Facts lost in deep dark jungle of rainforest issue

 In the mysterious jungle known as the Amazon, legend had it
there lived a Golden King named El Dorado said to be so rich that
each day he used gold dust to adorn his royal body.  For Gonzalo
Pizarro, brother of the famous conqueror of the Incas, this vision
was more than he could bear.  So in 1540, setting off with 4,000
Indians, 200 horses, 3,000 swine, and packs of hunting dogs,
Pizarro breached the Eastern edge of the great jungle and began his
quest to find and pillage El Dorado and his land of the cinnamon
forests.
     Pizarro, of course, never did find the Golden King.  And after
throwing countless numbers of the hapless tribesmen he came across
to the ravenous hounds or roasting them on barbacoa when they
denied knowledge of the mythical city, he was forced to return to
Quito, Peru a beaten man.  He had not found treasure in the Amazon.
     Since that time, there have been many others who have
descended into the Emerald Forest.  But perhaps content with a
vision a bit less grandiose, these enterprising souls have found
riches abundant in the magnificent natural bounty of this exotic
land.
     In the Amazon rainforest, some of the richest ore bodies in
the world have been discovered.  Highly-prized woods such as teak,
mahogany, and rosewood can also be found.  Over the years, the
unique vegetation and growing conditions of the region has produced
a virtual pantry of sought-after goods ranging from medicines and
spices to a host of distinctively tropical products like rubber,
coffee, chocolate, and chewing gum.  And this does not even mention
the ecological cornucopia hidden beneath the dense green canopy of
tropical rainforests which are home to more than two-thirds of the
1.4 million species known to man.
     So yes, the Amazon does indeed hold a rich bounty.  But it is
certainly not the extent of its wealth alone that has recently made
the word “rainforest” a common term heard in schoolyards, living
rooms, and legislative halls around the world.  Rather, it is
pictures of the charred remains of once lush jungles and numbers
likened to one football field per second that have made the
rainforest, and the Amazon in particular, a topic of international
concern.
     Some environmentalists claim that with current rates of
destruction, tropical rainforests will all soon be gone, that
nearly half the species on planet earth will all soon be
extinguished, and that these areas must basically be put off limits
to all but a few tribesmen if we are to have any hope of saving
what they would call this Eden-like paradise.  But in an
emotionally-charged issue like the rainforest, getting to the truth
can prove almost as hard as finding the glittering city of the
ancient Golden King.


Football fields or not even enough
for a first down?
     “With the simple ax, the mighty chainsaw, and all-
     powerful fire…each year 28 million acres of tropical
     forest are destroyed…for crop production, fuelwood
     gathering, and cattle ranching.  Commercial timber
     harvesting degrades at least an additional 11 million.”
     Sandra Postel, Worldwatch Institute


     So is it 40 million acres per year as Postel suggests?  Well
that’s the number commonly bandied about, but some
environmentalists use slightly lower figures.  The World Resources
Institute says, “Every year, at least 27 million acres of tropical
forests are lost — an area the size of Pennsylvania, Ohio, or
Virginia.”  Others say more.
     Vice President Al Gore claims 51 million acres per year are
lost.  And one of the largest Green groups on this issue, the
Rainforest Action Network, says the number is 78 million acres per
year, or an area larger than all of Poland.
     Where do they get these figures?
     It turns out the central basis for the 40 million acres figure
comes from a Brazilian scientist who used a U.S. weather satellite
to count the number of fires burning in the Amazon at any one time
in 1988 (at the height of government-subsidized deforestation),
haphazardly guessed at the size of each, and then simply doubled
the number to come up with his worldwide total.
     However, according to the Heartland Institute, when two
American researchers took a more studious look in 1993,
painstakingly comparing overhead photos from 1978 and 1988 and
entering into a computer every tiny forest clearing, road, and
power-line right of way, they concluded the average annual rate of
loss was just 3.7 million acres, making the global rate just over
7 million, or one-fifth the widely accepted number.
     In gridiron terms, this means that if all the world’s
rainforests equalled one football field, even at the “rapid”
destruction rate of the late 1980’s (which many experts say won’t
continue since government subsidies have all but ended and there’s
currently no way to get into the deeper interior), we would lose
less than 3.6 inches per year, and it would take more than 500
years just to make it past midfield.
     So it’s little wonder that even the usually pessimistic
Worldwatch Institute went on the record as saying, “With nearly 90%
of its groves still standing…the Brazilian Amazon is relatively
untouched.”


