A Little Global Perspective (Fwd)

KMorrisD kmorrisd at aol.com
Sun Jun 28 21:14:28 EST 1998

Here's something from misc.activism.progressive.

Subject: World Ablaze - El Nino Too Simplistic as a Reason
From: Mark Graffis <ab758 at virgin.usvi.net>
Date: Sun, Jun 28, 1998 19:28 EDT
Message-id: <6n6jiv$13im$1 at news.missouri.edu>

from danny daaf at cerium.demon.co.uk


 By Eugene Linden

 Why are the world's forests burning? Why did uncontrollable fires cut a
7,700-sq.-mi. swath of devastation across Indonesia? Why have the blazes
of Mexico sent plumes of smoke across Texas and Louisiana? 

 Here's the simple answer: El Nino. While that notorious weather system
flooded some regions, it produced horrendous droughts in other areas,
making half the world a tinderbox. 

 But that's too easy an explanation. Scientists suspect that something
more fundamental-and frightening-is happening. In one country after
another, flames are going where they've never gone before. "These fires
are burning into virgin, humid forests that have evolved without fire,"
says Nels Johnson of Washington's World Resources Institute. "There is no
historical precedent for the fires in the cloud forests of the Lacondon
region of Mexico". Fire storms in the rain forests - the very idea defies
common sense-have become an unmistakable distress signal from the
developing world. 

 Even without the effects of El Nino, forests are increasingly vulnerable,
and the blame lies with human activity. People are literally paving the
way for fire's intrusion. Roads penetrating tropical forests provide
access to loggers, peasant farmers, ranchers and plantation owners, all of
whom use fire to clear land. Logging in particular creates incendiary
conditions by leaving combustible litter on the forest floor and allowing
sunlight to penetrate the forest canopy and dry out the vegetation. 

 A rain forest is a self-perpetuating system in that water vapor from
trees energizes rainstorms. Cut the trees and rainfall decreases, further
drying a system that is not adapted to recovering from fire. Experts
wonder if this is why denuded southern China has seen a decline in
rainfall this century, and why West Africa has lost one of two rainy
seasons. Looming over all rain forests is the threat of global warming
caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Computer simulations
suggest that the greenhouse effect will increase the frequency of drought
in tropical areas. 

 Belatedly, rains have come to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, and they
are still expected in Mexico, but any relief is likely to be temporary,
and dryer conditions will return later in the year. Experts are
particularly worried about Brazil, where a new dry season is just
starting. Daniel Nepstad, a tropical-forest ecologist at the Woods Hole
Research Center in Massachusetts, notes that "the eastern Amazon is
teetering on the edge." The region has received one fifth of its normal
rainfall in the past year, and Nepstad says an area 20 times the size of
Massachusetts is at risk. 

 The tragedy goes far beyond the countries that are burning. Besides
worrying about the loss of tropical forests, with their unmatched natural
resources policy makers have to be concerned about the clouds of smoke
that have endangered public health from Singapore to Houston. But so far
it's been easier to announce programs to combat the fires than to get at
the causes. In April the United Nations Environment Program called for a
$10 million fund to help Southeast Asia contain its fires. Washington has
contributed $7.5 million to Mexico's fire-fighting efforts. 

 Such meager sums won't even begin to save the forests. In Indonesia the
collapse of the economy has driven many of the urban poor back to the
countryside, and often the only land to cultivate is virgin forest. So a
new round of fires seems unavoidable. Says John Redwood, a World Bank
environmental specialist: "Once small fires get out of control in remote
areas, they become unstoppable until doused by rains". 

 Several forces combine to darken the outlook. The industrial world hasn't
curbed its appetite for wood or halted the harvesting of rain forests by
multinational corporations. In many developing countries. government
corruption or mismanagement has allowed indiscriminate logging and
clearing of woodland for agriculture. And efforts to slow greenhouse-gas
emissions in the US. - the biggest offender, continue to be stymied by a
skeptical Congress. The Senate Appropriations Cornmittee has just slashed
$200 million from the Clinton Administration's proposed program to improve
energy efficiency, citing doubts about "the existence, extent or effects
of global climate change." 

 What all this adds up to is a cycle of destruction. Chopping down the
forests creates conditions that foster fires. The fires pour carbon
dioxide into the air, which promotes global warming and makes the forests
dryer still. A computer simulation of the effect of climate change in
Mexico has predicted that if temperatures rise as feared, rainfall might
be reduced 40% a drop that would doom the remaining rain forests in the
state of Chiapas. 

 The global bonfire of 1998 is a warning, an unsubtle hint that humanity
will have to change its ways or watch its forests disappear. It is a smoke
signal we cannot afford to ignore. 

 With reporting by David Bjerklie/New York, with other bureaus. 

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