Sustaining Tropical Forests


Strategies for preserving tropical forests can operate on local to international scales. On a local scale, governments and non-governmental organizations are working with forest communities to encourage low-impact agricultural activities, such as shade farming, as well as the sustainable harvesting of non-wood forest products such as rubber, cork, produce, or medicinal plants. Parks and protected areas that draw tourists—ecotourism—can provide employment and educational opportunities for local people as well as creating or stimulating related service-sector economies.

  Aerial photograph of a river and oxbows in the Brazilian Amazon.

On the national scale, tropical countries must integrate existing research on human impacts on tropical ecosystems into national land use and economic development plans. For tropical forests to survive, governments must develop realistic scenarios for future deforestation that take into account what scientists already know about the causes and consequences of deforestation, including the unintended deforestation that results from road-building, accidental fire, selective logging, and economic development incentives such as timber concessions and agricultural subsidies.


Although deforestation in the tropics is rapid and widespread, some people are making an increasing effort to mitigate potential disaster. Sustainable harvesting of native plants, shade farming, nature preserves, and management by indigenous peoples are techniques that help maintain a vital resource. (Photograph ©2006 Leo F. Freitas.)

  Close-up photograph of shade-grown coffee cherries.

Several scientists are encouraging the conservation community to re-consider the belief that vast, pristine parks and protected areas are the holy grail of forest conservation. In 2005, for example, scientists using satellite and ground-based data in the Amazon demonstrated that far less “unfettered” deforestation occurred in recent decades within territories occupied and managed by indigenous people than occurred in parks and other protected areas. The year before, scientists studying Indonesia’s tropical forests documented a 56 percent decline in tropical lowland forests in protected areas of Borneo between 1985 and 2001. They concluded that the deforestation in the protected areas resulted from a combination of illegal logging and devastating fires that raged through logging-damaged forests during the 1997-1998 El Niño-triggered drought. While some might argue that these losses could be prevented in the future through better enforcement of environmental laws, it may also be true that inhabited forest reserves are a more realistic strategy for preserving the majority of biodiversity in larger areas than parks alone can accomplish.

Finally, on the national and international scale, an increasing value in the global marketplace for products that are certified as sustainably produced or harvested—timber, beef, coffee, soy—may provide incentives for landowners to adopt more forest-friendly practices, and for regional and national governments to create and enforce forest-preservation policies. Direct payments to tropical countries for the ecosystem services that intact tropical forest provide, particularly for carbon storage to offset greenhouse gas emissions, are likely to become an important international mechanism for sustaining tropical forests as more countries begin to seriously tackle the problem of global warming.


Shade-grown coffee and other types of farming that preserve mature trees are ways to maintain much of the biodiversity and ecosystem functions of the tropical forest while providing jobs and sustaining economic development. (Photograph ©2006 Michael Bollino.)