Conservation: What is it and how does it impact rainforests?
Conservation is one of the primary buzzwords in the environmental movement. However, what does conservation really mean in the sense of environmental protection?
In short, conservation means the human inclination to defend any or all individual species, habitats, ecosystems, biodiversity, and landscapes. All these hierarchical levels of existence are intertwined and related. Minor disruptions at any level can affect the larger scope of the environment as a whole.
Conservation is about humans adopting a land ethic and a sense of responsibility and stewardship towards the Earth to promote sustainability. Healthy and stable environmental systems are self-regulating and sustainable, where biological functions of life, death, and rebirth occur unimpeded.
Conservation and protection efforts to maintain and stabilise the world’s rainforests and other ecosystems are a constant struggle. There is a very thin line between conservation, protection, and economics. According to Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, American conservation in the early 1900s was considered “planned and efficient progress” and in Europe, it was “sustainable exploitation.”
Preservation efforts attempt to prevent all access and usage of natural resources in a given area. It is a completely different philosophy than conservation, which promotes renewal and sustainable uses.
In the global environmental community, the world’s rainforests are at the forefront of conservation and protection issues. There are many threats and forces working to disrupt the ecological balance of the rainforests.
The rainforests, which in the past were often described as ‘jungles,’ are at constant risk. One of the greatest threats to the rainforests is “slash and burn” agricultural practices, which destroy millions of hectares of rainforest per year. Trees are cut down and burned to clear land for relatively short-term agriculture production.
Relatively very small amounts of nutrients are in the rainforest soils compared to soils in eastern United States deciduous forests. Most of the rainforest nutrients are sequestered in the flora (plants), not in the soils.
As a result, slash and burn agricultural practices are viable for only a few growing seasons before the soils are completely depleted of nutrients. Subsequently, enormous amounts of synthetic fertilizers must be used to maintain soil fertility.
Synthetic fertilizers are relatively expensive for slash and burn soil restoration. So, rather than maintain soil fertility with the addition of synthetic fertilizers and natural organic materials, yet another area is cleared for agricultural purposes. Subsequently, each slash and burn area is testament to poor rainforest and agricultural conservation practices.
Another major threat to rainforests is the logging industry and its harvesting practices. Many exotic and valuable tree species grow in the rainforests. Some logging practices can be very destructive and do not promote sustainability.
Timber companies selectively harvest many exotic tree species, which include “mahogany, sapele, teak, meranti, greenheart and ramin” (Rainforest Timber). These high-value trees are in great demand for many uses such as flooring and furniture.
Selective harvesting leaves a wake of damaged trees and access roads, which also contributes to rainforest destruction and loss. Sustainable silviculture (sustainable tree farming) is not usually practiced to replenish the harvested and damaged trees.
All too often, the immediate monetary payout is chosen over long-term sustainability, viability, and the overall importance of rainforests in the ecological network.
IMPORTANCE OF RAINFORESTS
The rainforests of the world are ecologically and environmentally important for several reasons.
- The plants produce large volumes of oxygen
- The plants absorb, sequester, and utilize carbon dioxide
- Rainforests contain the greatest amount of biological diversity on Earth.
- It is predicted that that there are many undiscovered species in the rainforests.
- It is predicted that many undiscovered medical breakthroughs are hidden within the rainforests, in the form of currently unknown plant chemicals.
These attributes are necessary for a healthy planet and population. The destruction and loss of the rainforest ecosystems will have severely adverse effects on the entire Earth.
WORLD ECOSYSTEMS AT RISK
While the rainforests remain the greatest ecological concern, many other ecosystems are at risk as well. Conservation, protection, preservation, and economic forces clash to have superiority in addressing and obtaining their personal, organizational, and industrial interests.
Sound environmental policy and management practices strive for a situation where all stakeholders benefit equally in the decision-making processes. Win-win environmental scenarios are very difficult to negotiate, implement, enforce, and sustain.
Strategic environmental management attempts to unite environmental protection and economic growth in corporate philosophies. Strategic management addresses social issues, labor relations, technologies, consumer demand, materials, resources, and business competition.
All these factors are related to economics in the rainforests and other ecosystems where resources are obtained.
The rainforests contain vast amounts of wealth in various global markets, such as the timber industry, agriculture, and both legal and illegal plant, animal, and bird exports.
It is difficult to explain to subsistence farmers and poachers, who are trying to provide for their families, that the rainforests are a vital link in the global ecology that needs to be conserved and protected.
Conservationists and environmentalists are viewed as unwanted outsiders who have no right to proclaim how subsistence farmers should conduct their operations and earn their livelihoods.
Some countries, however, are developing sustainable economic plans for the rainforest within their borders.
For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest tract of tropical forest in Africa. The government is developing a sustainable model for conservation and economic development. The plan includes logging zones, community involvement in decision-making processes, and “capacity building” (organization and conservation management practices).
A BALANCING ACT
Many rainforest stakeholders including, indigenous people, subsistence farmers, loggers, developers, conservationists, environmentalists, scientists, and local, national, and international governments all have ideas and/or solutions how the world’s rainforests should be conserved, protected, used, or exploited.
Conservation, protection, and economic growth are a precarious balancing act. It will be difficult to have a situation where every stakeholder wins. In the end, there will be winners and losers.