January 31, 2009

SO, WAIT, ALL THAT TALK ABOUT THE “VANISHING RAIN FORESTS” WAS CRAP?

These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest — an iconic environmental cause — may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.

“There is far more forest here than there was 30 years ago,” said Ms. Ortega de Wing, 64, who remembers fields of mango trees and banana plants. . . . About 38 million acres of original rain forest are being cut down every year, but in 2005, according to the most recent “State of the World’s Forests Report” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there were an estimated 2.1 billion acres of potential replacement forest growing in the tropics — an area almost as large as the United States.

The regrowth will take years to turn into mature rain-forest, of course — but it will do so if left alone. (And the new growth is actually better at sequestering carbon.) And, ironically, it’s all because, instead of people staying quaint, primitive, and agrarian, they’ve gotten richer. “In Latin America and Asia, birthrates have dropped drastically; most people have two or three children. New jobs tied to global industry, as well as improved transportation, are luring a rural population to fast-growing cities. Better farming techniques and access to seed and fertilizer mean that marginal lands are no longer farmed because it takes fewer farmers to feed a growing population.”

The word for that is “progress.” And, overall, it’s actually good for the environment.