing group is also employing a second strategy that may pay better dividends in the long run – an effort to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. While the initiative – known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – has stumbled a bit coming out of the blocks, it appears there may be a market for certified palm oil, which would offer producers a premium for mitigating the environmental and social impacts of producing the vegetable oil. The first RSPO-certified palm oil is expected the reach Europe today. Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil, has already pledged to buy only certified palm oil by 2015.

See also previous posts on oil palm at ConservationBytes.com:

- Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

- Oil palm plantatations destroying tropical biodiversity

- Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin





Oil palm plantations destroying tropical biodiversity

18 09 2008

This one from MongaBay.com

Conversion of primary rainforest to an oil palm plantation results in a loss of more than 80 percent of species, reports a new comprehensive review of the impacts of growing palm oil production. The research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

“By compiling scientific studies of birds, bats, ants and other species, we were able to show that on average, fewer than one-sixth of the species recorded in primary forest were found in oil palm,” said led author Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia. “Degraded forest, and even alternative crops such as rubber and cocoa, supported higher numbers of species than oil palm plantations.”

The results confirm that oil palm plantations are a poor substitute for natural forests when it comes to conservation of biological diversity.

The study warns that burgeoning demand for palm oil for use in foods, household products, and biodiesel will continue to fuel expansion in the tropics. Because planters can subsidize operations by the initial logging for forest plots, it seems likely that forests will continue to fall for new plantations despite the availability of large tracts of degraded and abandoned land.

“There is enough non-forested land suitable for plantation development to allow large increases in production without large impacts on tropical forests, but as a result of political inertia, competing priorities and lack of capacity and understanding, not to mention high levels of demand for timber and palm oil from wealthy consumers, it is still often cheaper and easier to clear forests. Unless these conditions change quickly, the impacts of oil palm expansion on biodiversity will be substantial,” the authors conclude.

See also Koh & Wilcove. 2008. Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters 1: 60-64

CJA Bradshaw





Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin

11 09 2008

I always try to tell myself never “to underestimate the stupidity of the human race”; yet, I am too often surprised. Borneo is one of the places in the tropics with the worst track record in destroying ecosystems and the services they provide. The Malaysian government couldn’t be more self-destructive with this sort of policy.

This item from Mongaybay.com:

© CIFOR

© CIFOR

The Malaysian government is attempting to quell indigenous opposition to logging in the rainforests of Borneo by deposing community leaders and replacing them with timber company stakeholders, reports an environmental group.

The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss NGO that works on behalf of the forest people of Sarawak, Malaysia, says that the headmen of at least three Penan communities that have opposed logging have lost official recognition from Malaysian authorities over the past year. The government is working to install representatives who support logging.

“The non-recognition of the elected community headmen by the Sarawak State Government is a clear violation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” stated the Bruno Manser Fund in an emailed release. “The Declaration, which has been adopted by Malaysia, upholds in its article 18 the right of indigenous communities ‘to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures’.”

The Penan communities of Sarawak have waged a long battle against the logging of their ancestral homeland in the rainforests of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The opposition reached a crescendo in the 1980s when the Penan blocked logging roads and sabotaged equipment. The Malaysian government responded by closing down media access to the area and sending in armed forces to violently supress the unrest. While the attacks on the Penan brought international attention to the rapacious logging of Borneo’s forests, they had relatively little long-term impact.

Today the Penan face not only loggers but increased pressure from oil palm developers as well as an ambitious government plan to dam several rainforest rivers in an effort to generate electricity to attract aluminum smelters and mineral refiners.

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