Cause and effect in the forestGland, Switzerland: So what are we to make of the year that is coming to its end when we consider the state of our planet? It has been the Chinese Year of the Tiger and it was also called the International Year of the Oceans and it is true that the past 12 months have served to highlight concern and draw public attention to the condition of one of the world's most spectacular species and of its vital marine resources.
But for many people, 1998 will be remembered as the year of the fires, the floods, and the hurricanes. Thousands of people have died and catastrophic damage has been caused by torrential rain and exceptionally violent storms. As for the forest fires that swept parts of Asia and Latin America, the full extent of the destruction is only now beginning to be revealed.
The common factor in all these disasters is the global climate. This is particularly noticeable in the case of forests, the distribution of which has always been influenced by climatic conditions. During the glacial periods, which were cool and dry in the tropics, rainforests shrank to small refuges and often the agent of their demise was fire. Moist tropical forests become prone to conflagration when the leaf litter and undergrowth dries up after unusually long periods of drought and fire spreads from surrounding grasslands.
Today we are seeing again the frequent incidence of long dry seasons in the tropics and again fire has begun to play a key role in the forests. But this time it is not simply the fact that we are confronted with climate change, and change much more rapid than in the glacial ages because it is driven by the behaviour of humankind. What is also true is that the forest fires themselves are mostly man-made as tools for the clearance of trees so that land can be used for other purposes.
With the increasing fragmentation of forest areas as a result of timber exploitation and clearances for agriculture, fires are now pushing back the tropical forest fringe in Amazonia, in West Africa and in South-east Asia at increasing speed. If that goes on unchecked, the world faces deeply alarming consequences.
The influential Hadley Centre for Climate Change in Berkshire, England, has calculated with its huge and complex computer that unless things change there are parts of the Amazon rainforest that will turn into desert within the next half century. And that, with nature's penchant for cause and effect, will add to the greenhouse effect we are now learning to fear and beginning to try to reverse.
Indeed, there is a terrible irony in the Hadley Centre's pronouncement that in the wake of the 1998 fires the forests have already become a net producer of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas whose production through human activity everyone now agrees should be reduced. For one of the hopes of industrialized nations reluctant to take drastic action to cut CO2 emissions is that forests might provide a partial solution by absorbing the gas.
For us at the conservation organization, WWF, the link between climate change and the degradation of forests is a key issue and one on which we are integrating both policies and fieldwork programmes. We have adopted a twin-track approach calling not only for significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that will prevent ecological damage but also for action to halt and reverse the loss and degradation of forests.
The world must wake up to the fact that there is no alternative to action that will reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but at the same time it must accept that moves to stop the destruction of forests and to conserve and manage them sustainably have a role to play in controlling climate change. Instead of clinging to the forlorn hope that the trees will save us, we must help ourselves by saving the trees.