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It's been all over the news lately. There have been a record-breaking
number of fires ravaging the Brazilian Amazon rainforest this year - manmade
fires, intentionally set to clear land for
agriculture, which then spread uncontrollably. The National Institute
for Space Research says it has detected more than 74 thousand fires between
January and August. In comparison there were fewer than 40,000 for the same
period in 2018. It is shocking to see it happening to a place many of us consider
to be a pristine lush expanse. And most of us looking on from thousands of miles
away from behind our computer screens feel helpless. Members of the G7 summit
pledged 22 million dollars to help fight the fires. And over the past decade
Norway has donated 1.2 billion dollars to help conserve the Amazon and Germany
has contributed 68 million dollars. However they've both stopped their
contributions because of doubts over Brazil's efforts to reduce deforestation.
Despite money pouring in over many years to try to battle the problem,
international campaigns, summits, and boycotts, it just isn't working. The
recent fires are just a symptom of an ongoing problem of unregulated and
out-of-control clearing for agriculture. Across the world, in South America, Africa,
and Asia, the world's rainforests are being lost at a rapid pace. If current
deforestation levels precede, the world's rainforests may completely vanish in as
little as a hundred years. And there is so much to lose. The diversity of plants
and animals in the world's rainforests is staggering,
especially in person. Seeing mist rise above the canopy at sunrise while
hearing Gibbon calls from miles away, trekking through the forest at night and
seeing alien like insects, dodging snakes wrapped around branches,
colorful ridiculous birds. The amount of amazing creatures there is seemingly
endless. And the value that they have to the
world is impossible to quantify. And so, with all the terrible news stories we
hear it's easy to feel like there is no hope. To see any animals losing their
habitat is heartbreaking. However, despite the headlines, all hope is not lost. There
are things that can be done and people who are doing everything in their power
to ensure the rainforests survive the recent onslaught of destruction. To
understand what is being done and how, let's focus on one of the most
endangered ecosystems in the world, the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia, and in
particular Borneo - home to recognizable species such as orangutangs and pygmy
elephant. Borneo's natural forests continue to be destroyed at a rapid pace.
Between 1985 and 2005 Borneo lost an average of 850 thousand hectares of
forest every year. If this trend continues, forest cover will drop to less
than a third in coming years. And all that deforestation has been devastating
for wildlife. Nearly a hundred and fifty thousand critically endangered Bornean
orangutans died between 1999 and 2015 and there are less than 1500 surviving
Borneo pygmy elephants. 10 to 15 percent of the world's unique plant and animal
species live in this area and they are all at risk of being wiped out entirely.
And this is not to mention the importance of the forest and its carbon
storing abilities and how devastating clearing it will be in the battle
against climate change. It's easy to point out why deforestation is bad for
biodiversity, and no one wants the orangutans to die, so why is it happening?
The answer to this question varies from region to region and from year to year.
In Brazil, cattle ranching is the leading cause. In the DRC it's largely due to
unregulated or illegal logging for timber. And in Borneo and the rest of
Indonesia and Malaysia, the forests are currently being cleared to make room for
the most in-demand plant oil in the world -
palm oil. this huge demand for palm oil can be traced back to the 1980s when the
world learned the dangers of trans fats. Food producers scrambled to find a
suitable alternative - something cheap with similar properties to trans fats
but less damaging to human health. The substance that ticked these three boxes
was you guessed it, palm oil. Then in the last few decades
environmentalists ironically pushed for an increase in biodiesel production to
try to stop the release of carbon from fossil fuels, not foreseeing the
contradiction in their thinking. In the US a law mandating that biofuels be
incorporated into diesel promised to stop the release of 4.5 billion tons of
carbon over three decades. Biodiesel production in the U.S. jumped from 250
million gallons in 2006 to more than 1.5 billion gallons in 2016. Like many
well-intentioned plans this one did the exact opposite of what it was supposed
to and helped lead to the ongoing decimation of one of the world's biggest
carbon sinks. By the 21st century the palm oil boom was in full swing and
thousands of square miles of lowland forests across Borneo were planted with
oil palms. Today Indonesia and Malaysia supply 85% of the world's palm oil, and
whether we realize it or not palm oil is in everything -
pizza dough, lipstick, ice cream, laundry detergent, soap, chocolate, instant noodles,
fuel. It's an extremely cheap and versatile product and it's nearly
impossible to avoid in modern life. Globally we each consume an average of 8
kilograms of palm oil a year. When you're in Borneo you can drive for hours and
hours and hours and see nothing but palm trees. And much of the forest you can see
is under severe pressure with animals being forced into smaller and smaller
habitats. Trucks carrying the palm kernels and trucks lugging out massive
ancient trees zigzag across the landscape. This leads to the hardest
question of it all. What can be done about it? There's been a recent push to
boycott palm oil products, like the grocery chain Iceland is doing as
explained in their controversial viral ad. This kind of stuff feels nice and is
easy for people to support. However, Europe and the U.S. account for less than
14 percent of global palm oil demand. So boycotts coming from these parts of the
world are unfortunately not enough. Half of global demand comes from Asia where
within many of the developing economies product price is what matters. And with
palm oil accounting for 13.7 percent of Malaysia's gross national income and
existing as Indonesia's top export, outright banning its cultivation is just
not going to happen. The way to actually save the rainforests is unfortunately
way more complicated. To save the rainforest we
have to understand the rainforest. We have to understand how it actually
