Despite this deep personal connection, every ecologist understands the importance of every ecosystem in making up the environmental constellation that is our planet. Only a fundamentally bitter, hostile scientist would call out from the rainforest to say that savannas are useless, because they know deep down in their ecological hearts that it’s not true.
But here at COP, people have a different view of things. Forests and deforestation, almost exclusively with regards to rainforest, define the conversation around conservation. Ocean ecosystems, and every other terrestrial ecosystem, are barely discussed. Even in terms of COP’s pet project, the "ecosystem storage of carbon," things like blue carbon and soil carbon were touched on only ever-so-slightly.
I understand that this flow of money to conservation is remarkable, but I still see a problem. Rainforests hold much of the world’s diversity of species, but when you look at the whole Amazon basin, an area nearly the size of the continental United States, the species makeup barely changes from one side to the other. Cultivating this image of rainforests as quintessential nature is ineffective, even detrimental. Here’s why.
The Amazon has been a beacon of hope for conservationists. Deforestation has declined by 80% over the past decade and Brazil has pledged to get to zero net emissions through deforestation by 2030. Much of this decrease was accomplished by policies that focused on agricultural intensification of already deforested land, moving from cattle pasture (1 cow per hectare) to intensive soybean or sugarcane production. However, all this conserved rainforest displaced land conversion to the Cerrado, Brazil’s diverse savanna ecosystem southeast of the Amazon.
As of 2010, 47% of Brazil’s Cerrado was intact. Tropical savanna ecosystems like the Cerrado are known for their incredible diversity, which is comparable to rainforest. In Brazil, the Cerrado region is also crucial for water resources in the region, with three major watersheds originating in this grassland area. Keeping the ecosystem intact is critical to conserving this water.
Additionally, rainforests store less carbon than many other ecosystems. Native grasslands like the Cerrado, as well as wetlands, mangroves and seagrass beds all store significantly more carbon belowground than most rainforests store in general. Even unsexy boreal forests are much better at growing aboveground carbon. Sure, their wide global extent makes rainforests a crucial part of the global carbon budget, but it would be much more effective to use limited carbon funds to focus on conserving mangroves or restoring peat bogs.
This isn’t to say the points I mention are completely absent from the conversation. Marine scientists have been increasingly calling for greater recognition of blue carbon (carbon stored in marine ecosystems). Terrestrial scientists are stressing the importance of all threatened ecosystems in conservation and carbon accounting. However, these conversations are alarmingly absent from broader discussions at COP.
I wrote earlier about the ‘living forest’ proposition presented by an indigenous tribe from Ecuador, which proposes an inherent valuing of the biological and spiritual balance of the natural forest. But why forest? Why not savanna, or a coral reef, or tundra? Of course, this tribe came from the rainforest and likely did not have the ecological context for other areas. However, the rest of the international system mirrors this view.
In 2011, countries agreed upon the Bonn Challenge, which called for 150 million hectares of reforestation by 2020. It’s an enormous call to action, but in many ways a misguided one. The Bonn Challenge looks at potential forest cover, much of which includes native non-forest ecosystems that regulate tree cover through fire or herbivore disturbance. Planting trees in these areas would destroy the native ecosystem and could lower the water table in water-stressed areas and threaten native species.
So although I’m ecstatic to see all the money going towards rainforests, there is little philanthropic acknowledgement of the intricacies of holistic ecosystem conservation. NGOs have relied on the charismatic image of rainforests in danger, promoting this simplistic view. But we have to start working with a wide swath of endangered, critical ecosystems. Conservation is not about rainforests; it’s about nature and the beautiful diversity of the world we live in. When it comes to climate change, it’s clear we’re going to need all of our natural ecosystems. Let’s make sure it’s a strong system before we start throwing catastrophic climate change at it.