It looks like the Amazon rainforest we know and love today isn't pure and pristine at all. Research by the University of Exeter has revealed how it is far from untouched, thanks to ancient farmers who transformed the region in dramatic ways. Apparently the farmers introduced crops to new areas, boosted the number of tree species that generated food, and even used fires to improve the soil.
The study was undertaken by archaeologists, palaeoecologists, botanists and ecologists, and reveals the way early Amazon residents farmed intensively without having to continually clear fresh areas of woodland. They made their discoveries by analysing charcoal, pollen, plant remains and lake sediments.
Ancient people were wiser than us – They knew how to farm without ruining the soil
The forest's ancient residents grew maize, sweet potato, manioc and squash, and the remains date back an impressive 4,500 years. They apparently improved the soil by burning vegetation, adding manure and digging in waste food, and as well as the products they grew they also ate river fish and turtles. The discoveries explain why areas of forest surrounding archaeological sites tend to feature more edible plants than average.
Dr Yoshi Maezumi led the team. He says that ancient humans found a way to create a nutrient rich soil called Amazonian Dark Earths by farming in much more sustainable way, a way that continually enriched the soil rather than contstantly depleting it. The amazing soil they created let the people grow nutrient-hungry crops like maize in more places, even in regions the soil was very poor. And that in turn fed a growing Amazon population.
There really is a better way to grow crops
The ancient farming method involved clearing some low trees and weeds while keeping the closed canopy above. It's dramatically different from today's brutal methods, which simply involve clearing more and more land for industrial scale grain, soya bean, and cattle production. It reveals there really is a better way, a more efficient way to farm without destroying precious forests.
We don't often get good news. Our world is usually populated with stories about deforestation and disaster. So it's lovely to be able to talk about an incredibly important milestone for the Amazon itself and for rainforest conservatoin everywhere.
A region of outstanding universal value
The Serrania del Chiribiquete, in Colombia, has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, who have recognised its outstanding universal value to nature and people. Now it's the world’s biggest tropical rainforest national park, a huge effort that has taken decades of hard work by environmentalists and conservationists to bring to fruition.
The protected area is home to an impressive 3000 or more types of animals and plants, and is now twice as large as it originally was. In a world where 33% of so-called protected areas remain threatened by human activities, it's a vital development.
Chiribiquete is incredibly remote. There have been many years of armed conflict in the area, which has made life tricky for scientists and conservationists. The sheer, remarkable biodiversity of the regon is down to its location, a magical place where four very different geographic regions – the Amazon, Andean, Orinoco and Guyanas – meet. All this makes the news a defining moment in the good fight.
A big step in the right direction
Chiribiquete is not only a biological, cultural, hydrological and archaeological treasure. It's also vitally important to the indigenous people – some still uncontacted – who live in the area. Colombia’s forests, like all rainforests, remain threatened by deforestation to make way for agriculture, industry and settlement, and climate change continues apace, but the news represents a considerable positive step in the right direction.
The new park includes areas with very highest deforestation rates, so it's hopeful that the news will help stop the timber and illegal crop trade in its tracks. It's wonderful to see the Colombian government taking such an important step towards protecting the region, against a landscape where, all too often, government inaction, corruption and short-term thinking are at the forefront of the destruction.
Water matters. Not just to the broader economy, but also to companies whose products and services impact our global economy and climate. Water issues are now taking a far greater and more prominent position in the global economy.
As growing pressure emerges on our planet’s most precious resource, businesses have turned their attention and focus on the importance of water stewardship. Smarter business means understanding the risks posed by water scarcity and pollution. Taking action requires businesses to adopt more sustainable practices.
Encouraging good water stewardship means incorporating sustainable water management if businesses are to continue operating, and for people to keep on living. Here are three approaches to corporate water stewardship.
1. Understanding the importance of a changing water world
When examining the role of companies in the context of water stewardship, consider these trends as highlighted by World Wildlife Fund:
- In the next 40 years, the human population will exponentially increase by 2.5 billion. This will increase humanity’s water footprint, increasing costs for infrastructure.