Island hopping
     One cannot paddle his raft very far into a discussion about
rainforest loss without talking about the catastrophe this is
alleged to be having on the world’s species.  Environmental biologist Edward
O. Wilson claims as many as 50,000 species are being lost each year
and the widely-quoted Norman Myers maintains the world could “lose
one-quarter of all species by the year 2000.”  But again the
question must be asked, where do they get these figures?
     Myers himself openly admits “we have no way of knowing the
actual current rate of extinction in tropical forests, nor can we
even make an accurate guess.”
     So what the alarmed scientists do offer are merely predictions based
on a mathematical theory called the “species-area curve.”  This
theory, linked to the study of isolated islands, says that for
every 90% loss in area, the number of species that can live there
is cut in half.  The one little problem with this, though, is that
the real world has hardly operated according to the theory.
     To state the obvious, islands and continents have enormous
differences.  While islands are surrounded by water which is
usually pretty hostile to land species, terrestrial habitats are
surrounded by land, which can accommodate migrating species just a
bit more easily.
     No doubt this is why only three forest birds went extinct in
300 years in America, even though the virgin woodlands of the
eastern U.S. were hacked down to just a fraction of their original
area during that time (and for two of the birds, habitat loss
didn’t even play a major role).
     It’s also the likely reason a team of zoologists that combed
the Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil could not confirm a single
case of extinction, even though those forests have been cut to
about 12% of their original size.
     And even on the island of Puerto Rico where human activity
reduced the area of primary forest by 99%, the theory didn’t hold
true since only seven birds became extinct and the total number of
species actually increased from 60 at the time of Columbus to 97
today.


The new iron curtain
     “If people are to have better jobs and make enough
     money so that they may have better homes and food and
     clothes, Brazil must develop her resources and expand her
     industries.  Areas like the Amazon Valley, and much of
     the interior, must be fully explored.”
     From the 1961 book, “Let’s Visit Brazil”


     Throughout most of the human experience, the idea of
developing the natural resources of a land and thereby improving
the lives of its people was not even a point of debate.  Today,
however, instead of looking to a place like the rainforest to see
how it can wisely be used to benefit mankind, the prevailing
thought is to basically put an iron gate around the whole thing
with a big “Keep Out” sign clearly posted.
     Most assuredly, the grossly exaggerated numbers concerning
deforestation rates and its threat to species have been used to
lend credence to this notion.  But some advocates have sought to
further bolster a “hands-off” agenda by painting the rainforest
as an ancient natural paradise, virtually untouched and unspotted
by human hands until recent times, and as expressed in one Sierra
Club book, as a “fragile, non-renewable resource.”  Disturb it,
they say, and it’s simply gone forever.
     In reality, according to leading expert Dr. Nigel Smith of the
University of Florida, “One of the most persistent myths about
Amazonia is that it has long been a wilderness, virtually untouched
by humans until relatively recently.”  He points to evidence
showing populations of between one and seven million in Amazonia
around A.D. 1500 and concludes, “in spite of the development push
that began in the 1960’s, it seems unlikely that the area cleared
today is any larger than it was in 1500.”
     Since its often hard to find even remnants of these lost
tribes beneath the thick broad leaves of the Amazonian jungle, the
rainforest is apparently more resilient than many would think.
     Does this mean we should go in with bulldozers, axes, and
fires ablazing?  Obviously not.  Tropical rainforests are certainly
a valuable ecological entity.  But just as the U.S. and Europe have
been allowed to use significant portions of their land to meet the
needs of their people, so too must developing nations like Brazil
be given that same opportunity.  For in the end, with the
environmental conservation that comes with increased wealth, this
will likely prove what’s best for both man and nature.


November, 1996

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About the Author: CFACT

CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.