Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Greenwatch: Red Alert for the Earth's Green Belt

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Greenwatch: Red Alert for the Earth's Green Belt

Article excerpt

"TROPICAL forest" is the common name for what specialists call "rainforest", a term coined in 1898 by the botanist Andreas Schimper to designate forests that grow in a perpetually humid environment, receiving more than 2,000 millimetres of rain per year. In these conditions trees with smooth trunks can grow to more than sixty metres high. Their tops join together in what is known as the canopy, a roof of thick vegetation that keeps out the light.

Like a scarf girdling the equator, rainforests cover about 9.5 million square kilometres. The largest single tropical forest zone is in South America. Only five million square kilometres of rainforest now exist in tropical Asia and central Africa. A report published by UNESCO in 1991 reveals that Cote d'Ivoire has lost 75 per cent of its forest since 1960, and Ghana 80 per cent. In 25 years the Philippines have lost 15 out of 16 million hectares. By the year 2000 the forests of Viet Nam may well be no more than a fond memory. As British ecologist Edward Goldsmith noted in his Report on Planet Earth, published in 1990, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in the early 1980s that 100,000 square kilometres of rain forest were being lost each year. The American Academy of Sciences was far more pessimistic, deploring the loss of twice that area. The situation in Brazil seems to support the Academy's claim, since Brazil lost 48,000 square kilometres in 1988 alone.

Lowland forests, by far the biggest and the most easily accessible, have suffered most from human exploitation. Although less developed because of lower temperatures, rainfall variability and poorer soil, highland forests still play a very important role in preventing soil erosion and lowland flooding. Mangroves are a kind of rainforest growing in the salt-water and silt-rich coastal regions and along the banks of rivers flowing through forests. The mangrove forests in the Sundarbans region of the Ganges delta are the world's largest.


Although they cover only 7 per cent of the earth's surface, rainforests are the home of more than half of the planet's plant species. With massive media support, international organizations are rightly insisting on the need to preserve biodiversity, which is threatened from all sides, most notably by competition from agriculture. Again according to FAO, some 250 million farmers live in rain-forests around the world. In search of land for crop-growing and livestock-raising, they occupy forest areas owned by the state, which is often unable to control access to it. These farmers have no recognized right to the areas they occupy. Alain Karsenty and Henri-Felix Maitre of the forestry department of France's Centre for International Co-operation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) in a report to the XIth Directorate of the Commission of the European Communities published in 1993 stress that "recognition of property rights (not necessarily in the Western sense of the term 'property') for local communities is one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for joint management of the forest with those who live in it."

Peoples who have lived for a long period in these zones are well adapted to their environment, but this is not the case with the new arrivals who grow cash crops such as cocoa and coffee. They follow the roads and trails gouged out by the loggers, thereby infiltrating the dense forest where, mainly by using fire, they create "frontiers" which push back the forest. "This interrelationship between exploitation and agricultural colonization," says Alain Karsenty, "makes it difficult to apportion the responsibility borne by each activity in deforestation processes."

Edward Goldsmith has no time for those who condemn farmers for clearing land by fire, for this process has always been used, even in Europe. Its disadvantages become apparent when the population grows and the land is not left fallow for long enough, thus preventing the forest from regenerating itself between two burnings. …

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