Last Stand - Our Last Ancient Forests Are Under Assault
Wayne Ellwood explains what is driving this devastation and why we need to save the trees.
Last Stand - Our Last Ancient Forests Are Under Assault
By Wayne Ellwood /

From the air, the earth is shorn and desiccated. Waves of heat billow upward, mixed with plumes of smoke. A few lonely trees stand in relief against the flattened landscape, while knots of cattle clump together in dusty paddocks ringed by barbed wire. This is the Brazilian state of Rondônia, the heart of the Amazon, wedged between the vast state of Amazonas to the north and, due south, Bolivia.

Fifty years ago, Rondônia was swathed in dense tropical rainforest. Today, it is one of the most deforested parts of the Brazilian Amazon. An astonishing 100,000 square kilometres of forest has vanished from the state since 1978. Poor people from the crowded coastal areas, attracted by land and opportunity, flocked here in the 1970s when roads began to penetrate the forest. First came loggers, who harvested the valuable tropical hardwoods; then settlers, who cleared the remaining trees to plant maize and soy; and finally large landowners, who consolidated the land to graze cattle. Two-thirds of Brazil’s deforested land is used for cattle ranching.1

But let’s leave the Amazon for a moment and shift our focus more than 3,000 kilometres southeast to the sprawling megalopolis of São Paulo, home to more than 20 million people. São Paulo is Brazil’s economic powerhouse: chaotic, pulsing with life and a little intimidating.

Severe drought

But Paulistas, as the city’s citizens are known, have a problem – a big one. São Paulo is drying up. In fact, much of southeast Brazil is suffering, including the country’s second-biggest city, Rio de Janeiro. The region has had three consecutive years of drought. Despite recent El Niño-influenced downpours, São Paulo’s reservoirs are nearly empty. Last year, the Cantareira Reservoir, which supplies nine million people, was operating at just five-per-cent capacity.2 About a quarter of the country’s 200 million people now live in areas where rainfall is below historic averages.3

But it’s not just the coast that’s drying up; it’s the Amazon itself. The region has had three severe droughts over the past decade. All signs point to climate change as the culprit. Forecasters say the area affected by severe drought may triple by the end of the century. In addition, unpredictable feedback loops could accelerate the cycle. Carbon dioxide (CO2) released from a dead and dying forest will further disrupt rainfall patterns and increase drought – which kills more trees, releasing more carbon in an endless cycle.

It turns out that drought in the Amazon and drought in São Paulo is not just coincidence. Researchers have found a direct link between deforestation in the country’s heartland and water shortages in the densely populated southeast.

Scientists use the term ‘aerial’ or ‘flying rivers’ to describe the forest’s role in continental rainfall patterns.

Here’s how it works.

As humid air rises from the Amazon, water vapour condenses, lowering the air pressure. Since air moves from high to low pressure, humid air from the Atlantic is continually sucked into the centre of the continent. Researchers call this phenomenon the ‘biotic pump’. When the moisture-rich air mass moves west, it eventually slams into the Andean Cordillera, then arcs south and eventually east, bringing rain to southeast Brazil and northern Argentina. If the biotic pump is turned off, or loses its energy, that spells trouble. And that’s essentially what’s happening as the rainforest disappears.

As Alexandre Uezu, an ecologist with São Paulo’s Ecological Research Institute, explains: ‘Were it not for the flying rivers the whole area would be desert.’4

Although the pace of deforestation has slowed recently, the country is still losing more than 500,000 hectares of jungle every year.

Many Brazilians accept this as the price of prosperity. They wonder why they shouldn’t be free to exploit their resources just as North Americans and Europeans did centuries ago.


Since the dawn of the colonial era, our exploitation of the natural world has led to the obliteration of forests on a massive scale. The consequences have been dire – for plants and animals, and for communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods. In the broadest sense, forests are key to maintaining comfortable living conditions on Earth by providing what economists call ‘environmental services’ – storing carbon, filtering air and water, preventing floods and helping to regulate climate. Woodlands are home to 80 per cent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Trees also provide food and shelter as well as healing medicines. It is estimated that a quarter of modern medicines originate from forest plants.

