TROPICAL DEFORESTATION | Conservation And Sustainable Management Of Tropical Forests

Greatly refined estimates of tropical deforestation have recently been obtained through analyses of changes in forest cover in satellite images. For example, analyses of Landsat imagery covering the Brazilian Amazon indicated an increase in deforested area of 78.000 km2 in 1978 to 230.000 km2 in 1988, or a loss of approximately 6% of the total forested area. Tropical deforestation rates vary greatly across geographic regions, and have shown marked swings over the last decades. Through the 1980s the highest deforestation rates were observed in southeast Asia, but more recently deforestation has shifted to the neotropics and Africa.

In addition to the outright removal of forest, tropical deforestation also acts to fragment landscapes, a pattern of great conservation concern. Tropical forest fragments offer an insufficient amount of habitat for many larger or wide-ranging species of animals, and forest fragments can be seriously degraded by decreased humidity and high wind exposure near edges.

The internal fragmentation of tropical forests caused by selective logging is also a major concern. Studies suggest that low-intensity logging can allow for recovery of primary forest conditions within a couple of decades; however, heavy logging requires a much longer recovery period, and some highly degraded forests may not be able to approach pre-harvest conditions even after hundreds of years.

In many regions construction of logging roads makes forested areas far more accessible to those interested in further exploitation such as subsistence farmers, hunters and fuelwood gatherers. For example, when a commercial logger leaves the concession, subsistence farmers are able to penetrate deeper into the forest than would have previously been the case. Post-logging forest use is becoming increasingly intense due to high population growth rates in many tropical countries.

One partial answer to these difficulties is development of sustainable forestry practices in combination with improved conservation of remaining tropical forests. "Natural forest management" in which gap phase dynamics is emulated by harvesting has been advocated as a means of mitigating losses of diversity and ecosystem function while allowing continued timber harvests. Alternative harvesting practices, such as planning of harvest areas and skid trails, tree marking and directional felling, can be used to reduce the residual impacts of the harvest. Recent studies suggest that such reduced-impact logging in tropical forests can dramatically reduce post-harvest tree mortality. This results in greater retention of forest biomass, increased long-term value of the forest in terms of timber commodities, and more rapid recovery of pre-harvest forest conditions.

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