- Rising incomes will result in changes in consumption patterns. Higher consumption of food and other resources will require collective action to ensure there is enough food and resources to meet demand.
- Global climate change will have a greater impact on weather variability. Snow and ice will carry less freshwater storage, more extreme events will lead to changes in ecosystems. These will have undeniable effects on water management practices, particularly in environments that support life and livelihoods dependent on freshwater.
Already, it is estimated that 4 billion people worldwide face economic water shortage, leading to inadequate sanitation. A lack of access to clean, potable water has resulted in many being exposed to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and diarrhoea, among other water-related illnesses.
The global nature of our changing water world means coordinated action is required across governments, sectors of society, and enterprises to ensure water security for all, and sustainable water resources and infrastructure.
2. Business engagement with water management
The implications of freshwater supply challenges, from societal, environmental, and investment perspectives, means water stewardship should be a top priority. Current water issues, both regionally and locally, mean businesses will soon face, if they have not already done so, serious water problems. Water risks for companies will have strategic and profound impacts on brand value and its profitability.
Business engagement must go beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR). Achieving accessible and sustainable flows to clean, potable water is a core business issue that is strategic to long-term opportunities for growth and profit. As water is material from a production standpoint, businesses must highlight the importance of good water stewardship to c-suite executives, shareholders, and investors.
The highly varied possibilities of water scarcity-related risks mean businesses must provide an exhaustive evaluation of water-related risks and corporate water usage performance. This can provide interpretive guidance for companies to actively manage water risks.
3. The role of leadership in water stewardship
Becoming a proven global leader of good water stewardship is critical from a business perspective in addressing pressing problems surrounding water management and sustainability. The evolving role of business in a global economy has impacted how society is incentivized to engage in water sustainability practices. Indeed, establishing good water stewardship and environmental responsibility must be demonstrated from a leadership position.
While a significant amount of work has already resulted in many technological and scientific breakthroughs in addressing sustainable water stewardship, business leaders must build on this work and demonstrate sustainable water management to bring substantial, long-term and all-encompassing change.
A collaborative approach, focusing on cross-sector and cross-industry involvement will be key in tackling sustainable challenges in the years to come. Addressing further issues surrounding sustainable water stewardship must come from an authoritative standpoint. Initiatives that discuss innovative solutions to water management must be proposed and discussed among senior policy-makers and business leaders.
The enormous influence of those in leadership positions is critical in starting a dialogue that will translate into meaningful and widespread collective action.
A call to action
The stewardship role goes beyond those within the private sector. Using agents to create a local-to-global approach will be critical in advancing the dialogue on how the global society addresses freshwater shortage issues and meets general water-related challenges.
Only engagement through collective effort will lead to better, more efficient and sustainable water resource management for the benefit and survival of everyone.
Patrick Randall is the Vice President of National Sales at Hepure Technologies. He holds a BS in Mechanical and Chemical Engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an M.S. in Civil Engineering from CSUS. He has been working in the environmental and bioremediation space since graduating in 1986.
In about 1917 someone brought a small, fast-growing tree called Bellucia pentamera from South America and planted it in Indonesia’s gorgeous Bogor Botanical Gardens. Called the mountain apple, its fruits were used by some indigenous people in the Amazon to help with parasite infections.
Now, just over a century later, the mountain apple is flourishing across Asia, mostly thanks to its small seeds which are widely transported by birds and bats. And it is a familiar face on Borneo's Gunung Palung National Park, home to some of the last big areas of lowland rainforest in Southeast Asia and an area rich in seven different types of rainforest.
The mountain apple loves deforestation
Intense logging between 2000 and 2002 helped the invader spread, taking out most of the biggest, most valuable trees and leaving huge gaps in the canopy, which in turn heated the forest floor and ruined the essential shade beneath. But one resident really doesn't mind these new conditions. In fact the mountain apple withstands the hot sun, so much so that it actually out-competes native light-loving species.
