WORLDWIDE FOREST/BIODIVERSITY CAMPAIGN NEWS
Smoke Signals: Vast Forest Fires Scar the Globe
Forest Networking a Project of Ecological Enterprises
OVERVIEW & COMMENTARY by EE
Its always encouraging when the mainstream media takes their heads out
of the sand and notes the demise of the planet. In the attached
article, Time Magazine notes the magnitude of the recent forest fires
and correctly interprets this as an indicator of worse to come. "Fire
storms in the rain forests... have become an unmistakable distress
signal from the developing world."
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Title: Smoke Signals
Vast forest fires have scarred the
globe, but the worst may be yet to come
Source: Time Magazine, Vol. 151, No. 24
Status: Copyright 1998, contact source for permission to reprint
Date: June 22, 1998
Byline: By EUGENE LINDEN
Why are the world's forests burning? Why did uncontrollable fires cut
a 7,700-sq.-mi. swath of devastation across Indonesia? Why have the
blazes of Mexico sent plumes of smoke across Texas and Louisiana?
Here's the simple answer: El Nino. While that notorious weather system
flooded some regions, it produced horrendous droughts in other areas,
making half the world a tinderbox.
But that's too easy an explanation. Scientists suspect that something
more fundamental--and frightening--is happening. In one country after
another, flames are going where they've never gone before. "These
fires are burning into virgin, humid forests that have evolved without
fire," says Nels Johnson of Washington's World Resources Institute.
"There is no historical precedent for the fires in the cloud forests
of the Lacondon region of Mexico." Fire storms in the rain forests--
the very idea defies common sense--have become an unmistakable
distress signal from the developing world.
Even without the effects of El Nino, forests are increasingly
vulnerable, and the blame lies with human activity. People are
literally paving the way for fire's intrusion. Roads penetrating
tropical forests provide access to loggers, peasant farmers, ranchers
and plantation owners, all of whom use fire to clear land. Logging in
particular creates incendiary conditions by leaving combustible litter
on the forest floor and allowing sunlight to penetrate the forest
canopy and dry out the vegetation.
A rain forest is a self-perpetuating system in that water vapor from
trees energizes rainstorms. Cut the trees and rainfall decreases,
further drying a system that is not adapted to recovering from fire.
Experts wonder if this is why denuded southern China has seen a
decline in rainfall this century, and why West Africa has lost one of
two rainy seasons. Looming over all rain forests is the threat of
global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Computer
simulations suggest that the greenhouse effect will increase the
frequency of drought in tropical areas.
Belatedly, rains have come to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, and they
are still expected in Mexico, but any relief is likely to be
temporary, and dryer conditions will return later in the year. Experts
are particularly worried about Brazil, where a new dry season is just
starting. Daniel Nepstad, a tropical-forest ecologist at the Woods
Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, notes that "the eastern Amazon
is teetering on the edge." The region has received one-fifth of its
normal rainfall in the past year, and Nepstad says an area 20 times
the size of Massachusetts is at risk.
The tragedy goes far beyond the countries that are burning. Besides
worrying about the loss of tropical forests, with their unmatched
natural resources, policymakers have to be concerned about the clouds
of smoke that have endangered public health from Singapore to Houston.
But so far it's been easier to announce programs to combat the fires
than to get at the causes. In April the United Nations Environment
Program called for a $10 million fund to help Southeast Asia contain
its fires. Washington has contributed $7.5 million to Mexico's
Such meager sums won't even begin to save the forests. In Indonesia
the collapse of the economy has driven many of the urban poor back to
the countryside, and often the only land to cultivate is virgin
forest. So a new round of fires seems unavoidable. Says John Redwood,
a World Bank environmental specialist: "Once small fires get out of
control in remote areas, they become unstoppable until doused by
Several forces combine to darken the outlook. The industrial world
hasn't curbed its appetite for wood or halted the harvesting of rain
forests by multinational corporations. In many developing countries,
government corruption or mismanagement has allowed indiscriminate
logging and clearing of woodland for agriculture. And efforts to slow
greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., the biggest offender, continue
to be stymied by a skeptical Congress. The Senate Appropriations
Committee has just slashed $200 million from the Clinton
Administration's proposed program to improve energy efficiency, citing
doubts about "the existence, extent or effects of global climate
What all this adds up to is a cycle of destruction. Chopping down the
forests creates conditions that foster fires. The fires pour carbon
dioxide into the air, which promotes global warming and makes the
forests dryer still. A computer simulation of the effect of climate
change in Mexico has predicted that if temperatures rise as feared,
rainfall might be reduced 40%--a drop that would doom the remaining
rain forests in the state of Chiapas.
The global bonfire of 1998 is a warning, an unsubtle hint that
humanity will have to change its ways or watch its forests disappear.
It is a smoke signal we cannot afford to ignore.
--With Reporting by David Bjerklie /New York, With Other Bureaus
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