As the human population grew, so did our economic activity. Initially, most of the loss was in temperate regions where agriculture first developed. Later, industrialization, with its ceaseless craving for energy and raw materials, added to the pressure.

At the time of the Roman Empire, dense forests covered 80 per cent of Europe. By the medieval era that figure had dropped to 40 per cent. And in some places it began much earlier. Half of England had been cleared of forest by 500 BCE. Today, ancient forests in Europe have all but vanished. In Ireland, for example, native woodlands make up just one per cent of the land area.

A similar pattern emerged in North America as settlers pushed west, razing forests rapidly during the 18th and 19th centuries. By the end of the 20th century, farms and new settlements had replaced much of America’s deciduous forests.5

Degraded land

For landless poor in Rondônia, the chance to carve out a few hectares from the forest to grow bananas and maize, and raise a few chickens and pigs, trumps conservation. The frontier acts as a relief valve allowing the state to mask extreme inequality. (Brazil has the world’s eighth-biggest economy but there is a yawning gap between rich and poor).

Successive governments have encouraged settlement of the Amazon. But small farmers are neither the main cause of deforestation nor, in the long run, the main beneficiaries. Within a few years, rain and erosion leaches nutrients from the thin tropical soil. Yields fall. The degraded land is soon sold to large landowners and powerful agribusiness companies.

Not surprisingly, a similar combination of cash crops and resource projects threatens forests the world over.

  • In Australia, coalmining menaces more than a million hectares of forest, while in Canada 20 per cent of the boreal forest (more than 150 million hectares) has been ceded to logging companies, oil and gas exploration, hydro dams and mines.6
  • Illegal logging flourishes, driven by renegade loggers in cahoots with corrupt politicians and greedy entrepreneurs. In Burma, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, ‘Chinese businesses pay in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains and smuggle timber out of [Burma]’s conflict-torn state of Kachin.’
  • Often the graft is transparent. Under Papua New Guinea’s ‘Special Agriculture and Business Leases’ scheme, 30 per cent of the country has been auctioned off to foreign timber companies. More than 80 per cent of its forests may be gone by 2021, according to the PNG Forest Authority.1
  • The conversion of woodlands to cash crops is widespread. In Uganda, tea planters have set their sights on 250 hectares of the Kafuga Pocket Forest Reserve on the southern fringes of the Bwindi National Park. The forest is one of the last homes of the endangered mountain gorilla and the national park has been listed by the UNas a World Heritage Site.
  • Perversely, even the demand for so-called green fuels has fuelled deforestation. Across Europe, power plants looking to replace ‘dirty’ coal are now burning wood pellets for generating electricity. As a result, old-growth trees in Slovakia and Romania are ground into wood chips.7 This trend also endangers forests in the USsouth. From Georgia to the Carolinas, biologically rich wetland forests are replaced by monoculture pine plantations.8

Zero net deforestation

In many countries, managed tree plantations are now the norm. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says 50 million hectares of forests were planted between 2000 and 2010. Unfortunately, these were mostly industrial monocultures – pine, acacia, eucalyptus, rubber and palm – which the FAO bizarrely equates with natural forests.

This might seem odd until you understand the UN’s corporate-friendly goal of ‘zero net deforestation’. Simply put, it means that natural forests can continue to be toppled as long as they are replaced – somewhere, anywhere – by other trees. That’s one reason global corporations such as Unilever, Bunge and Mondelez International have jumped on the bandwagon.

As the World Rainforest Movement notes: ‘Zero net deforestation means companies can continue destroying forests as long as they can show a certificate that someone elsewhere has planted trees or protected some forest of at least the same size as one they converted into pasture or monoculture plantation.’9

‘Our land, which once filled our lives with joy, is a desert of pine trees... where silence reigns because there are no animals, birds or fish’

But planting trees does not necessarily make a forest. Just ask the Mbyá Guaraní people in the Argentine province of Misiones who saw their native lapachos and timbós replaced by an endless expanse of foreign pine trees.