PhD student Christopher Dillis of the University of California and his team compared the fruiting frequency of Bellucia to native trees. They found that, on average, 56% of Bellucia in Gunung Palung National Park produced fruit every month, against just 4% of native rainforest trees.
Why does Bellucia love logging?
Canopy gaps are not uncommon. So why is Bellucia more attracted to logged areas than natural canopy gaps? Bellucia trees in gaps created by logging produced more fruits than Bellucia growing in natural canopy gaps, and nobody really knows why. It might be that the intense light in logging gaps lets the trees grow particularly big leaves, which mean more photosynthesis and more energy, which gives it a competitive advantage.
We already know that plant diversity is vital for the health of rainforests, and every other kind of forest. Logging in Gunung Palung has decreased but still continues. Large-scale oil palm agriculture doesn't help. Thankfully, unlike some invaders, Bellucia doesn't run rampant through pristine jungle. It needs logging gaps. But it just goes to show how very damaging even the least dodgy invaders can be if left to its own devices.
You can't see a thing from ground level. But take a bunch of satellite images and the mostly-unexplored Brazilian state of Mato Grosso turns out to be unexpectedly densely populated, with 81 seven hundred year old pre-Columbian settlements clearly visible. More interesting still, they weren't near large rivers but built near smaller streams, smashing the theory that the pre-Columbians lived on fertile flood plains and left most of the dense surrounding forest uninhabited.
A million people or more once lived in Mato Grosso
There's more. When the researchers’ fired up their computer model to find out how many people are likely to have lived in the region in pre-Colombian times and the answer was an extraordinary ‘up to a million people'. And that's many, many more than anyone has predicted before. And it suggests the Amazon was not sparsely populated and pristine back then after all. It was a hub of human activity.
Home to a powerful pre-European civilisation
All 81 settlements pre-date the arrival of Europeans and all consisted of fortified ceremonial villages and earthworks laid out either in squares, circulars or hexagons. 24 of the sites were also double-checked from the ground and proved representative of the region. The team found bits of pottery, polished stone axes and charcoal-rich soil, all revealing long-term human habitation and dating back to 1410 – 1460 AD.
The Amazon was buzzing with human activity
It looks like human populations in these regions were actually quite large. The research hints that similar settlements might turn up over a vast area of the southern Amazon measuring 154,000 square miles, which may have supported anything from half a million to a million people, which in turn means previous estimates of the population of the Amazon in pre-Colombian times were probably way too low. On the other hand the region is so vast that it can easily swallow up a couple of million people without a trace, so the population wasn't exactly dense by modern standards.
Most of the Amazon hasn’t been excavated yet, so it'll be fascinating to see what else is uncovered by archaeologists.
The fashion industry isn't known for its conservation-mindedness. In fact it's better known for its profligacy, the toxicity of its manufacturing methods and vast amounts of polluting waste. On the bright side the Fashion for Conservation organisation is dedicated to making a wholly positive impact on our world via conservation-inspired couture. And their latest venture will prove positive for rainforest conservation.
The organisation's three founders Nazanine Afshar, Dr. Samantha Zwicker and Ava Holmes have showcased another couple of magical collections of haute couture designed to educate people about animals and the ecosystems they depend on, at the same time donating funds to relevant wildlife groups.
Zero waste haute couture rich in upcycled and unwanted materials
London Fashion Week saw the collections, both inspired by the Amazonian rainforest, on display. Each collection is completely ‘zero waste' and includes end-of-roll textiles from interior designers as well as upcycled cloth from donated clothes.
The Kent-based designer Kalikas Armour kicked off the catwalk show, aptly named the ‘Rainforest Runway', with a collection of masterpieces inspired by the indigenous tribes whose rainforest homelands are steadily being destroyed. His work uses ethically made fabrics from Europe and consists of a series of shimmering black and gold one-offs, lush evening wear including shimmering dresses, elegant opera coats and sequinned suits.