reacts to deforestation and degradation. Obviously when an entire forest slashed
and burned and logged, that ecosystem is lost. But what about the surrounding
forests, are they impacted by the adjacent damage? Are any animals able to
relocate? And if so, what kinds, how many? What about partially degraded forests, or
young forests that are being restored? Can they support wildlife? Can some
animals actually even live within the palm oil plantations? Are wildlife
corridors along rivers enough to promote the movement of animals across a
plantation landscape? How much forest can we actually lose before the damage is
irreversible? These are the questions that need to be answered to ensure the
future of the Southeast Asian rainforest, and in fact any threatened forest in the
world. One group working on finding the answers to these questions is a group of
scientists nestled deep in the heart of Malaysian Borneo at the SAFE project
site. SAFE stands for the stability of altered forest ecosystems and their goal
is to research biodiversity and ecosystem function change as forests are
modified by human activities and to learn whether preserving sections of
forests within degraded landscapes can protect biodiversity, and how much
protection is needed to be effective. The entire SAFE project experimental site
has an area of 72 square kilometers which is spread over existing palm oil
plantations and untouched rainforest, much of which is slated to soon be
converted into palm oil plantations. The site also contains a large virgin jungle
reserve of 22 square kilometers which will remain protected throughout the
process. Within the total safe project area the owners of the palm oil
plantation have agreed to allow an additional 8 square kilometres of land
to be set aside as forest fragments. These will be the experimental forest
fragments that the scientists can study. In addition to this Malaysian law
prohibits the clearance of forests on steep slopes and along rivers accounting
for another approximately five square kilometres. With this arrangement the
scientists will be able to study the effect of logging before during and
after such forest conversion and can also study the effects of forest
corridors and reserves within damaged forests. This type of experimental design
is extremely valuable and extremely rare. It is not often that
scientists get to work with the cooperation of the very people who are
doing the damage that is being studied and get to choose where their
experimental sites are. In most cases ecological research is carried out
observationally, after the fact, which does not produce as powerful of results
as an experiment like this will. The overall goal of the safe project is to
determine the minimum critical size forest fragments can be before they fail
to operate as functional tropical ecosystems. They are gathering data on
animal populations, soil composition, plant populations, hydrology, insect
behavior, seed dispersal, everything that a healthy tropical ecosystem needs and
seeing how that changes in different levels of forest destruction. And with
this information the ultimate goal is to find out the best way to sustainably
farm palm oil - to find a compromise between agriculture and conservation. And
while this experiment is set to go on for many years to come and the full
results won't be known until then, there are already hundreds of papers pouring
out of this research site and some of the results already have big
implications. One study for example found that riparian reserves, the strips of
forests that are protected along the lengths of rivers, that have over 40
metres of natural vegetation on each bank supported similar bird diversity to
the control habitats found in continuous protected forests. However to support
equivalent numbers of birds of conservation concern, reserves would need
to be at least a hundred metres wide on each bank. Another study concluded that
over all mammal species richness was conserved even in degraded forests,
forests that otherwise might be thought to be too damaged already to be worth
protecting. And yet another study found unexpectedly that there is no impact
from land use changes on the biomass or number of fish and small streams,
suggesting that these fish could be a sustainable food source for villages
established in human modified forests or in developed oil palm plantations. These
are the types of results that SAFE wants to use to inform how palm oil is farmed
and in fact how any fragmented landscape can be designed to best preserve the
environment in the face of land-use change. And once even more years of data
have been collected the SAFE project will inform relevant governments about
the best land-use policy. For example, at the moment
governmental guidelines on the amount of riparian reserves around rivers varies
greatly. In Sabah, the law says that 20 meters of natural vegetation on either
side of a riverbank has to be preserved. In Indonesia it's 50 meters, in other
parts of Malaysia it's 5 meters, and other regions have different guidelines
altogether. But as I mentioned before some studies are already finding that
maybe a hundred meters or more are necessary to be sufficient wildlife
corridors to preserve biodiversity. Results like these will be funneled to
policymakers and members of the round table for sustainable palm oil to try to
set up a system in which despite some deforestation happening now, the
rainforest can survive and rebound once the local economies move on to other
forms ofiIndustry one day in the future. To really save the rainforest requires
an unromantic often tedious compromise between industry, ecology, and politics.
None of it is easy, and with fairly rampant corruption in many of the
countries in question, undermining any progress made, it can feel like an
impossible battle. It will take years of discussion from the decision-makers, long
hours spent in the field, and integrity from relevant politicians. But with all
of these things working together, in theory, there is hope for a future world
still covered in rainforests. The subject of deforestation is a massive one and
there are many many things we need to understand in order to save the world's
forests. Scientists everywhere are tirelessly gathering data and
discovering the answers needed to inform conservation efforts. And while they are
working to understand the rainforest, we can work to understand their efforts and
the ecology that surrounds the problem by signing up to Curiosity Stream.
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