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The End of the Asian Forests

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The burning of Asian forests, particularly but not exclusively in Indonesia, continues unabated. This is usually reported on for the public health aspects of it since the smoke from Sumatra wafts over the rest of southeast Asia. That’s a huge problem, but of course there is also the destruction of the ecosystem. When I traveled in Sumatra in 1997, I saw some of this and it was mostly poor people engaging in slash and burn farming. That’s not the case anymore. Today, it’s big landowners burning land for palm oil and paper plantations. The method of clearing land is horrible because of the environmental cost to people’s lungs, but that’s not what I want to focus on here.

In the 1980s, as environmentalists rallied to save the last ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, workers, who considered themselves environmentally responsible stewards of the land, were angry because of their lost livelihood. Of course, the companies were lying to the workers as they were already moving operations to other forests, but leave that aside for now. One point the two timber workers unions made repeatedly was that the United States was now exporting its forestry to countries with far fewer environmental restrictions on forestry than the U.S. By moving timber production to Brazil or Indonesia, we were dooming other forests while doing nothing about consumption in the United States. And that’s basically a correct analysis of the situation. That doesn’t mean that we should have cut down the last old-growth forests, in fact environmentalists were completely correct on this. But the saving of American forests in no way reduced consumption of forest products. The transformation of tropical forests into plantations for the export market is one result of this.

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