I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.
Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.
This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »
I recently came across a really important paper that might have flown under the radar for many people. For this reason, I’m highlighting it here and will soon write up a F1000 Recommendation. This is news that needs to be heard, understood and appreciated by conservation scientists and environmental policy makers everywhere.
Indeed, today’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots include 77 % of all mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species (holy shit!). They also harbour about half of all plant species, and 42 % of endemic (not found anywhere else) terrestrial vertebrates. They also have the dubious honour of hosting 75 % of all endangered terrestrial vertebrates (holy, holy shit!). Interestingly, it’s not just amazing biological diversity that typifies the Hotspots – human cultural diversity is also high within them, with about half of the world’s indigenous languages found therein.
Of course, to qualify as a Biodiversity Hotspot, an area needs to be under threat – and under threat they area. There are now over 2 billion people living within Biodiversity Hotspots, so it comes as no surprise that about 85 % of their area is modified by humans in some way.
A key component of the original delimitation of the Hotspots was the amount of ‘natural intact vegetation’ (mainly undisturbed by humans) within an area. While revolutionary 30 years ago, these estimates were based to a large extent on expert opinions, undocumented assessments and poor satellite data. Other independent estimates have been applied to the Hotspots to estimate their natural intact vegetation, but these have rarely been made specifically for Hotspots, and they have tended to discount non-forest or open-forest vegetation formations (e.g., savannas & shrublands).
So with horribly out-of-date vegetation assessments fraught with error and uncertainty, Sloan and colleagues set out to estimate what’s really going on vegetation-wise in the world’s 35 Biodiversity Hotspots. What they found is frightening, to say the least.
It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.
So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.
Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.
Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.
This is a little bit of a bandwagon – the ‘retrospective’ post at the end of the year – but this one is not merely a rehash I’ve stuff I’ve already covered.
I decided that it would be worthwhile to cover some of the ‘big’ conservation papers of 2013 as ranked by F1000 Prime. For copyright reasons, I can’t divulge the entire synopsis of each paper, but I can give you a brief run-down of the papers that caught the eye of fellow F1000 faculty members and me. If you don’t subscribe to F1000, then you’ll have to settle with my briefest of abstracts.
In no particular order then, here are some of the conservation papers that made a splash (positively, negatively or controversially) in 2013:
I don’t like to talk about my family online. Call me paranoid, but there are a lot of crazy people out there who don’t like what scientists like me are saying (bugger the evidence). Yes, like many climate scientists, I’ve also been threatened. That’s why my personal life remains anonymous except for a select group of people.
My daughter’s story today is a little less confronting, but equally enlightening. It’s also a little embarrassing as a scientist who has dedicated my entire research career to the discipline of conservation biology.
As a normal six year-old without the ability to refrain from talking – even for a moment – I hear a lot of stories. Many of them are of course fantastical and ridiculous, but those are just part of a healthy, imaginative childhood (I am proud to say though that she is quite clear about the non-existence of fictitious entities like faeries, easter bunnies and gods).
Every once in a while, however, there are snippets of wisdom that ooze out from the cracks in the dross. In the last few months, my daughter has independently and with no prompting from me come up with two pillars of conservation science: (i) protected areas and (ii) biodiversity corridors. Read the rest of this entry »
Scientists Statement on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Draft Revised Principles and Criteria for Public Consultation – November 2012
As leading scientists with prominent academic and research institutions around the world, we write to encourage the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to use this review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria as an opportunity to ensure that RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil is grown in a manner that protects tropical forests and the health of our planet. We applaud the RSPO for having strong social and environmental standards, but palm oil cannot be considered sustainable without also having greenhouse gas standards. Nor can it be considered sustainable if it drives species to extinction.
Tropical forests are critical ecosystems that must be conserved. They are home to millions of plant and animal species, are essential for local water-cycling, and store vast amounts of carbon. When they are cleared, biodiversity is lost and the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that drives climate change.
Moreover, tropical areas with peat soils store even larger amounts of carbon and when water is drained and the soils exposed, carbon is released into the atmosphere for several decades, driving climate changei. In addition, peat exposed to water in drainage canals may decay anaerobically, producing methane – a greenhouse more potent than carbon dioxide.
