Worried About Biodiversity? End Industrial Activity in the Rainforest
By Lamfu Fabrice Yengong and Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue
Biodiversity loss is a global crisis. In May last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that over 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction worldwide. On May 22, the International Day of Biodiversity, it is important to recall the silent victims of our country's obsession for industrial growth at the expense of our forests.
Tropical rainforests are estimated to harbor more than half of the world's plant and animal species. They are also essential for access to water, regulating temperature and preventing soil erosion. It's time to return the forests to indigenous and local communities.
In our country, Cameroon, the conservation of biodiversity, global climate goals and human rights of indigenous and local communities are all put at stake for industrial exploitation of the rainforest, driven by short-sighted thinking. Biodiversity hotspots are put at risk by industrial logging and agriculture, as trees are cut for the tropical timber market and entire forests cleared to make room for oil palm and rubber plantations. The government tries to assure conservationists that some space will be reserved for the wildlife in the forest it trashes, but even protected areas are not truly safe.
Companies, usually foreign-owned, are rapidly destroying rainforests that have existed for years. Local communities are left poorer after their traditional source of livelihood is desecrated. The only ones getting rich are a small group of beneficiaries that are close to the circles of power.
Some low-income countries that are rich in forests are resorting to quick solutions like logging and industrial agriculture. But industrial logging concessions and rubber and palm oil plantations are never the job-creating mechanism they promise to be. That has been demonstrated over and over again in forest countries around the world.
For example, the Dja Faunal Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site in the South of Cameroon, is home to more than 100 species of mammals, including at least 14 primates, such as the endangered western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, and white-collared mangabey, as well as species such as the endangered forest elephant, and the African grey parrot, bongo antelope and leopard.
The Dja Faunal Reserve is adjacent to the Sudcam rubber plantation, mainly owned by rubber giant Halcyon Agri. Sudcam has cleared more than 10,000 hectares (approximately 25,000 acres) of dense tropical rainforest in the South region of Cameroon – an equivalent of 10 football pitches a day – to make way for a rubber plantation between 2011 and 2018. The rubber plantation has rattled the lives of several indigenous communities, namely the Baka, but it has also aggravated the lives of those numerous protected species in the Dja Reserve.
To indigenous and local forest dependent communities, the rainforest serves as a source of nutritious foods and traditional medicine, much of which science has yet to explore. The forest is also the foundation of their social life, from recreational to ritual practices. Furthermore, biodiversity loss itself is a direct and immediate threat to the livelihood of indigenous peoples like the Baka next to the Sudcam plantation.
Upon the arrival of rubber company Sudcam, the indigenous community has lost access to its forest and specifically to the animals and plants they rely on. As Sudcam gets richer, it leaves entire communities in impoverishment, abjectness and destitution.
That is the fate which the chiefs of the Banen people of the Littoral region in Cameroon are trying to avoid in their current struggle against the destruction of large parts of the Ebo forest.
The Ebo Forest is a biodiversity hotspot, one of the intact forest ecosystems in the Gulf of Guinea, stretching over 2000 square kilometers (approximately 772 square miles). Ebo Forest is home to an amazing range of wildlife, including forest elephants, gorillas, drills, chimpanzees, grey parrots and the goliath frog – the largest living frog on the planet. Accordingly, it was designated over a decade ago by the Cameroon Government as a National Park.
However, on February 4, the same government of Cameroon authorized two logging concessions (UFA07005 and UFA07006) inside the area of Ebo Forest. The planned concessions are enormous – about the size of London. Again, the government of Cameroon wants to convince us that conservation can be done with chainsaws.
Biodiversity loss doesn't only mean our children would get to see some of the world's most marvelous creatures only in documentary films. The consequences are far greater and more tangible.
The extinction of forest elephants, for example, small relatives of African Savanna elephants, might also reduce the number of large trees that they support, trees that excel at storing carbon. In the Congo Basin forest, the disappearance of forest elephants might mean a loss of about three billion tons of carbon – equivalent to France's CO2 emissions over more than 25 years, according to a New York Times article on recent research published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Cameroon's government has made public commitments to preserve and protect biodiversity. Positive declarations and ambitious plans may win applause and some international funding, but all eyes should be on implementation. Field investigations by Greenpeace Africa and others clearly show how far we are from protecting biodiversity.
In Cameroon's government, as well as in the meeting rooms and corridors of development agencies, decision makers often hold outdated views. Too often we hear that only through rapid and massive removal of the rainforest in favor of large-scale logging and industrial agriculture plantations can the country emerge out of poverty.
Yet that model has repeatedly failed the people, as short-term high profits always remained accessible only to a small circle of beneficiaries. On the contrary, local communities who have lived in harmony with nature for many generations are likely to face poverty, abuse, hunger and alcoholism wherever forests are suddenly destroyed. It is becoming increasingly clear that the best solution for both human rights and the planet is for forests to be managed by local communities. They do so much better than the industrial loggers or plantation owners.
The Cameroonian government needs to realize that trashing forests is not the way to make the economy grow. Rapid and intensive exploitation of nature has more far-reaching consequences than short-term economic growth. To prevent the extinction of fauna and flora species, indigenous communities that live among them need the rights to manage their forest.
Standing for biodiversity means communities should get the rights to manage their forests, instead of the corporations that destroy them.
Lamfu Fabrice Yengong is a Congo Basin researcher.
Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue is a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Africa.
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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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