Rebuilding A Rainforest

A current hot topic, in the right circles, is the mass deforestation occurring in Borneo. Borneo is an island about 287,000 miles so why is it a hot topic when the Amazon is over 2 million miles and has lost a size of its forest greater than the size of Borneo? Borneo has 2 things that corporations and people are concerned with, palm oil plantations and Orangutans, respectively. Palm oil plantations have quickly encroached on the last bits of natural Rainforest and thus the small territory of the Orangutans on the island. This has lead to an increase in hunting Orangutans and killing those that find themselves on the palm oil plantations. The Orangutan is endemic to Borneo and is on the endangered species list (IUCN Redlist, 2008), they are the largest arboreal mammals found on earth and are a charismatic flagship species that is the original keystone species for the island and may help restore the Borneo Rainforest.

“No. No. No. Wrong. It’s horrible. It’s a proof of our failing to save them in the wild. It’s not good. This is merely proof of everyone failing to do the right thing. Having more than all the orangutans in all the zoos in the world together, just now like victims for every baby, six have disappeared from the forest.”

Willie Smits recieved his PhD in Forestry and Microbiology from Wageningen University (The Netherlands), he has focused much of his life on conservation, primarily focusing on the restoration and conservation of Orangutans and their habitats. He was awarded in 1998 with the first non-Indonesian Satya Lencana Pembangunan Award, which is the equivalent of being Knighted in the Netherlands. He is one of the foremost people in the field for conservative measures in Borneo, his recipe for rebuilding a rainforest is highly complex but its yield was astounding.

His recipe for rebuilding the rainforest was not some plug and chug effort, Smits ensured that the process went by at a rate that kept the locals employed and invested in the project. His focus on not only helping the Orangutans but helping their environment and the locals too made his system a high functioning one. This slow moving system is a multi-layered one where every step has a pay out for the people and the environment. By planting fast fruiting plants (like pineapples) it gives the locals a product to sell, it reduces competition between trees by spacing them out, it provides food for the Orangutans, helps fertilize the soil, and speeds up regeneration of the forest. Every step of his recipe works this way, all functioning together helping the people and forest at the present and in the future.

“… there are all these animals, and all these people happy, and there’s this economic value.”

Smits’ recipe for restoring the rainforest brings some many ideals together, not only is it helping bring Borneo back to its natural state, providing refuge for an endangered species, and income for the locals, but it has improved the climate. They increased rainfall, cloud coverage, and increased the air humidity, proof that with hard work we can make a difference in the fight against climate change. Now, if we could implement this same process around the world in areas that have suffered due to deforestation we could establish a healthier global climate. Rainforests are key for global health, their ability to work as rain factories, and provide income for locals is worth far more than the timber and land are worth. Rainforests are an investment that will payout throughout their lives, they are an investment we need to back before it is too late.

For a better idea on how Smits’ program benefits the locals watch this video on his Village Hub.

The Economic Invisibility of Nature

In our current society we often focus on the benefits of doing something, the money we can make from tearing down rain forests, filling in wetlands so we can create more housing, killing the dandelions in our yard to keep the grass looking green and uniform. Even when we do bring up the damage we are doing to the environment we focus on such a small portion of the problem that we cannot convince people of the need for reform. Money talks, money makes decisions, money controls how we are going to behave, “Economics are the currency of policy” (Pavan Sukhdev).  So why do we only look at half of the equation? Potential profit for a private party? Where do we account for the loss of the economical input of ecosystem services? Too often we glance over this multi-billion dollar industry, and forget how much the world depends on ecosystem health. From fisheries to the rain factory that is the Amazon, our world is dependent on ecosystem services and without such services quality of life would rapidly diminish.

“…one basic problem…our inability to perceive the difference between public benefits and private profits.”

Pavan Sukhdev is a markets professional with a long career as an international banker, attending several Universities (Collège du Léman, Switzerland. Dover College, USA. University of Oxford, UK.), his is a chairmen on several global conservation boards. In this TED Talk,presents the idea of nature and ecosystem services monetary value. Putting a dollar sign on services like insect pollination, rain production, and the production of new medicine; it is a multi billion dollar service that society never pays for. No country reimburses the Amazon for its work as a rain factory, or insects for their role in the production of fruits and flowers. Sukhdev made a very important point in this talk that these ecosystem services affect the poor on a much higher scale than it does any other population, often it is the lower class depending on rain for crops and fishing as a source of income and food. The poor populations of the world are a voice that is muffled by big businesses looking for their potential profit, often claiming that it is more economical to let them turn a natural resource into a new source of income that could supply jobs and new resources. These companies often overlook (possibly on accident) what the natural system supplies, often the the potential profit for the private party is diminutive  in comparison to the monetary value of the natural resource and its potential services.

The ideas that Sukhdev presented in this TED Talk have often been things that weighed in the back of my mind, but I never truly heard of a numeric value put to any ecosystem service outside of the billion dollar pollination process that bees provide. It is vital for society to stop viewing private party profits as more important than public wealth, we cannot continue to tear apart the natural world attempting to force profit, we are in a deficit and sooner or later we will bottom out and have to pay our debt. Sukhdev made the point that we only focus on areas in the ocean that have  above 450 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 and an increase in temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is not sustainable for the warm water coral reefs and 25% of the marine fish in the world to survive in conditions above 35o ppm of CO2 and increases in water temperatures above 1.5 degrees. Effectively, this endangers the lives and livelihood of 500 million people in the world, all of which reside in poor countries and rely on these fish for food and income.

We’ve actually kind of made an ethical choice in society to not have coral reefs.” 

Natural  resources are worth far more than what scrapping them for their raw materials, nature is full of ongoing processes and services that are vital to the function of he world as a whole. We are a closed system, every thing we do will cause an effect which is not limited to just the system at hand. We have found traces of pollutants in what is believed to be one of the most isolated and pristine locations in the world, the Galapagos Islands where there have been traces of PCBs (can cause endocrine disruption) in the blubber of Sea Lion pups (Alava et. al., 2009). Furthermore, global distillation is leading to various pollutants to be found in isolated areas and the locals that live there, the marine food chain that Inuit populations rely on have become contaminated with anthropogenic contaminants (DDT, heavy metals, PCBs, etc.). These contaminants have biomagnified through the trophic levels making top predators and other mid-level species that Inuits rely on for food have high levels of contamination, putting the local populations at risk (Bard, 1999). I feel that it is our job to recognize that private party profit is not nearly as beneficial as the ecosystem services that nature provides for our society. We as a society keep borrowing more and more from nature, before too long we will have to pay our debts.