Magpies & Peacocks
The Houston-based designer René Garza is the creator of the second collection, made for the Magpies & Peacocks non-profit design house. Offcuts of fabric, bolt-ends, unwanted tablecloths and clothing was used to make a series of wonderful draped dresses of various lengths.
The money made from selling drinks and raffle tickets at the Fashion for Conservation show goes to help fund Hoja Nueva (link to http://hojanueva.org/), a respected Peruvian non-profit organisation dedicated to education, conservation, research and sustainable human development.
Against a continuing backdrop of waste and pollution, it's great to see one tiny corner of the world's second most wasteful and polluting industries starting to take rainforest conservation seriously.
As reported by National Geographic magazine, Chile's government has delivered on its promise to add more land to the stunning wilderness of Patagonia Park, one of the nation's newest national parks, in conjunction with conservationist Kristine Tomkins.
Patagonia Park is already a haven for extraordinary wildlife, including the extremely rare and critically endangered huemul, a kind of deer, plus astonishing birds like the condor and Darwin’s rhea. The announcement should help conserve these wonders for the future.
Congratulations to Chile's President, thanks to the Tompkins'
The Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has declared a major expansion of his country's national parklands, creating two brand new parks and protecting enormous chunks of rainforest, grassland and other types of unique wilderness for future generations.
This is an extraordinary move in a world where short termism and greed so often win out over conservation-minded long term thinking. In Bachelet's words, “With these beautiful lands, their forests, their rich ecosystems, we… expand the network of parks to more than 10 million acres, thus, national parks in Chile will increase by 38.5% to account for 81.1% of Chile’s protected areas.”
The announcement is music to the ears of conservationists, for whom news this good is a rarity. It's an incredible achievement for the conservation movement worldwide and proves that where there's a will, there's a way.
Music to the ears of conservationists
This is probably the world’s biggest ever donation of private land, thanks to two US philanthropist Kristine Tompkins and her late husband Doug, who together ran the highly respected Tompkins Conservation organisation.
Kristine has gifted the Chilean government just over a million acres of land, which the couple bought and protected over the decades, and the Chilean government has contributed nearly nine million acres of federally owned land. The result is a huge protected area roughly the size of Switzerland, a place rich in huge snow-capped mountains, vast canyons, fjords, white water rivers and enormous coastal volcanoes.
Australia's Environment Protection Agency has come under fire because damage to an important rainforest has gone unpunished. The nation's environmental watchdog claimed it didn't have enough evidence to prosecute the state-owned Forestry Corporation NSW, who are thought to have done the damage, and the failure has been damned as ‘totally preposterous' by the eco-activist who identified the many breaches committed by the Corporation.
Apparently the EPA had a full two years in which to investigate and take legal action for damage caused in the beautiful, ancient Cherry Tree State Forest. But the organisation waited until two weeks before the deadline ran out to tell the spokesman for the North East Forest Alliance, Dailan Pugh, that the origin of the damage couldn't be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt'.
FC NSW in hot water
The Forestry Corporation NSW has allegedly harvested and bulldozed numerous roads through the precious lowland rainforest, which is seriously endangered. But Mr Pugh first alerted authorities to potentially thousands of instances of damage to protected trees during 2015. And Forestry Corp have completely refused to admit it was responsible for the damage. The EPA is trying to claim someone else damaged the forest, something Mr Pugh said was ‘preposterous'. In his opinion the Agency has long had more than enough circumstantial evidence to prosecute.
Proof of who did the dirty deed
The other problem is the difficulty of proving whether the cleared trees were virgin forest or regrowth from previous harvests. While Jackie Miles from the EPA's forestry division told Mr Pugh they had, “conducted a thorough and rigorous investigation“, they concluded there wasn't enough evidence to prove the damage wasn't caused buy someone else. Mr Pugh responded that both the EPA and the Forestry Corporation should have been aware of protected rainforest in the region since its principal area was mapped as such in the 1960s and has been re-mapped repeatedly since then. He feels there's absolutely no doubt who is to blame.
