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WORLDWIDE FOREST/BIODIVERSITY CAMPAIGN NEWS 

Smoke Signals: Vast Forest Fires Scar the Globe 

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Forest Networking a Project of Ecological Enterprises 

http://forests.org/ 

 

6/18/98 

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." 

g.b. 

 

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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 

firefighting efforts.  

 

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 

rains."  

 

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 

change."  

 

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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