Secondary Geography

Can’t See the Wood for The Trees: Rethinking Rainforest Sustainability

Kit Marie Rackley


Today, the tropical rainforest ecosystem is home to half the living species on this planet while only covering about 5% of the Earth’s surface. And yet, go back a few thousand years it is thought to have been 12%. For the 200 years after 1700, the estimated area of tropical rainforest lost was around 8-10 million hectares per decade, roughly the size of small countries like Iceland or the United Arab Emirates. However, since the 1920s, Earth was losing areas of tropical rainforest equivalent to the size of much larger countries. The decade of the 1980s was particularly devastating with 150 million hectares being lost (Figure 1). While in recent years the rate of deforestation is declining, we are still a long way away from going back to the way things were. This article challenges the standard thinking about what is ‘sustainable development’ of the tropical rainforests, and gives examples of how true sustainability can really be achieved.

Who is the rainforest, and the sustainable use of it, for?

The tropical rainforest has long been thought to be a vast untouched wilderness. However, discoveries in the Amazon alone have found that human settlement perhaps existed there as far back 17,000 years ago, with the entire southern Amazon containing linked villages at only 750 years ago. Tropical rainforests it seems have been hosting humans for a very long time. As we’ve seen in Figure 1 it is only in relative recent times that the land area covered by tropical rainforests have started to shrink in any meaningful way. So what changed? Figure 2 suggests how sustainability in the rainforest may have been before the age of colonialization (left), and how we might consider what is ‘sustainable development’ of the rainforest today in the age of industry and globalisation (right). In the past, sustainability of the tropical rainforest centred around the ecosystem being able to maintain itself with human activity fitting into natural processes. This is why the circle representing environmental sustainability is the largest, with very little social or economic activity taking place outside of it. In fact, economic sustainability as we think of today didn’t really exist, as it was the rainforest itself and the natural processes that took place, rather than financial gain, being the most valuable thing. As time went on and what was deemed ‘valuable’ about the rainforest changed, the economic circle grew larger. Now timber products, minable minerals under the surface, farm produce etc are hot commodities. Notice also how the types of people mentioned has changed, with focus on a global community of companies, workers and consumers rather than indigenous communities. The sustainable practices given on the right-hand side are those which would likely be acceptable answers to an exam question about sustainable rainforest management, however the statistics in Figure 1 show that the balance off as our tropical rainforests are continuing to shrink. Perhaps you recognise some of the features in the right-hand diagram with case studies you have learnt about sustainable development in the rainforest? To what extent do you think those case studies are examples of sustainability when you try to apply the features from the left-hand side?

Fortress conservation vs rights-based conservation

Not counting Antarctica, 20 million km2 (15%) of the Earth’s land surface is protected through methods such as national parks and natural reserves. Much of this is by way of ‘fortress conservation’ (see glossary). However, applying today’s model of sustainable development in this way on a natural system which previously thrived without it has caused several issues. Figure 3 gives brief examples of how ‘fortress conservation’ has come into conflict with indigenous ways of life in tropical rainforests around the world. Protected areas and indigenous lands overlap by an estimated 50-80% worldwide. This has led to killings and evictions of those living in these overlapping areas. A study in 2017 found that between 1990 and 2014, more than 250,000 people in 15 countries were evicted from their lands due to the creation of protected areas. Indigenous practises that have taken place for generations such as small-scale slash and burn cultivation have been criminalised in some places. This means for these people, living their traditional way of life is by the eyes of the law, illegal. Some choose to give up their traditions as a result. This also leads to conflict which can be violent. An alternative is ‘rights-based conservation’. This is where not only indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land and resources are recognised and protected, but also the communities are given handed support and leadership when it comes to conservation efforts.

Ingeniously Indigenous

Apart from being an important social justice issue, why does it matter that the rights of indigenous people to their ancestral lands should be honoured? Unsurprisingly, indigenous people and local communities are very skilful at managing forests and biodiversity and are far more efficient at conservation thanks to their deep generational knowledge.

When they are given support from government authorities, then much can be achieved. An example is the Sierra Divisor National Park in Peru. It borders the ancestral lands of the Nuevo Saposoa and Patria Nueuva, of which the communities have been given legal title (ownership) by the local government. The government authorities and the indigenous communities work together to tackle the threat of deforestation caused by illegal coca fields. The Peruvian government provide satellite monitoring through their Geobosques and Global Forest Watch system, which send deforestation alerts every 8 days. Indigenous forest monitors are guided to the locations of suspected deforestation using smartphone apps. They are accompanied by government workers who have the authority to shut down the coca fields, which are illegal due to the land being titled to the indigenous communities. The indigenous communities have the rights and power to conduct their own patrols, and can even choose to close transport routes into their land such as rivers to prevent outsiders from entering.

The example of the partnership taking place in and around the Sierra Divisor National Park clearly demonstrates environmental and social benefits. However, studies show that it is also more economically sustainable for conservation to be led by indigenous people and local communities. Globally, it is estimated that around US$4 billion is spent by indigenous communities on conservation efforts which is about one-fifth of the amount spent by governments, donors, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The future

We return to the question of who the tropical rainforest is for. If it is meant to be of global value both in the material products it can bring, but also a natural system which helps to stabilise the climate then do we in the western world get a say? Or should we hand over the reins completely to those who were stewards of the rainforest long before we came along? The thoughts offered in this article are a combination of opinion and research. Perhaps you feel the idea of sustainability presented in Figure 2 is missing key information, certain facts or examples? Maybe you feel this article is overly critical of the modern-day approach of what is ‘sustainable’? How might the sustainable practises in examples used as classic case studies be improved by focusing more on the environment and social rather than the economic, as it was in the past? Critical thinking is something geographers do best. So, what do you think?

Glossary box

Ancestral land – lands occupied or used by indigenous communities or through their ancestors in a way that maintains their customs and traditions

Fortress conservation – Creating protected areas where the ecosystem is isolated from human disturbance, including local and indigenous people.

Hectare – an area measuring 100m by 100m squared, which is about one and a half times the size of a football pitch.

Figures (for reference only, original files located here)

Figure 1 – Estimated tropical forest loss by decade

Drawn by author

Figure 2 – How the concept of sustainability in the tropical rainforest has changed over time

Drawn by author

Figure 3 – Four examples of how fortress conservation is coming into conflict with indigenous ways of life in tropical rainforests around the world

Compiled by author for illustrative purposes only. It would be good to include a map like this in some way, which shows these case studies juxtaposed on the areas of tropical rainforests.

Alamy images used for…:

Links to GCSE Geography Syllabuses:

AQA: Tropical rainforests and sustainable management

Edexcel-A: 3.5 Development of tropical rainforests

Edexcel-B: 8.3 Rainforest deforestation & climate change, 8.5 Tropical rainforests sustainable management

OCR-A: 2.1.3 Tropical rainforests

OCR-B: 4.2b Tropical rainforests exploitation & sustainability

Research & Sources:

Figure 1 based on “Global deforestation peaked in the 1980s. Can we bring it to an end?” accessible here (XLSX file and plot of data available)

Long lost cities in the Amazon were once home to millions of people (New Scientist, 16 January 2019)

Cornered by Protect Areas: Replacing ‘Fortress’ Conservation with Rights-based Approaches Helps Bring Justices for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Reduces Conflict and Enable Cost-effective Conservation and Climate Action (Tauli-Corpuz, Alcon & Molnar, June 2018).

Amazon Frontlines

Our World in data




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