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World's forests in dire need of protection

Source:  Copyright 2008, Sunday Independent
Date:  February 3, 2008
Byline:  Johann Hari
Original URL: Status DEAD

While we have fixated on our little local worries over the past week, the biggest news story of the year passed unnoticed in the night.

The Brazilian government was forced to admit that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has returned to ecocidal levels. An area the size of Belgium, which took thousands of years to evolve, was destroyed in the past year alone.

About 20 percent of the forest has now been trashed, with a further 40 percent set to be slashed in my lifetime. This is steadily happening to all Earth's rainforests.

The rainforests - with the Amazon by far the largest - are the planet's air conditioner. They suck up millions of tons of greenhouse gases and store them safely out of the atmosphere. But, as we hack them down, they are releasing these warming gases. Soon, we will reach a point where there is so much carbon in the atmosphere that the system will pack in and stop extracting anything at all.

Comforting though it would be, this is not a story about Those Incompetent Foreigners, unable to look after the world's forests. The destruction of the Amazon is being pushed and promoted by westerners, through both our consumer choices and our tax money.

The fragile Amazon ecosystem is trapped today in a pincer movement: it is simultaneously being cut down and heated up. Let's start with the cutting. Logging by vast agribusinesses has increased to clear space to produce products for Europe and the United States. The biggest slash-and-burn growth industry in Amazonia today is soya production - half of which is shipped to Europe to feed the animals we are going to milk and eat.

Logging is also carried out for a range of other rich-world wants. There are currently no legal restrictions in Britain or the US on selling illegal timber pillaged from the Amazon.

And logging doesn't only trash the trees it chops down and ships off; it also makes the trees it leaves behind much more vulnerable to fire. Until a few decades ago, scientists thought it was impossible for such humid tropical rainforests to burn. But it turns out chopping down trees breaks the dense carapace of leaves that covers the forest, allowing sunlight to break through. This dries out the leaf litter that lies on the floor - turning it into tinder.

These slashed-back forests are then being exposed to unnaturally high temperatures, caused by man-made global warming.

But you and I do not only wreck the rainforests through our buying power - in the Congo, I saw the second-largest rainforest on Earth beginning to be consumed.

The World Bank's own leaked internal investigation admitted it had encouraged vast multinational logging companies to move in and cause "irreversible damage".

Robert Goodland, who worked in a senior position at the Bank for 23 years, argues that the destruction of the Amazon has been "aided and encouraged by the Bank", because its focus is "on helping multinationals extract oil, gas and other resources from developing countries".

So how do you and I stop being part of the problem, and become part of the solution? There are some easy personal choices: cut back or cut out meat, check all the timber you buy.

But time is short, so we need a much more ambitious approach than that. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who controls 60 percent of the Amazon, has been admirably blunt with the world. He gives us two choices. If you want to prevent us from doing with our rainforests what you did with yours, you need to make it worth Brazil's while: pay us to do it, now.

He's right. In our own self-defence, the developed countries need to set up a fund - as ambitious as the Marshall Plan - to preserve the remaining rainforests, and thereby prevent drastic destabilisation of our climate.

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