For My Birthday, All I Want Is a Healthy Forest
By Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue, Greenpeace Africa
When I think of the forest, I remember playing in it. We would build huts of sticks and moss, and vehicles from bamboo trees. Getting lost in the forest was a real adventure. We used to turn the forest into a navigation game. We could get a sense of orientation without a compass or a GPS.
My family lived in a forest area in the central region of Cameroon. I have known the forest ever since I was a child. My birthday is on the 21st of March — the international day of forests — so I feel uniquely connected to forests.
Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue, in the rainforest in the south region of Cameroon, 2017. Greenpeace Africa
I would go with my brothers, sisters and our friends into the nearby forest to collect seasonal fruits off the trees (bush mango, oranges, lemons). We would collect traditional medicinal herbs and scrape the tree barks with our grandma to treat our stomach aches, especially after eating too much of those fruits.
Playing and jumping in the bushes, looking for food and building materials, these were some of our favorite moments as children in Cameroon. The forest served me with free therapy sessions. When I was sad or needed to reflect, I used to go and rest under a tree. Alone, I could enjoy the shadow created by the branches. Listening to the squirrels' feet clambering in the trees or the birds singing, chirping, croaking and shrilling, it was a peaceful treatment for my mind.
Life seemed so simple then. We had a place where we found ourselves connected. The air was pure and fresh and we did not know many of the diseases we do now. The tranquil environment in the forest was reflected in the unity of our communities. There were hardly any conflicts over land and when they occurred they were solved peacefully around a fresh cup of palm wine.
But now I've witnessed the consequences of forest destruction for industrial agricultural plantations growing crops, rubber or palm oil or monoculture tree plantations. Seasons rapidly began changing from cold to very hot. Children were killed by speeding trucks carrying timber. Natural treasures were being plundered as resources for the selfish interests of a small group of people.
The humid rainforest has gone dry in many areas after intense logging, and the rich life that had been there has now turned into a story of displaced communities and fleeing wildlife.
When I walked in the forest today, as I try to do on every one of my birthdays, I recalled how it was during my childhood. I thought, why are they cutting down so much of the forest and what is the benefit of it for the people living here?
This is not unique to my country. Everywhere around the world the promise of "development" through logging has never served the people who live there. Only a handful of foreign companies and well-connected insiders are getting wealthier. Are they aware of the climate crisis? Did the loggers ever go through experiences in the forest that were similar to mine? What can we learn from Indigenous and local communities, who have been the natural guardians of the forest for so many years? What richness of knowledge is at risk of being lost, as I've seen them cast out of their homes? And what role do they ever get in the debate around the climate and biodiversity crises?
Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue, in the Baka house in the south region of Cameroon, 2019. Greenpeace Africa
Joining the fight through the forest campaign of Greenpeace Africa six years ago gave me an opportunity to defend my forest and stand for the rights of the people living here. Working with communities and learning to see the forest through their eyes, hearing their cry the forest is destroyed in the name of "development," makes me more eager to continue to stand with them and for their rights.
Here in Cameroon, many of the plantations that have replaced our natural forests are in fact tree monocultures. But not everyone understands the difference between a tree monoculture plantation and a natural forest. Even some governments. By replacing natural forests with monoculture tree plantations, not only are human communities and endangered species put at risk, but enormous stocks of carbon are released into the air.
Carbon is mostly stored in the thick stems and deep roots of trees that are hundreds of years old. Planting new trees to replace ancient forests is not a solution. It just serves to greenwash the conscience of executives in oil and gas companies, declaring one trillion trees will be planted and "offsetting" CO2 emissions from extractive industries with artificial forests is part of the problem. Planting trees with one hand, while the other one is pumping oil out of the ground is like putting a band-aid on an arm that has been dismembered.
Only a natural forest can be home to rich biodiversity, including rapidly disappearing medicinal plants. Only a natural forest can be a home to Indigenous and local forest communities. The solution requires acknowledging their unique role in good management of forests and recognizing their rights over their land. Give them back the forest. Ensure their participation and inclusion in all policies.
Seeing the scale of forest destruction in my land and understanding the risks for the entire planet, celebrating my birthday has become more difficult in recent years. I hope that this time around, my cry as someone who always loves to visit the forest — along with the cries of Indigenous and local communities who must live in the forest — will be heard by many more of you. That would be the perfect gift for my birthday. It would help bring a smile to my face and to so many more.
Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue is a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, based in Yaounde, Cameroon.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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