Halting the disappearance of the rainforest
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CTA. 1991. Halting the disappearance of the rainforest. Spore 34. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Halting the disappearance of the rainforest - Africa takes the initiative
The forest is not a legacy from our forefathers - it's something we hand down in trust to our children. 'Many African countries are now trying out various means of halting the destruction of the vast expanses of dense forest which forms an invaluable and irreplaceable heritage. Structured and sensible management would enable the forest to serve many needs. Each year eight million hectares of dense rainforest, nearly the equivalent of a country the size of Benin, succumb to the chainsaw and machetes of developers and farmers in search of more land. At that rate half the skill remaining tropical rainforests will have disappeared by the end of the century. Fortunately, many tropical countries have now become more aware of this impending ecological and economic catastrophe. For a decade now conference after conference has sought ways to reverse the process of deforestation. The challenge that must be faced is to preserve an ecosystem which, although changed, is still immensely rich biologically, at the same time as producing wood and other commodities on a long-term basis. The means employed will vary from country to country, according to the characteristics of the forest, but all geared to the same result: marrying the requirements of production to those of conservation. Planting can reduce destruction Many African countries, for example the Congo, Cameroon and Zaire have already lost a large proportion of their forest wealth. In others, the entire forest mass has gone, and in these it is too late for protection or natural regeneration measures. Planting alone can replace the desired trees. But this method is limited in its effectiveness, and used only as a last resort. In the past, tree plantations were common, established by colonialists as a matter of policy in order to replenish wood stocks. They chose the best sites near ports, roads and large towns. 'In economic terms, these plantations were not a bad thing: they replaced scattered forest areas with plots which were both accessible and within certain geographical limits,' explains Rene Catinot, an international consultant. 'They were highly productive although they could not cover the entire surface area of the forest which had been destroyed elsewhere. But, a selectively cultivated and well-maintained forest produces eight to ten times more wood than wild forest and so foresters needed to plant only one hectare for every ten hectares felled.' This in a way accounts for the disappearance of forests in many countries. Only a tenth has been replanted, the rest of the area has been occupied by peasant farmers in search of new land to cultivate. But after years producing cassava, yams and taro, the land becomes barren, and the itinerant farmers move on, leaving land that can no longer sustain trees. All that is left of a once luxuriant and dense forest are patches of exhausted infertile land, prone to erosion. The objective of conservationists today is to preserve the tropical rainforest in its original state. This forest is exceptionally rich, supporting more than a hundred different tree species per hectare, compared to the 10-15 in temperate forests. Botanists emphasize the importance of this heritage, and some of the component species which make it up have yet to be catalogued. Similarly sociologists and economists endeavour to demonstrate the indispensability of the forest's secondary products: rattan, gum, resin, oils, bamboo, perfume, spices, medicines and pesticides. In some instances secondary products are more important than timber. Exploitation for conservation Given the current population explosion, a 'hands-off' policy of leaving the dense tropical forest to regenerate itself is not a viable option. 'That would be a mistake,' emphasizes Jean Esteve, a scientist with the Centre Technique Forestier Tropical. 'There are certain areas, which could be classified Plantations are no substitute for natural forest in order to preserve the forest heritage, but outside these the forest must be developed if we wish to save it, but this must be don' carefully.' Among the arguments for exploiting the forests, is that when the forest is thinner it i revitalized and becomes more vigorous Furthermore, a forest with financial interest is likely to be better protected against incur signs from farmers. Wild, untended fores is more likely to be ravaged by local inhabitants in search of agricultural land If, however, felled forest is replanted the local people can enjoy immense and sustainable resources of wood, animals medicines and fruit. Furthermore, fores management carried out on a regular basis gives the population long-tern employment. What better reasons for forest dwellers to defend it and to participate spontaneously in its conservation. Even if forests are felled heavily, they can still be regenerated as long as they are no let fallow indiscriminately or become subjected to itinerant farmers. This is why i is so vital to develop management practice which will generate income from the wood without destroying the forest. In line with the Tropical Forest Action Plan's guideline the Central African Republic has put into effect one of the most original management techniques evolved by scientists: the use of poison. The method involves artificial intervention in the process of natural selection (the 'law of the jungle') whereby trees of potential value, compete for space, water and light with those of limited economic use. Workers of the Office National de Forets (ONF) select potentially useful specimens from the virgin forest, and give them a helping hand by killing off some of the competitors with chemical arboricides. Thus the less useful trees die upright, allowing the others space for rapid growth. The ONF then adopts the stockman's technique of 'fattening up the good trees' for exploitation. The results of an experiment on 500ha of forest in Lobaya, in the south of Central African Republic, seem promising, and it will be extended to other regions and countries. Togo invests in a variety of methods Togo's forest is under extreme threat, disappearing at a rate of 12,000ha per year, and the authorities have undertaken several measures to combat this process which, if left unchecked, would destroy the entire forest area in the next 50 years. Their first step was to import timber, which is scarce in Togo, from Ghana, Benin and Nigeria to relieve the pressure on their own forests. The next step was large-scale plantation of eucalyptus for timber and fuelwood near the large coastal urban centres. The Amenagement Forestier et Reboisement Industriel (Forest management and industrial reforestation (AFRI) project, launched in 1982, now covers an area of 10,000ha about 50km north of Lome. Every four years the wood is cut and sold to charcoal burners or carpenters. The tree stump develops shoots which, another four years on, produce new trees. This 'coppicing' continues for four cycles permitting this type of 'artificial' forest to remain in production for 20 years before replanting is necessary. At the same time Togo is creating listed forest parks which are protected by law, although cases of contravening of these laws are numerous despite a total ban on felling in these zones. Finally, the Rivers and Forests authorities are moving towards tax exemptions for private businesses which replant for commercial and industrial purposes. The aim of this is to encourage landowners to invest in wood as a perennial growth industry and the Plateaux region already has large privately-owned teak plantations. So, the often-opposed interests of profit and conservation can work together if encouraged by this sort of fiscal policy. Forest demarcation is - the way of the future Despite these small glimmers of hope in the task of conserving the forest, destruction forges ahead at an alarming rate. 'The tropical rainforest has been disappearing for years now, and during these years scientists and technologists have been working on forestry conservation techniques. But things are not improving. So what now?' asked UNESCO's Malcolm Hadley at a tropical rainforest workshop in Cayenne in 1990. Many rainforests could be managed productively, and the techniques to do this are technically and economically viable. In other words, the tools to do the job may not yet be perfect, but they exist. 'Research alone won't save the forest unless at some point the findings are applied, and that depends on political decisions,' was the opinion of John Palmer of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO). Political pressure will often stop a country from enforcing legislation: in Senegal or Cote d'lvoire the authorities endorse the clearance of classified forest for firewood or agriculture. There are those who believe that a halt to this accelerated destruction of the tropical rainforest will come neither from the forest itself nor from the forest-dwellers. The most damage is caused by the slash-and burn itinerant farmers, who would fell trees for the sake of growing a handful of food, and outdo the woodcutters in their rush to sell firewood. Development alone will not solve this problem, and the only way of reducing the enormous pressure on the available land is to intensify agriculture. In the end, management is the answer. Forestry zones must be demarcated, and each one must fulfil a specific objective: classified forest must preserve the genetic variety; there must be timber forest for industrial use; zones for village needs; and plantations of trees compatible with agriculture practices. But all this effort will be worth nothing unless the forest conservation is shown to be a viable prospect for the people who live there. Saving the forest is everyone's responsibility, and this will only happen if the forest-dwellers are made to understand the need to protect their environment.
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