Now, they lament, ‘our land, which once filled our lives with joy, is a desert of pine trees… where silence reigns because there are no animals, birds or fish.’10

The other ‘game changer’ that the UN and the business community endorse goes by the unwieldy acronym REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The idea is to use market forces to arrest deforestation in what is really an elaborate carbon-offset scheme. It seems simple enough – rich countries pay poor countries not to cut down their forests. Save the trees, save the CO2. Countries (or companies) providing the funds can claim credit for the emissions saved and eventually those credits can be traded in a global carbon market.

But there are a few barriers en route. One is that market-led schemes tend to spiral into greed-driven free-for-alls. We’ve seen what convoluted investment vehicles the deep-thinkers on Wall Street can invent. The 2008 global recession was triggered by such chicanery and the wreckage is still with us. But more to the point: the scheme is an elaborate solution that ignores the core problem.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels.

Forests without people

With REDD, rich countries can continue to pump out carbon as long as they can pay poor countries not to cut their trees.

More critically, it’s communities who depend on the forest for their livelihoods that tend to get the sharp end of the stick. As journalist Sam Knight argued in his meticulous exposé of REDD in Papua New Guinea: ‘When money and trees mix, it is normally local people who get screwed.’11

An NGO study of 24 projects across a range of countries – including Mozambique, Peru, Nigeria and Kenya – found that communities in REDD project areas are ‘subjected to restrictions on forest use which interfere with their ways of life and livelihoods and reinforces the idea that a well-conserved forest is a forest without people.’12

And that would be a mistake. Because our idealized notion of forests as pristine wilderness separate from human culture is pure invention. Human life has always been deeply intertwined with forests. Millions of people today depend on forests for their most basic needs. And it’s those communities that are best placed to protect and defend them. Recent research supports this claim. Deforestation rates in community-managed forests are consistently lower – up to six times lower in forests where local people have legal rights.13 In the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, where indigenous communities manage about a quarter of the two-million hectare reserve, deforestation is a scant 0.02 per cent. In Peru it’s the opposite. There, the government has allowed resource companies to trample on indigenous rights. Concessions cover 75 per cent of the jungle and deforestation is rampant.

Kenya is another country where community forestry is making a difference. Critical upland watersheds were denuded as trees were burned to make charcoal, leading to a dramatic reduction in rainfall and widespread drought. That set alarm bells ringing and eventually led to the creation of community forestry associations to reclaim and manage the barren hillsides. Today, forest cover is increasing and so are the rains.

According to Simon Gitau, warden of Mount Kenya National Park: ‘People who used to be poachers and illegal loggers are now defending the forests.’14

So should we all.

People need forests. But so do the creatures we share the earth with and so does the planet. That’s why it’s urgent we both protect and nurture them.

  1. On the Edge, the State and Fate of the World’s Tropical Rainforests, Claude Martin, (Greystone Books, Vancouver/Berkeley, 2015). 

  2. The

  3. National Academy of Sciences,

  4. NPR,

  5. Saving the World’s Deciduous Forests, Robert A Askins, (Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2014). 

  6. Global Forest Watch,

  7. Fern,

  8. Dogwood Alliance,

  9. World Rainforest Movement,

  10. World Rainforest Movement,

  11. The

  12. World Rainforest Movement,

  13. World Resources Institute,

  14. Yale Environment 360, . 

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 491This special report appeared in the April issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 13,219 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 11,951 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 11,558 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 10,833 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 6,596 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 6,526 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Forest Man
16 min · 6,459 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 5,646 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 4,242 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 4,090 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 3,729 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 3,619 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Do You Have Time to Love?
Thich Nhat Hanh · 3,321 views today · The greatest gift you can offer loved ones is your true presence.
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 3,021 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 3,011 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 2,421 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 2,247 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 1,961 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 1,949 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 1,945 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Last Stand - Our Last Ancient Forests Are Under Assault