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Q&A: “On the Edge – The State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests”


Last week a milestone book was published discussing the past, present and future of tropical forests. ‘On the Edge’ is a report to the Club of Rome, and a reminder of how far the world has come and yet how far we have still to go to safeguard the rainforests and the benefits they provide. I spoke to the author and former head of WWF, Claude Martin, about the book and what he discovered.

Orang utan high in tree of rainforest canopy, (Pongo abelii) Leuser NP, Indonesia © naturepl.com / Anup Shah / WWFOrang utan high in tree of rainforest canopy, (Pongo abelii) Leuser NP, Indonesia © naturepl.com / Anup Shah / WWF

WAC: Could you explain the original idea behind the book, and why now is an important time to do it?

CM: A few years ago, the Club of Rome published a new book following up from its 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ report and called it ‘2052 – a global forecast for the next forty years.’ In that book, the question of the future of the world’s forests arose but it needed more than the available three pages to answer! So the idea for this book, ‘On the Edge’ emerged then.

I strongly believe that the world is letting the chance to safeguard its forests slip through its hands. In particular, the international policy discussions around forests increasingly think of them only in terms of carbon sinks, which misses the bigger picture. People are looking at REDD+ – a concept where forest nations are financially rewarded for reducing emissions from their forests by wealthier countries – to solve the problem. But it wont do it on its own. There are not enough strong alliances across sectors – science, business, civil society etc. – to solve the problem.

WAC: What is the most important message you would like people to take away from the book?

CM: The world still has an area of untouched, primary forests equivalent to the size of Australia. If that forest is lost we can be sure we will be in the sixth mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth. Not to ignore the possibilities of reforestation and restoration of secondary, disturbed forests – which is important – but primary forests are being lost at a much faster rate than secondary forests.

There is a tendency now to think that if only we could curb deforestation then we could suck up one third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the threat of climate change. But the opposite is also true. Climate change affects tropical moist forests and threatens them in itself. In other words, forests are not just a way to reduce emissions, they are also a reason to do reduce emissions from other sources. Places like the Amazon rainforest could switch from a net sink to a net source of emissions if atmospheric CO2 emissions continue to rise. The world community has not fully realised this yet.

WAC: You’ve worked in this field for many years. Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching the content for the book?

CM: Yes, the wealth of scientific information that was available. Much of this comes from new fields, including satellite imagery. And particularly in the area of climatology. But this often remains in its specialist circles rather than being synthesized and shared widely.

This book is an effort to do that – to bring the many strands together and make them digestible. Such a synthesis should be done on a regular basis. This could help create the stronger alliances we need across all sectors. For example, ARPA (a long term financing agreement for protected areas in the Amazon rainforest) was possible because there were strong coalitions between governments, multilateral and bilateral organisations, including NGOs like WWF.

WAC: In the book, you explore illegal and unsustainable logging as a driver of deforestation, or more significantly, of degradation. You also explore some of the solutions, like the laws brought in by the EU and others to block illegal timber and independent certification schemes. WWF-UK is currently leading a campaign to ensure the UK timber market is 100% legal and sustainable by 2020. What do you think could be done to further incentivise the market to source 100% sustainable products?

CM: There have been big hopes fostered by the creation of FLEGT, which is a partnership to support improved forest law enforcement and governance at the production end of supply chains in forest nations. But its not entirely effective yet. On the other hand, the EU Timber Regulation and the US Lacey Act haven’t been fully effective either yet, at the demand end. So we cant rely on them to do the job alone.

Transparency is essential as a further incentive. For example, the Chatham House reports exposing illegal logging in Indonesia and disclosing information about what is happening in forests there. Driving corporate responsibility in the logging sector can be less effective because the companies are often smaller and less well known, compare to the palm oil and soy sectors. So such action is needed to achieve change.

WAC: In your book, you used new NASA data on deforestation and explored what climate change could mean for forests in the future. Could you summarise what you found?

CN: As I mentioned earlier, we need to realise forests are vulnerable to climate change. To make them more resilient to this threat we need to avoid any sort of fragmentation of forests, which makes them particularly vulnerable. Some research – particularly by the University of Leeds – has shown the emerging impact that higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations can have on the Amazon. But by studying historical forest changes in previous major changes to Earth’s climate, we can see the potential vulnerability of African forests too – which are generally drier and therefore more fire prone and vulnerable to shocks.

WAC: And what, if anything, gives you cause for optimism?

CM: In a word, Brazil. And their significant achievements in reducing deforestation in the last 10 years. They have had such success due to the combination of a range of factors: pressure from NGOs; the exposure of corporates and the leverage of ‘reputational risk’;  government becoming increasingly concerned and introducing new policies and regulations; and the use of latest technology to monitor what was happening in the Amazon basin.

This case shows how you can reverse the trend of deforestation on a grand scale. But there are risks on the horizon in Brazil again, for example a proposed new mining law is likely to be passed allowing extractive operations in protected areas like the national parks.

WAC: And, finally what next for you after this book?

CM: I’ve visited many tropical forests over the years, but after writing this book I want to see some more!

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