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New Forests, New Challenges, New Opportunites


Without a doubt, tropical rain-forest destruction must be curbed.  But is a new forest better than no forest at all?  That’s one of the questions addressed in an interesting article by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times.  In discussing the varying viewpoints regarding the new jungles popping up in areas of previously cleared tropical rain forest, the article evaluates the ecological benefits of these unplanned “secondary forests.”

Part of the debate about these new forests, Rosenthal explains, is that some view them as alleviating the need to prevent the ongoing destruction of native tropical rain forest — a critical habitat for many of Earth’s most exotic and endangered species.  The article explains:

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.

Of course, in the short term, unmanaged secondary forests can never match the biodiversity or carbon sequestration potential of original tropical rain forests.  But these new forests nevertheless play an important role in the tropical ecosystem.  Dr. Joe Wright, a researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, touted the benefits of secondary forests:

“A botanist can look at the trees here and know this is regrowth,” he said. “But the temperature and humidity are right. Look at the number of birds! It works. This is a suitable habitat.”

Importantly, many secondary forests arise from unmonitored growth of abandoned farmland.  Whatever the merits of these forests, Rosenthal’s article does not, unfortunately, address the planned growth of new tropical forests on farmland — such as the carbon-offset forests planted and managed by Reforest The Tropics.

As long as cleared tropical farmland exists, researchers must address what should best be done with it.  As Rosenthal has illustrated, letting it go abandoned, forming unplanned secondary forests, is one option.  Another viable option, as RTT continues to demonstrate, involves planting and managing productive forests, which promote biodiversity, sequtester carbon dioxide at high rates, and generate income for the farmers.