What Ever Happened to... Rainforest Destruction?

© Richard Carey- stock.adobe.com

In 1997, during a trip to the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, I saw firsthand what rainforest destruction looks like. I was there to study the impact of economic globalization on the region's rainforest and indigenous peoples for my Master's project. While flying into the interior of Sarawak, I had a breathtaking view of the damage done by the timber industry - large swaths of deforested land. It was a sight I will never forget; a depressing reality only matched by the impact the timber industry has had on the people and wildlife that directly depend on the forest for survival.

Back then, the main driver of the deforestation was unsustainable logging. Sarawak has the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia - it has lost more than 90 percent of its biologically rich "primary" forests to logging.

But that was then. How is the rainforest faring today on the world's third largest island?

Unfortunately, the situation has only deteriorated. Timber stocks in Sarawak have become exhausted, so the logging companies have jumped into the palm oil business, clearing (burning) peat-swamp forests to make way for oil palm tree plantations. And as the Economist notes, deforestation has also been accompanied by abuses against indigenous groups, including harassment and illegal evictions. And abuses against migrant workers, according to an article in the Earth Island Journal.

Across the border on the Indonesian side of Borneo, the rate of deforestation is one of the highest in the world. One of the two main culprits is, again, the palm oil industry, the other is paper.

Demand for palm oil - from the fruit of oil palm trees - is growing faster than any other agricultural commodity. That's because it's used in so many products - like snack foods, cereals, cookies, soaps and shampoos, just to name a few.

In a dose-of-reality moment in episode 1 of the 2014 TV series Years of Living Dangerously, correspondent Harrison Ford, horrified by the rainforest destruction he witnessed in an Indonesian national park, grumbles, "if Indonesia's forestry minister won't even protect a national park, what hope is there for the rest of the country's forests?"

What is rainforest destruction?

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has been tirelessly working to protect forests for more than five decades, explains that rainforest destruction comes in many forms - fires, clear-cutting for agriculture, ranching and development, unsustainable logging for timber and ecological degradation due to climate change. This takes a terrible toll on people as well as plants and animals. According to WWF, "[s]ome 46 - 58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year - equivalent to 36 football fields every minute."

Since rainforests function as a carbon sink - absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere to influence climate patterns - they play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Deforestation undermines this important carbon sink function. Experts say it is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Deforestation is of greatest concern in tropical rainforests because these ecologically-rich systems are home to a considerable amount of the world's biodiversity. Take, for instance, the Amazon, which has lost 17 percent of its forest in the last 50 years, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.

WWF notes that "without the maintenance of very large blocks of inter-connected forest, there is a clear risk that hundreds of species could become extinct." Particularly vulnerable are large mammals such as orangutans and elephants because of the vast areas they require to survive. For example, the Borneo elephant has increasingly come into conflict with the expansion of human agriculture activities in its natural habitat.

When did we start to care about rainforest destruction?

Although the seeds of rainforest destruction were planted in the 1950s and 60s, it wasn't until the 1980s that it began to accelerate. It was then that environmental groups, the public, media and various government bodies began to take notice and, in some cases, act.

The destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the response to it best illustrates this timeline. According to Slate, in the mid-1960s, the Brazilian government passed a law to encourage peasants to leave city slums and move to the interior of the country. Many took the government up on this offer, and began clearing areas of the rainforest for cattle ranching and rubber tapping. By the 80s, the destruction accelerated as roads and settlements were built (funded by the World Bank) - and an area the size of New Jersey began to disappear every year. This is when environmental groups like the Rainforest Action Network and the Rainforest Alliance began to take action in earnest. (If you're interested in learning more, this 2009 Slate article has a good summary.)

So is the problem solved?

Given what I described above about the rainforest in the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo, you probably already know the answer. According to Conservation International (CI) nearly half of the world's forests have been lost. Adding insult to injury, CI says "we're cutting them down at greater rates each year to plant crops, graze cattle and generate income from timber and other forest products."

Agriculture is responsible for approximately 80 percent of deforestation across the globe. And with food production on the rise in a big way - it needs to increase 70 percent by 2050, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - rainforests all over the world remain in the crosshairs.

Fortunately there is hope with groups like World Wildlife Fund, Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, GreenpeaceForest Heroes and The Forest Trust fighting to stop the destruction and reverse the damage.

You may live thousands of miles from the nearest rainforest, but they are essential to your survival. There are several actions you can take to ensure their survival, like:

  • Call on the Snack Food 20 - PepsiCo and other companies that control some of the best-known snack food brands in the world - to remove Conflict Palm Oil from their products.
  • If you're going to eat beef, try to choose local, sustainably raised meat, so you know that what you're eating hasn't contributed to rainforest destruction in places like the Amazon. In addition, consumers can use their collective power in the marketplace to urge retailers to purchase only deforestation-free meats.
  • Contribute to an organization that is working to protect and conserve rainforests - like the ones mentioned above.

I've always thought about returning to Borneo one day. If I do, I am hopeful that I will see a forest on the mend.