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How to preserve Peru’s Amazon rainforest. Interview with Rhett Butler

Many of those living on the coast or in the mountains of Peru forget that 50% of Peru’s landmass is covered by the Amazon rainforest. So it should be important to all those who live or have an interest in Peru, to be aware of the importance of its rainforest, as well as on a world-wide scale, and to what we as individuals do or can do right now to contribute to the protection of this natural treasure.

We came across this excellent website called Mongabay (http://www.mongabay.com), an incredibly informative and up-to-date resource related to the so called “lungs of the planet”. The site was founded and maintained by the U.S. American Rhett A. Butler, who has been researching and writing about rainforests for over a decade.

Mr Butler was so kind to do an e-mail interview with us in which he explains his website’s main mission, the most important effects of deforestation, and he gives us some suggestions for good rainforest conservation projects.

Clear-cutting in the Amazon

JP: What motivated you to launch your website about rainforests?

Rhett: Mongabay.com was born out of a personal experience on the island of Borneo, when a beautiful tract of lowland forest was converted into wood chips for a paper pulp mill. This was not the first time I had lost such a special place, but the loss of that small section of forest in Borneo created the urgency to start writing about wild lands and wildlife. I wanted to share my experiences with those who hadn’t yet witnessed the magnificence of these places. Thus the initial mission of Mongabay was to make people aware of the significance of rainforests and the biodiversity they contain. While they may be hot, bug-ridden, and remote, these forests have a lot to offer.

JP: What are the effects on climate and animal life if deforestation continues at its current pace, and in how much time will these effects become noticeable or visible?

Rhett: Deforestation is expected to have a significant impact on both global climate and biodiversity. Deforestation currently contributes about one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Because of deforestation, countries like Brazil and Indonesia are some of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide even though their industrial capacity is not as high as other countries. Indonesia may in some years be the third largest greenhouse gas producer because of deforestation and forest fires.

It is unclear when we can expect to see significant impact from climate change in the tropics. Some researchers say 10 years while others say 50. In the Amazon, models indicate that the rainforest is likely to become drier and more susceptible to forest fires. Some of the rainforest may be replaced by savanna.

As for biodiversity, scientists say that habitat destruction currently threatens about one-third of species worldwide. Some believe that 20 percent of species will be extinct by 2050, though there is still lots of uncertainty. While most of the species that are disappearing are small and largely unknown to scientists, projections by Dr. Peter Raven, a famous American biologist, suggest that 565 species of mammals and at least 500 species of birds will go extinct within the next 50 years. He says these estimates are conservative.

JP: Your website includes reports on rainforests in Central and South America, Africa and Asia-Pacific. In which areas would you say the rainforest is most threatened?

Rhett: I’d say Africa because there the populations are the poorest and most dependent on forest use. South America is probably in the best condition, though increasing interest in biofuels might be a concern. Still the governments in Latin America, notably Brazil, are considerably stronger and better able to manage their territory than governments in Africa.

JP: You mention the emergence of new company structures that aim to function with ecological goals as part of their mission. Do you know of any specific companies that currently work this way?

Rhett: Right now a lot of big companies in the United States are trying to make their operations more sustainable by reducing waste and energy usage and using renewable energy. These include Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, 3M, Dupont, Starbucks, and Google, among many others. You are also seeing a lot of interest in the investment community in funding cleaner and greener technologies, mostly because they see it as a way to make money.

As for companies structured specifically for ecological goals, Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company; Clif Bar, a snack food company; Teragen, a firm that uses bamboo for building; and Michelle Kaufmann Designs, a builder of eco-friendly homes, come to mind Though these companies are selling traditional products they are doing it in a way that reduces their impact on the planet with a overriding philosophy of sustainability.

JP: Our readers are based in or have an interest in Peru, a country of which about 50% is covered by rainforest. I read on your web site that deforestation in the Peruvian rainforest is not as large scale as in many other countries, is mostly caused by subsistence farming, and some logging. You mention the Interoceanic Highway project as the largest threat. Could you tell us a bit more about how this project threatens the rainforest, and offer any suggestions for government and locals alike to take action and limit the negative effects?

Rhett: The Interoceanic Highway is probably the greatest threat the Peru’s rainforests, which may be the most biodiverse in the world. The highway could drive deforestation by opening up the interior to agricultural development, especially along the road itself. Further, demand from China for soy and other products will likely increase pressure on forest areas. As for taking action, the Amazon Conservation Association has one of the best programs in place for addressing threats posed by the project. They are onserving areas of forest and working to minimize the impact of the highway. I’d advise people interested in the risks of the highway project to take a look at the Amazon Conservation Association web site.

JP: In order to keep thinking positively, could you give us an example about a rainforest conservation project, that is showing very positive results, a project that could be used for conservationists as an example of best practices to learn from?

Rhett: One of my favorite examples of a successful conservation project is one by the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in Brazil. Their work is detailed in an article I wrote last year but in summary, they are helping indigenous people in the Amazon protect their native land and pass on their culture to younger generations. They are doing this through a combination of educational programs and cutting-edge technology.

“As forests fall to loggers, miners, and farmers, and the allure of western culture attracts younger generations to cities, extensive knowledge of the forest ecosystem and the secrets of life-saving medicinal plants are forgotten. The combined loss of this knowledge and these forests irreplaceably impoverishes the world of cultural and biological diversity.”

“ACT has pioneered a novel approach to address these problems by enabling Indians to monitor and protect their forest home while passing on their cultural wealth to future generations. ACT is working in partnership with local governments to train Indians in the use of GPS and the Internet to map and catalog their forest home, helping to better manage and protect ancestral rainforests by monitoring deforestation and preventing illegal incursions on their land. At the same time the efforts are strengthening cultural ties between indigenous youths and their parents and grandparents.”

JP: If readers wanted to make a donation to a conservation project in the Amazon right now, which project would you recommend?

Rhett: I’d recommend both the organizations I mentioned above, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) and the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA). ACT works in Brazil, Colombia, and Suriname while ACA is focused in Peru. I also suggest the Tambopata Reserve Society for Peru.

JP: You have spent a lot of time traveling through tropical regions all over the world. Could you describe to us your most beautiful, and your most painful moment during your travels?

Rhett: My most emotionally painful moment was my experience in Borneo. Physically painful would have to be getting attacked by some particularly savage ants in Malaysia. Scariest would be either getting trapped in a mangrove swamp — also in Malaysia — or being chased by a forest elephant in Gabon.

The most beautiful place I’ve ever visited would probably be the tepuis of southern Venezuela. These table-top mountains are the most remarkable formations I have ever seen. However my favorite place is Madagascar. The variety of plant and animal life is amazing, the people are generally friendly and wonderful, and the landscapes can be dramatic. Peru also rates very high on my list, especially Manu National Park and the Andes.

JP: Thank you so much for your time, Rhett. Much appreciated.

If you would like to learn more about the Amazon and other rainforests, please don’t hesitate and visit Rhett’s website at: http://www.mongabay.com

Written by Elise van der Heijden.   All Photos copyright of Mongabay.com

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