Palm oil production continues to increase in the tropics, and in some cases that production is directly driving tropical deforestation and the destruction of peatlandsii. Given the large carbon footprint and irreparable biodiversity loss such palm oil production cannot be considered sustainable. Read the rest of this entry »
I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.
Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.
Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.
This is my story.
I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’. Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.
When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.
I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.
On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.
But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader. He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?
Illegal logging is booming, as criminal organisations tighten their grip on this profitable global industry. Hence, it comes just in the nick of time that Australia, after years of debate, is on the verge of passing an anti-logging bill.
Illegal logging is an international scourge, and increasingly an organised criminal activity. It robs developing nations of vital revenues while promoting corruption and murder. It takes a terrible toll on the environment, promoting deforestation, loss of biodiversity and harmful carbon emissions at alarming rates.
Moreover, the flood of illegal timber makes it much harder for legitimate timber producers. The vast majority of those in Australia and New Zealand have difficulty competing in domestic and international markets. That’s one reason that many major Aussie retail chains and brands, such as Bunnings, Ikea-Australia, Timber Queensland, and Kimberly-Clark, are supporting the anti-illegal logging bill.
Illegal logging denies governments of developing nations revenue worldwide. Bill Laurance.
Illegal logging thrives because it’s lucrative. A new report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme, “Green Carbon, Black Trade”, estimates the economic value of illegal logging and wood processing to range from $30 billion to $100 billion annually. That’s a whopping figure — constituting some 10-30% of the global trade in wood products.
Illegal logging plagues some of the world’s poorest peoples, many of whom live in tropical timber-producing countries. According to a 2011 study by the World Bank, two-thirds of the world’s top tropical timber-producing nations are losing at least half of their timber to illegal loggers. In some developing countries the figure approaches 90%.
Many nations export large quantities of timber or wood products into Australia. These include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, all of which are suffering heavily from illegal logging. Many Chinese-made wood and paper imports also come from illegal timber. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been pleading with timber-importing nations like Australia to help it combat illegal logging, which costs the nation billions of dollars annually in lost revenues.
The new Interpol report shows just how devious illegal loggers are becoming. It details more than 30 different ways in which organised criminal gangs stiff governments of revenues and launder their ill-gotten gains.
The variety of tactics used is dizzying. These tactics include falsifying logging permits and using bribery to obtain illegal logging permits, logging outside of timber concessions, hacking government websites to forge transportation permits, and laundering illegal timber by mixing it in with legal timber supplies.
The good news however, is that improving enforcement is slowly making things tougher for illegal loggers.
Accustomed to dealing with criminal enterprises that transcend international borders, Interpol is bringing a new level of sophistication to the war on illegal logging. This is timely because most current efforts to fight illegal logging – such as the European Union’s Forest Law and various timber eco-certification schemes – just aren’t designed to combat organised crime, corruption and money laundering.
The Interpol report urges a multi-pronged approach to fight illegal loggers. A key element of this is anti-logging legislation that makes it harder for timber-consuming nations and their companies to import ill-gotten timber and wood products. Read the rest of this entry »
Almost everything we own – our houses and cars and our very health – is insured. It works on a simple principal: the higher the risk, the higher the premium. It’s an age-old concept that ecological modelers have decided to apply to a new area: forest preservation.
A new proposal, published in the journal Conservation Letters, would create forest insurance to make the U.N. forest preservation program Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD, more effective. REDD is generally supposed to function by paying developing countries to protect their forests in exchange for carbon pollution credits. Currently the program has 42 partner countries across the globe. The program is crucial to the fight against climate change since deforestation and forest degradation accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and threatens biodiversity.
“REDD is a fantastic idea,” said Corey Bradshaw, director of ecological modeling at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the study. “You get a carbon advantage and biodiversity doesn’t get wiped out at the same time, it seems perfect.”
But it has a few major flaws that the insurance scheme, called iREDD, seeks to remedy.
REDD only works if the parties are honest and stick to the agreement. Bradshaw doesn’t have much faith that will happen. “If there’s a way to cheat, people will cheat. That’s the nature of all life, not just humans, but we excel at it,” he said. If, for example, a country is paid to conserve one forest but moves its deforestation efforts to an adjacent forest in order to get both money and timber, in terms of carbon offsets, that transaction was a failure. This phenomenon is called “leakage.”
