Deforestation currently seems to be an inevitable consequence of increases in human population. As the number of people goes up, so does the area of land humanity requires to live on.
This is particularly true of places where people live at a high density: crowded areas need more food, fuel and timber to sustain the population within it. As in many tropical regions the transition from the traditional high birth and death rate to a lower one is not complete, and they are seeing a wonderful decline in infant mortality combined with a relatively high birth rate. This is contributing to the alarming increase in deforestation worldwide, being estimated at 13 million hectares annually.
The rate of deforestation is particularly high in Madagascar; where human densities are very high, and around 70% of primary forest had already been destroyed by 1925. Population in Madagascar is rising by over 3% every year, a rate that is set to continue contributing to the country’s reputation as ‘one of the most degraded tropical landscapes on Earth’.
Deforestation is almost universally thought of as ‘a bad thing’, but it’s especially so here. Vegetation is very important for the regulation of water supply, reducing flooding and erosion, thus helping to maintain fertility of the surrounding land and prevent desertification. What’s more, when trees are cut down they release large amounts of carbon dioxide- accounting for approximately 6-17% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The list of ecosystem services such habitats provide is almost too long to list.
All of these impacts are added to the fact that tropical forests contain more species than any other terrestrial habitat. With every tree that’s chopped down, species’ habitats shrink that little bit further, taking them closer to extinction. Considering that around 90% of the country’s plants and animals are found nowhere else on earth, and 90% of these species live exclusively in wooded areas, there is the potential for the destruction of a startlingly large proportion of the world’s biodiversity, on one small island. Madagascar split from all other landmasses 160 million years ago, and so represents an interesting evolutionary experiment, with groups of animals without even a close parallel elsewhere. For these reasons it has been designated alongside many other global geographic regions as a biodiversity hotspot, and so there is a comparably high drive to protect its remaining forests.
It has been shown that in Madagascar protected areas have helped to locally reduce deforestation, but there is a balancing act to be struck. The simple knee-jerk desire to protect all forests is unwise- as well as being financially unworkable (who will pay all those guards?) it ignores the fact that although much timber is being cut down for profit, the people need the land to live. Without food being grown, without materials being harvested for people to build their homes with, locals could potentially die.
But this is a situation that never actually occurs- time and time again people have been prevented access to lands and resources that they need for survival, in misplaced ideas of conservation. This approach never works, as the people still take what they need to live, but with animosity towards those who seek to prevent them from taking what is rightfully theirs, and often resentment to the wildlife that has become more of a priority than the welfare of the locals. Such an approach has thankfully now been identified as largely pointless and so doesn’t happen any more.
There is some evidence that shows that Madagascar’s forests have undergone large-scale contractions in the past, before humans arrived on the island. This suggests, albeit tentatively, that as much life in the forests has survived large reductions in its extent beforehand, that it may well be able to do so again. However it’s imprudent to use this as an excuse to not take some form of action as current deforestation is still driving many species extinct, never to return.
So what’s to be done to protect this species-rich, unique land? The answer is the usual combination of attempting to conserve as many areas of as valuable forest as possible. Individual species may need specific attention, and for choosing them I’d favour using what has been termed the ‘Extinction risk Reduction Opportunity’ approach, whereby species which have the greatest probability of recovering are focused upon, to do the most good with conservation’s meagre funds. It may be inevitable that large charismatic species are focused on regardless of the chance of saving them, but that’s an issue that deserves a separate blog. Once an area has been deforested it may still have some conservation value, and should where possible be managed to continue to provide some form of habitat to the life in the area.
Ultimately conservation is full of tricky situations, where we seemingly have to weigh up the value of nature against the value of using it for humanity. But this ignores the fact that we depend on nature to survive and destroying it all is simply not a viable option. Tough decisions abound for humanity; hopefully we will allow some areas and species to endure alongside us, for both our sakes.