Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Everything is Connected: Part II

In short, because the chimps are here and humans have been destroying the forest at increasing rates over the past century is why the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) has a stake and station in the Budongo Rain Forest. They want to protect our close genetic partner (94-98% of DNA sequences are the same). The chimpanzee is considered a flagship, umbrella, and keystone species. A flagship species is one that is charismatic and tends to draw the sympathies and donations of humans. An umbrella species is one that has a large range and thus protecting it results in the protection of thousands of others and an entire ecosystems. I will explain a keystone species later. Of course a large part of animal protection is via protecting the home environment. In the world, though the rate of reforestation should soon surpass that of deforestation, some better estimates are that just over 50,000 square miles of forest are destroyed every year. This is just under the size of New York state or about the state of California from the Mexican border to an east-west line across from Santa Barbara. In Uganda, about sixty square miles of forest, a swath of land about the size of the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley combined are lost every year. Imagine all the buildings and homes on each side of the Bay Bridge being burned to the ground every year.

Why is the forest being destroyed? In Budongo most of the destruction in the past was in the form of logging or slash and burn to clear land for agricultural production. Some of it was industrial scale, but significant acreage was logged or burned by villagers practicing subsistence farming over the decades. Notably, the rate of forest destruction has greatly accelerated over the past ten years as the population around the forest perimeter has grown rapidly. In the three larger forests along the Albertine Rift Valley in western Uganda 157.2 km2 of fully-stocked forest were cleared in the period 1995-2002 alone. Some land is logged or cultivated for a few years until its exhausted or fertility decreases and then more land is cleared in a cycle of degradation.

But now the forest is protected as the Budongo Central Forest Reserve. Any kind of trespass into the preserve is illegal. Patrol and hunting snare removal teams are funded by JGI, the National Forest Authority, and even the Oakland Zoo recently sponsored a project there. Even so, locals still need firewood and building materials and logging companies based in Kampala want the precious mahogany in the forest. They hire people living in the villages for very low wages to take the high risk of sneaking into the forest, felling and chopping up the hardwood behemoths, and carrying the pieces to the roadside where large trucks await to whisk the loot away to the furniture markets of the capital and abroad.

Additionally there is a subsistence need and market for the meat and pelts of the mammals in the forest such as leopards, lions, and various primates including the chimpanzees. The hunting (now poaching) pressure has increased with an influx of Congolese immigrants who traditionally practice the trapping of forest animals. Hunters set traps along the main animal trails in hope of catching dinner or a product. In one forest zone studied by JGI, 25% of chimps had one snare injury, 10% had two or more.

Whether or not you care about the fate of the chimpanzees, you should care about the fate of forests. They are vital pieces of our greater ecosystems home to a tremendous number of flora, fauna, fungi and bacteria. Earth is a closed system and life is dependent on other life in almost all cases. An estimated 50,000 species a year going extinct should be heard as a horrific scream from the forest that its vital organs are failing as its skin, veins, muscles and bones are crudely ripped apart. Taking a keystone species like chimpanzees out of the forest is like ripping out a kidney. The forest loses several key functions the animal provides such as seed dispersal. Without chimps digesting mahogany seeds they cannot germinate easily. Take away mahogany trees and you lose a protective canopy that supports the growth of hundreds of other plants. You could say mahogany is like a protective epidermal layer of the forest. If the plants it protects die food sources for other animals are lost. More animals die, other plants die, other animals die, the forests organs fail. It dies. Everything is connected.

So unfortunately the death of the forest does not mean the dying stops there. Most of us know that forests store carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Besides the oceans, they are the most vital processors of breathable air. But perhaps more immediately important for those living near them, the forests bring rain. And when it comes down to it the people that steadily destroy but over time will always rely on the forest are the poor that live in the communities bordering forests. If those people know that it is the forest that brings water, the blood of life I like to call it, then you might be able to convince locals it is worth being stewards in the conservation of the forest as their vital resource.

But when the Jane Goodall Institute people told forest-edge villagers that conservation must be their priority the message didn't take. You see, extreme poverty means you are struggling to meet basic needs. So every day your first concerns are water, food, shelter and it takes work to get those things. I can understand it much better now that I've seen it. Beyond providing timber to build sturdy homes and livestock pens, the high-energy value food that is meat, desperately needed incomes for hunters and the day-and-night laborers of the big logging companies it also provides wild honey extracted by starting fires to drive the bees away from the honeycomb, several medicines and tens of other materials that help meet basic needs. So especially a mzungu, a person of European descent, speaking the message to “stop using the forest because it's bad and you'll be arrested. Instead, conserve it for the sake of an animal or better yet because it brings you rain” is not well-received by someone whose short-term survival depends on forest resources. In fact, JGI was often met with hostility. They needed help if they were to somehow stop the damage being done to the forest by the local population that has been increasing with a wave of immigrants to the area in search of fertile soils or fleeing conflict in Congo.

Enter Village Enterprise Fund.

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