Carbon-capture also only works if it’s maintained indefinitely. If a country accepts money for ten years and then cuts its forest the day after the agreement expires, then all of that conservation was for naught. This issue is called “permanence,” usually translated into an arbitrarily defined period of time set by countries in terms of decades or centuries. Read the rest of this entry »
A group of environmental scientists say a problem-ridden economic model designed to slow deforestation can be improved by applying key concepts from the insurance industry.
REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is a UN-promoted scheme that allows countries to trade in carbon credits to keep forests intact. It is mainly targeted at developing nations where deforestation and exploitation are a major threat.
In a paper published online in the journal Conservation Letters, ecology researchers from Australia and South Africa argue that REDD projects can suffer from three major problems. They have proposed strengthening the scheme by using insurance policies and premiums, creating a new scheme known as iREDD.
“The idea of paying a nation to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially reduce overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensure a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process,” says Professor Corey Bradshaw,, Director of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and a senior author of the paper.
Some described it as the “eco-topia”; some believed they had died in the night and awoken in a different universe. Some just stood there gaping stupidly.
Yet the events of 01 April 2012 are real*. Humans suddenly became intelligent.
In an unprecedented emergency UN session this morning, all the world’s countries pledged to an immediate wind-down of the fossil-fuel economy and promised to invest in a rational combination of nuclear and renewable energy sources. Some experts believe the pledge would see a carbon-neutral planet by 2020.
Additionally, the session saw a world-wide pledge to halt all deforestation by 2013, with intensive reforestation programmes implemented immediately.
Family planning would be embraced worldwide, with a concerted effort to see the human population plateau by 2070, and begin declining to a stable 2 billion by 2300. Read the rest of this entry »
Another development fiasco that, if it goes ahead, will devastate a Biodiversity Hotspot and ultimately, reduce the livelihood prospects of millions of West Africans.
In yet another move to expose and shame the greedy developers behind another massive (and superlatively greenwashed) oil palm development in the tropics (see our previous Open Letter), Bill Laurance and Josh Linder have organised another Open Letter from some of the world’s top conservation scientists (again, I count myself fortunate to be included in that group) denouncing the project. The press release is below, followed by the letter itself:
Eleven of the world’s top scientists have produced an open letter to the public urging the Cameroon government to stop a giant oil palm plantation that they say will threaten some of Africa’s most important protected areas.
The project, sponsored by a subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness giant Herakles Farms in collaboration with a U.S. nonprofit organization, All for Africa, would span 70,000 hectares (154,000 acres), an area nearly the size of New York City.
“It’s simply frightening in scope,” said Thomas Struhsaker, a leading expert on African primates and rainforest ecology at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, who has worked in the region for nearly a half-century.
The project would destroy a critical forested area that currently links five national parks or protected areas in Cameroon, say the scientists.
“These forests are vital for wildlife, including the African elephant, chimpanzee and drill, all threatened or endangered species,” said anthropologist Joshua Linder of James Madison University in Virginia, USA, who has helped coordinate the protest. “These animals rely on the forests that would be destroyed to survive and move among the parks.”
“This area is a biodiversity hotspot, some of the world’s most biologically important real estate,” said tropical ecologist William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia, who studies threats to wildlife in the Congo Basin.
“There’s no way a project like this would be allowed in most countries, because the price for biodiversity is just too high,” said Laurance.
The project has been promoted in Cameroon as environmentally sustainable, but the scientists heatedly disagree. “Those promoting this project are misleading everyone—especially the people and government of Cameroon,” said Linder. “They claim the forests they want to clear are mostly logged and degraded, but we’ve shown clearly that they include lots of tall, dense forest that’s vital for wildlife and nature conservation.” Read the rest of this entry »
I begin with the proverbial WTF? The title of this post sounds a little like the legalese accompanying a witchcraft trial, but it’s jargon that’s all the rage in the ‘trading-carbon-for-biodiversity’ circles.
I’m sure that most of my readers will have come across the term ‘REDD‘ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which is the clever idea of trading carbon credits to keep forests intact. As we know, living forests can suck up a lot of carbon from the atmosphere (remember your high school biology lesson on photosynthesis? Carbon dioxide in. Oxygen out), even though climate change is threatening this invaluable ecosystem service. So the idea of paying a nation (usual a developing country) to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially save two birds with one feeder – reducing overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensuring a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process.
