Having grown up in the 1980s, with environmental issues at the centre of much of my education, literally not a day passes where I don’t think about tropical deforestation and cringe. Of all the ecological tragedies of the past century – the depletion of the world’s fish populations, the contamination of the entire planet with toxic chemicals, the hole in the ozone layer – tropical deforestation is certainly one of the most tragic, in my mind. Populations might rebound, most toxic chemicals will break down, the ozone layer is predicted to repair itself by the middle of this century.
But rainforests generally do not grow back. Even if the farmland and strip mines and cities built over them were to disappear, rainforests simply cannot regenerate themselves easily. They take thousands and thousands of years to develop – their ecological complexity cannot be repaired in a few years. While the boreal and temperate forests, with only a few species of trees, can easily be felled and regrown, rainforests, with thousands of different species of tree interconnected with thousands upon thousands of different microbes and animals, cannot simply grow back in any short space of time, if at all. And the rain that sustains them is generated by the forest itself – once the trees are gone the heavy rain disappears too.
The loss of the lungs of the world, the greatest reservoirs of biodiversity on earth – and the unknown number of isolated, unique hunter gatherer tribes – is literally too sad for words. I can’t even begin to articulate just how much it upsets me.
The destruction of the Amazon, in particular, seems to be pretty irreversible. The Amazon actually grows on incredibly poor soil – it is the layer of decomposing animals and plants on the forest floor that provides the trees with nutrients. The Brazilian government sadly only discovered this after they had shipped millions of people from the urban ghettos into the heart of the Amazon to cut down the forest and replace it with farms. Because the soil is so poor the crops all started to fail within a few years, and the people had to migrate or starve.
Although the Brazilian government apparently has done a much better job in the past decade at preserving the forests (although I’m not sure I buy that), many scientists fear that even if we don’t cut down a single tree, the forest will disappear of its own accord due to climate change. Warmer weather, increased droughts and forest fires could eat away at the forest, leading to less rain (and releasing more greenhouse gases to boot), which would lead to more droughts and more fires, on and on in a vicious cycle. Some environmental campaigners think we could even see the end of the Amazon within 40 years.
Now, some scientists disagree, and think the rainforest is actually much more resilient to drought than people might think and that – if we manage and care for it properly – it will be able to survive the next century in fairly good condition.
But I for one am not hopeful. Really, we have no idea what is going to happen. But I’m going to prepare myself for the worst.