To mark the UN International Year of Forests, Fr Seán McDonagh lists some of the effects of wholescale destruction of tropical forests.
Why so much Destruction?
Many people have asked me, why have forests, particularly tropical forests, been wantonly and thoughtlessly exploited in recent decades? In my experience the primary reason is that all the actors involved in forests, management and exploitation from the loggers, to government officials and even national departments of the environment have viewed forests primarily as timber resources to be exploited to make money. Both the legal and illegal loggers have made phenomenal amounts of money from selling timber, particularly tropical hardwoods into markets right across the world.
The vast fortunes which they have accumulated have made it easy for them to bribe politicians, government officials and regulators to turn a blind eye to the fact that they often cut more trees than allowed in their licence and that few of them have ever fulfilled their obligations to reforest the area which they have exploited.
Consequences for Local Peoples
Another reason is that the people who have made fortunes destroying the forest do not live in or near the forests. They are not affected by the soil erosion, or flash floods which follow in the wake of removing the trees and forest cover. In recent years in the Philippines and other tropical countries where forests have been removed, flash floods and landslides have killed thousands of people and destroyed houses, roads, other infrastructure and ruined thousands of acres of farmland.
Those who destroy the forest are not affected when irrigation canals run dry because the forest vegetation can no longer act as a sponge to absorb water during the rainy season. The forests then secreted it into the rivers and irrigation canals during the dry season, so that farmers could sow and harvest their crops. Agriculturalists in tropical environments such as the Philippines estimate that to farm sustainably in such an environment requires that forests cover about 50% of the land area of the country. By 1998, the forest cover was less than 22.2% and the projection for 2010 was that it would further reduce to 6.6% unless effective remedial action was taken.
Effects on Marine Life
Loggers are also not affected by the impact of forest destruction on marine life. In the Philippines for example, deforestation is the primary reason why up to 70% of its coral reefs are now dead, or greatly impoverished. What happens is that typhoons and heavy monsoon rains carry the soils of the forest down the rivers and out into the bays and lagoons where the silt chokes and eventually kills the delicate coral polyps. Since corals act as a nursery and feeding grounds for young fish, the destruction of corals rapidly depletes rich fishing areas, which in turn impoverish poor people who depend on fish for their protein.
Those who destroyed the forests have no concern for, nor interest in, biodiversity. Biologists estimate that in about 6 hectares of tropical rainforest there are more species of trees than in all of Britain and Ireland. In its pristine state Philippine forests contained 20,000 species of plants and 13,000 species of flowering plants of which 3,500 are found only in the Philippines. In the Dipterocarp forests alone there are more than 3,000 species of trees. The destruction of the forest has endangered thousands of other species. These include multiple species of mosses, fungi, epiphytes, algae, reptiles, mammals and 900 species and subspecies of birds, including the renowned Philippine eagle.
All of that biological wealth has been squandered, abused and wantonly destroyed to satisfy the greed of a few very rich people. In ecosystems such as rainforests, one species is linked to a variety of other species through dynamic, interdependent, cooperative and symbiotic relationships. Studies have shown that the survival of each species is vital for the integrity of the rainforest. It is estimated that the extinction of one species can, over time, lead to the extinction of 16 other species. Mainly as a result of the destruction of rainforests across the globe, the earth is now experiences the sixth greatest extinction spasm since life began 3.7 billion years ago. The culprit, one species – homo sapiens.
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