03 October 2011

The Myth of the Virgin Forest

A new meta-analysis of 138 studies across the tropics was published in the online edition of Nature a few days ago and found that, “primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining biodiversity.”

I was drawn to this article because it has been picked up by the popular media. This piece is already being wielded to call from stronger protection of these forests. In interview, one of the first authors does just this. Luke Gibson tells us, “It is therefore essential to limit the reach of humans and to preserve the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests while they still exist. The future of tropical biodiversity depends on it.”

What interests me is that it is never clear what forests they are talking about. Part of the problem is that the language is loose. Are “primary” and “old-growth” the same thing? Gibson seems to imply so.

In a quick google search of the sources publishing about this article, nearly every one on the first page uses a different epithet for these forests. From the first 6 headlines we get: “Virgin forests,” “natural forests,” “old growth forests,” “primary forests,” “pristine forests,” and “rainforest.” All of these names seem to conjure an idea of an untouched forest far from humans where nature can thrive free from the negative effects of our species. They all embody the wilderness myth.

To further highlight this let’s see what kind of land this pristine forest is contrasted against. “Degraded forests,” “disturbed forests” and “a re-modeled home,” and one piece from The Conversation tells us, “We live in an age of vanishing rainforests.”

This is the conservation myth.

While incredibly beneficial to the conservation cause, it does have a darker side. In the midst of climate change and prevalent extinctions, it is easy to see why rainforests, are beneficial. But this story homogenizes those rainforests, it takes away the voices of the people who have always used those forests, and calling for the protection of those far away forests is a far easier call then to reduce our own consumption that leads to the timber extraction and land conversion in the first place.

The authors of the original article do define “primary forests” for us. They are “largely old-growth forests that have experienced little to no recent human disturbance.” This they contrast with “disturbed sites” which encompass the full spectrum of degraded and converted forest types, including selectively logged forests, secondary forests and forests converted into various forms of agriculture.”

Two of the studies they analyze are from Madagascar and one appears to be from near my study area (though I can’t find the citation in their paper, grrr….). It just so happens that we recently conducted transects and developed qualitative site descriptions for a variety of forest sites around here. While the variety in severity of use is highly varied, what we found was that not a single site would meet the definition set out by the authors. There simply isn’t any forest here where people aren’t using it. In fact, we set out one day to specifically find the least disturbed forest that our local guides could find, deep within the heart of the rainforest corridor here. We found selective logging all along the way and when we arrived their was fresh cattle signs because people graze their cattle in the forest for half the year, a small camp for people getting eels and crayfish from the river, a root buttress cut away to make gold mining pans, and a large tree downed to make bee-hives from it. Hardly a lack of human influence. Still, it was clearly primary forest and all in all the levels of use probably have minimal effects on most taxa.

Of course, there may be tracks of “virgin” forest in the far vaster Amazon and Congo, but at least in Madagascar I can tell you that it is very hard to find completely undisturbed forest.

So what are we really talking about here? Is it meaningful to contrast undisturbed with disturbed sites? This study would have been much better if they had dropped this false dichotomy, this myth of the pristine, and assessed levels of disturbance along a gradient. What we need is a set of standardized indices for measuring forest use so that we can assess how different kinds of use affect biodiversity.