Greed trumps the environment yet again
Is this another instance of greed and profit trumping environmental protection? Dawn Walker, spokesperson for the NSW Greens, says there's “no clearer example of how the current system is failing,” with “one government agency, Forestry Corp, wantonly damaging the environment, while the EPA turns a blind eye”. There are currently more investigations going on to pin down the blame for similar damage in Australia's Gladstone, Giberagee and Sugarloaf forests.
Climate change is happening, and it's happening fast. In a race to tackle sky-rocketing CO2 emissions the non-profit organisation Conservation International is setting up the biggest tropical reforestation initiative ever seen, with plans to plant an awesome 73 million trees in Brazil over a 6 year period. If deforestation stopped altogether, the world's forests could absorb as much as 37% of our annual carbon emissions all on their own. That's unlikely, but this project takes a considerable step in the right direction.
Mending the arc of deforestation
The region in question is called the ‘arc of deforestation', a massive area extending to 70,000 acres that has been cleared for pasture. The intention is to return it to lush rainforest. It's vital since some scientists predict 20% more of the Amazon rainforest might be deforested over the next two decades despite the fact that doing so will push climate change along even further. And tropical trees are our best bet. As the CEO of Conservation International, M. Sanjayan, says, “it's not just the trees that matter, but what kind of trees. If you’re really thinking about getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, then tropical forests are the ones that end up mattering the most.”
An innovative, more efficient and cheaper way of reforesting
To maximise the impact of the reforestation project, Conservation International has pinned down a new, very efficient planting technique called muvuca, where literally hundreds of native tree seeds from multiple species are planted, covering every inch of deforested land. The seeds will come from the Xingu Seed Network, a native seed supplier for a host of conservation organisations. They have a dedicated network of over 400 seed collectors, usually indigenous women and youths.
Much better seed survival and plant density
Once the seeds grow, nature decides which of the new plants survives. It looks like an impressive 90% of native plants germinated survive using this method, which is also cheaper and less labour-intensive than the traditional way of planting actual saplings. A density of about 160 plants per hectare isn't unusual for traditional reforestation methods compared to 2,500 species per hectare for the new method, and a decade later we could easily see 5,000 new trees per hectare.
As reported in the Cairns Post newspaper, so far Rainforest Trust Australia has bought more than three million acres of rainforest spread across the nation's famously beautiful and unique Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. It has cost them millions of Australian dollars. But now they're being investigated by the authorities for allegedly ‘misappropriating' money they were given as grants.
About the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area
The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area sits between Townsville and Cooktown on the north-east coast of Queensland. It covers a vast area of almost nine thousand square kilometers, 450 km long and consisting largely of lush tropical rainforests. Many plant and animal species in the Wet Tropics are unique, found nowhere else in the world.
A grant that wasn't spent on weed control
Apparently the Commonwealth grant in question was for $775,500, a sum that was handed over in 2014 to pay for weed control at a chunk of land near El Arish, at the Mission Beach cassowary corridor. It looks like the promised weed control hasn't been done, a delay that contravenes the grant's guidelines. Local people have a similar complaint – that the land bought by the foundation is in worse condition now than it was when they bought it. Far from there being fewer weeds, there are actually more, and there has even been some re-vegetation.
The case now rests with the Commonwealth DPP
The investigation was recently confirmed by Australia's Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, who is keen to look into a government grant awarded to the organisation, which was previously called Rainforest Trust Australia. Now the case has been sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, who will be considering what direction to take the investigation in next.
RTA defends itself
In the charity's defence, Rainforest Trust Australia chairman David Butler said there wasn't a case to answer because an ex-employee, who was responsible for the fraudulent behaviour, has already been charged by the Department of Public Prosecutions and no longer works for the organisation. Furthermore, because the matter is still being dealt with by the court, it's sub judicae and the charity can't comment further. He also said that since the enquiry started they've been busy putting in place better processes and procedures as regards governance and financial management, so this kind of thing can't happen again.
Guest post by The Rainforest Foundation.