Scroll down the page for the Live blogs of the talks.

Videos about Forests

Live blogs about Forests

Matthew Owen talk


MatthewOwen_portraitThe first session is on Open Communities.

Matthew is reminding us of the main policies which have reduced carbon emissions: solar, hydropower, reducing industrial gas emission, and number one is protecting rainforest.

Every rainforest talk has a tree frog image, which he has got out of the way early. Instead he has zoomed into a small village called Cuti Vireni in the Amazonian rainforest. It used to be 300km from chainsaws, then 5km, then it was offered $250 for 40 odd cedar trees. Not good value, but ready cash if they need to get food or carry a child to get medical care. In other words, poverty is the issue, and the barriers to loggers’ entry are low.

Piecemeal degradation is the biggest threat to rainforest now, and no longer clear cutting. We care more now where our beef, soya and palm oil comes from… and the US makes its own ethanol. But we still lose 260,000 acres every day, or the equivalent number of trees, and degradation is four times worse than clear-cutting.

Illegal loggers always find a way of circumventing regulations, e.g. by shipping illegal trunks back to their logging concession to pretend they are legal, and even shipping and replanting stumps. There is also a lot of hidden coca farming, the raw material for cocaine, often by the same people.

Logging is not a commodity trade. It’s negotiated tree by tree, on the ground, locally. This is what lies behind the Cool Earth model – offering an alternative to selling trees for short-term cash.

Cuti Vireni looked for advice, and were introduced to Cool Earth. Cool Earth cobbled together $8000 as payment to the village to keep the trees in the ground – half up front, half in a year. They asked the village to form an association, and tell neighbours about it a year. The villagers invested in mosquito nets, and importantly a cacao drier, offering an alternative cash crop. In a year, instead of a meeting with neighbours, the village had a sport tournament, involving 14 other teams. It was a great success, and nine other villages then joined the project. As a result, local canopy loss has been only 0.5% instead of 29% more widely. 150,000 acres are under the communities’ control, but 1.5m has been shielded from loggers.

The best bit is how little Cool Earth needs to do. The villagers make the decisions and do the work. So Cool Earth can work anywhere, and there are now over 1m acres shielding 10m acres, and it is continuing to grow. David Attenborough says they are not just saving the rainforest, but saving the world, and we are all benefitting.

[Please note that in these live blog posts I aim to report what the speakers present. I may well miss bits, but that is because I can’t keep up rather than anything nefarious. I try not to let my personal views shape the argument or intrude, except for the occasional light interjection in square brackets.]

Patrick Alley talk

Patrick Alley feature

Patrick Alley featureAnd so to our last talk, from Patrick Alley of Global Witness, recipients of the TED Prize.

He’s here to talk about a perfect crime, involving a whole host of shady characters. Some are obviously shady. Others wear suits and look like you and me. They destroy habitats, and people’s lives and lifestyles. They are involved in industrial logging in the Tropics.

Logging can be divided into criminal and legitimate, much the same except that the latter has better PR.

Patrick visited Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge return, earning millions of dollars from the trade in illegal logging. Later he was in Liberia, where Charles Taylor used income from logging to prop up his regime. Taylor doled out the rainforests to a coterie of business men. As the logs and money flowed out, the arms flowed in. When Taylor’s timber trade was subject to UN sanctions, the business men escaped intact, or carried on in the Congo.

What makes the crime so perfect is that the shady characters are propped up by less shady characters.

The big myth is that industrial logging in the Tropics brings sustainable development. It is neither sustainable nor does it bring development. It has created the euphemism “sustainable forest management”. In the last decade, Cambodia has lost its forests faster than anywhere, and a generation of farmers has been forced off the land. This despite the World Bank’s involvement. The war ended in 2003 in Liberia, but the problems haven’t been solved, and discontent is growing again. But if sustainable forest management can’t work in a small country, where can it work?

In order to sell the myth, the logging industry requires people to buy in. In Sarawak, a few have become rich using loans from international bank HSBC. The WWF believe logging is inevitable, and want to try to regulate it. But active members of the WWF scheme are involved in illegal logging and human rights abuse. The FSC rainforest logo on loo roll is also problematic. It’s another tool used by loggers to cover their tracks.

Forests are the world’s lungs, regulating water and climate systems. They are home to about half the world’s biodiversity. We can do something, if we regard the rainforests as a fundamental part of the biosphere that gives more value than the financial return. Brazil has recognised indigenous rights, returning power from vested interests to the local communities, a step in the right direction. Similar smaller steps are being made in Liberia. Some rich countries are paying poor countries not to cut the forests down, but more money is needed.

What can and should be done? End impunity, and prosecute the criminals. Stop governments financing destruction using our taxes. Campaign against banks bankrolling the destruction. Encourage WWF to do their job. They need to condemn industrial logging straight out. Reduce our soaring consumption.

Otherwise, we will all, loggers included, become victims of the perfect crime.

Claire Belcher talk

Claire Belcher feature

Claire Belcher featureClaire Belcher had to choose between her love of dance and her love of volcanoes. She chose to become a scientist. I approve.

Her job is to educate others, and to measure and quantfy things that help us understand our world better.

Typically our response to fire is about danger and devastation. But fire also does positive things for our planet, including regulating the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Wild fires have been part of Earth’s history for over 400 million years. Claire studies rock layers to understand the incidence of fires. In the south west, there are coals around Bristol from swamplands, red rocks around Exeter from deserts, and the Jurassic coast around Lyme Regis. She has plotted amount of coals and red rocks over 400 million years, and this also indicates the state of the climate.

Red rocks are red because they contain iron oxide, rust. We can say that oxygen levels were lower during the formation of red rocks. What about coals? Photosynthesis releases oxygen into the atmosphere. (We eat plants, and breathe in oxygen, creating an overall balance.) Hence during times when there was lots of vegetation and lots of coal was formed, there was more oxygen in the atmosphere.

At the moment, oxygen forms 21% of the atmosphere. When coals were being formed, oxygen was 10 percentage points higher. 300 million years ago, earth’s system should have gone out of control. What regulated that, to keep oxygen within bounds? The hypothesis is that fire was the regulating force.

The more oxygen, the more fire, and vice versa. And more fires means less vegetation. Fewer fires means more vegetation.

The flammability of forests based on changes in atmospheric oxygen has changed throughout history. But is there any proof that fires have happened at the right times to suppress oxygen? The other by-product of fire is charcoal, which can be preserved for millions of years. So measuring charcoal in rocks can be used as evidence for fires. And the theory matches pretty well.

So fires can regulate oxygen, preventing it on geological timescales from getting too high or too low. What about the modern challenges? We have had a lot of wild fires across the globe, increasing in frequency and destructive power. So maybe ecosystems need to be managed in a way that recognises the relationship with fire.