2

DESTRUCTION OF THE RAINFOREST: RATES OF LOSS

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), Doctor Faustus


2.1INTRODUCTION

The rainforests are under attack. These rich and complex ecosystems, which have survived millions of years of natural environmental change (indeed they have flourished through it), are now facing a fight for survival. The hands of people are inflicting more damage on the rainforests in a matter of years than the entire forces of nature have done over geological time-scales.

Norman Myers, an international expert on rainforests, pointed out early in 1990 that ‘at issue is the most exuberant expressions of nature that has ever graced the face of the planet during four billion years of evolution. Within just another 40 years at most, we may see the last remnants fall to the chainsaw and the matchbox.’ 1 The timetable is open to debate; that the fight for survival is on is not.


2.1aShrinking forests

We have already seen some evidence in Chapter 1 that today’s rainforests are shrunken remnants of much larger forests from the ancient past. These survivors represent the outcome of long periods of climatic change; they are natural distributions, in equilibrium with today’s climatic constraints in the tropics.

But even that picture reflects a theoretical distribution rather than an actual pattern of vegetation on the ground. The maps of world vegetation distribution (Figures 1.1 and 1.2), for example, show climatic climax vegetation—what should exist under prevailing climate, in the absence of damaging human activities, rather than what does exist. There is little doubt that many areas shown on the maps as rainforest no longer have natural forest cover, having been cleared for one reason or another.

-31-

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Tropical Rainforests
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Plates ix
  • Figures and Tables x
  • Acknowledgements xiii
  • 1 - The Tropical Rainforest: History and Environment 1
  • 2 - Destruction of the Rainforest: Rates of Loss 31
  • 3 - Causes and Processes of Clearance 43
  • 4 - Impacts and Costs of Destruction 81
  • 5 - Forest Peoples 104
  • 6 - Possible Solutions 126
  • Notes 163
  • References 172
  • Index 181
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