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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

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B1 US palm oil palm oil forest rainforest deforestation

How to Actually Save the Rainforest

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/09
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