The problem with REDD though is that it’s a helluva thing to bank on given a few niggly problems essentially revolving around trust. Ah yes, the bugbear of any business transaction. As the carbon credit ‘buyer’ (the company/nation/individual who wishes to offset its carbon output by ‘buying’ the carbon uptake services provided by the intact forest), you’d want to make damn sure that all the money you spend to offset your carbon actually does just that, and that it doesn’t just end up in the hands of some corrupt official, or even worse, used to generate industry that results in even higher emissions! As the buyer, of course you want to entice investors to give you lots of money, and if you bugger up the transaction (by losing the resource you are providing), you’re not likely to have any more investors coming knocking on your door.
Enter the unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality.
This horrible jargon essentially describes the REDD investment problem:
I’ve mentioned this idea before, but it’s nice when some real data support a prediction (no matter how gloomy that prediction might have been). It’s what drives scientists toward discovery (or at least, it’s what I find particularly appealing about my job).
Several years ago, my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi† and Ian Warkentin) and I wrote a major review in TREE about the fate of the world’s ‘second’ lung of the planet, the great boreal forests of Russia, Canada & Scandinavia. We discussed how fragmentation was increasing at an alarming rate, and that although most species there are still relatively intact, we stand to lose a lot of its biodiversity if we don’t halt the fragmenting processes soon. We wrote more on the subject in a paper to appear imminently in Biological Conservation.
Another component though that we raised in the TREE paper was the boreal forests were very much in danger of turning into a net carbon producer. You see, the ‘lung’ analogy is very pertinent because on average, the growth of the massive expanse of the vegetation in the forest generally takes up much more atmospheric carbon that it exudes through decay and burning (for as we all know, plants take up carbon dioxide to produce sugars during photosynthesis, and produce oxygen as a ‘waste’ product). However, as we fragment, cut down and burn the forest, it can end up producing more than it takes up (i.e., turning from a ‘sink’ to a ‘source’). We highlighted several studies indicating how insect outbreaks and human-exacerbated fire intensities and frequencies could conceivably do this.
I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to blog about a paper I’ve just had accepted in the Journal of Plant Ecology that isn’t yet out online. The reason for the early post is that the paper itself won’t appear until 2012 in a special issue of the journal, and I think the information needs to get out there.
First, a little history – In May this year I blogged about a workshop that I attended at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China at the behest of Fangliang He. The workshop (International Symposium for Biodiversity and Theoretical Ecology) was attended by big-wig overseas ecologists and local talent, and was not only informative, but a lot of fun (apart from the slight headache on the way home from a little too much báijiǔthe night before). More importantly, we lǎo wài (老外) were paired with various students to assist with publications in progress, and I’m happy to say that for me, two of those have already produced fruit (one paper in review, another about to be submitted).
But the real reason for this post was the special issue of papers written by the invitees – I haven’t published in the journal before, and understand that it is a Chinese journal that has gone mainstream internationally now. I’m only happy to contribute to lifting its profile.
Given that I’m not a plant ecologist per se (although I’ve dabbled), I decided to write a review-like paper that I’ve been meaning to put together for some time now examining the state of Australia’s forests and the history of her deforestation and forest degradation. The reason I thought this was needed is that there is no single peer-reviewed resource one can turn to for a concise synopsis of the history of our country’s forest destruction. The stats are out there, but they’re buried in books, government reports and local-scale scientific papers. My hope is that my paper will be used as a general reference point for people wishing to get up to speed with Australia’s deforestation history.
The paper is entitled Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonisation, and it describes the general trends in forest loss and degradation Australia-wide, followed by state- and territory-level assessments. I’ve also included sections on plantations, biodiversity loss from deforestation and fragmentation, the feedback loop between climate change and deforestation, the history of forest protection legislation, and finally, a discussion of the necessary general policy directions needed for the country’s forests.
For biologists like myself, Australia’s northern neighbour provokes visions of ancient rainforests being razed by slash-and-burn farmers, and endangered tigers and orangutans fleeing from growling bulldozers.
This reality is true, but there is also hope on the horizon.
Indonesia is a vast, sprawling nation, spanning some 17,000 islands. Among these are Java, Sumatra, half of New Guinea and much of Borneo.
Some of the planet’s most biologically rich and most endangered real estate is found on this archipelago.