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Forests becoming ‘human’s garden’, experts worried whether any truly wild places left

"These trends in the 20th century, by and large, continue unabated in the 21st century."

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LONDON, United Kingdom (28 March, 2012)_Scientists at the Planet under Pressure conference in London have warned of humankind’s entrance into a new epoch of civilisation – the anthropocene or “a man-made world” – partly brought about by a dogged determination to artificialise vast forest landscapes with domesticated commercial gardens that threaten plant and animal biodiversity.

“Our manipulation of living systems is nothing new. What is indeed unprecedented about the anthropocene is the scale and the intensity of our manipulation,” said Sandra Diaz, professor at Córdoba National University in Argentina in her keynote speech at the conference, which is regarded as a key event in the lead up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to be held in Brazil this June.

Today, about 70% of the ice-free surface of the earth shows significant traces of human use. And a good proportion of that surface is occupied by domesticated landscapes — the result of carefully selected economic species of animals and plants bred to serve a certain purpose such as maize crops to enhance food supplies or the cattle farms that cover much of Brazil’s landscape.

“The ultimate domesticated landscape is one that maximises homogeneity and the fast growth of the organisms we use. It is also a landscape free from competitors and predators,” Diaz said.

“So the selective pressures that result are very different from the ones prevailing during the evolutionary history of most of the species that live today on earth.”

Increasing the provision of one service may decrease ecosystem reliance and the provision of other services, particularly in the face of climate change. A recent article by the Center for International Forestry Research showed that the booming trade in both timber and non-timber forest products in the Congo Basin is threatening the integrity of the very forest ecosystem that provides these goods and undermines its resilience to climate change.

“It is very clear now that ecosystems are deteriorating fast…and is taking with it a number of very important benefits to humankind,” Diaz said.

While domestication has implications for the diversity, distribution, and availability of both animal and plant species, a study by Karivera et al cautions against the glorification of natural, or wild, ecosystems. They stress that some cases domestication will result in improved ecosystems both for people and for other species; other paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are clearly better for humans but not for other species; and some paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are too degraded to benefit people or other species.

“The key scientific goals are to understand the tradeoffs that exist between the provision of different ecosystem services and  determine to what extent we can use this evidence to slow down the anthropogenic processes that are currently prevalent in most remaining wildlands,” said Terry Sunderland, senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research.

The scientific community is lobbying for biodiversity to be added to the key global physical and geological indicators of climate change, such as carbon dioxide emissions and loss of tropical forests, which have all continued to rise since the 1950s, according to Will Steffen, Executive Director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute.

“These [rising] trends in the 20th century, by and large, continue unabated in the 21st century.”

Steffen highlighted data estimating the loss of carbon from the Amazon basin to be 2.2 billion tonnes in 2010 which was estimated to negate about 10 years-worth of carbon sink activity.

“So this could be one of the first signs that we are losing the strength of the biosphere to offset a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

However there are some signs of positive change, experts say. Recent data from the Forest Stewardship Council shows that the spatial extent of protected areas and sustainably managed forests is increasing. Other encouraging signs include the weakening link between gross domestic product, energy and carbon emissions as economies become more efficient and move away from fossil fuels.

According to the International Energy Agency, since 1990 carbon emissions from energy use have decreased by 0.3% per annum even though global economic growth has increased by more than 2%, said Diana Liverman, professor of geography and development at the University of Arizona.

The way we handle the issue of climate change over the next 10 years will decide whether irreversible destruction has been done to our environment, experts at the conference have warned.

“We are calling the next 10 years the critical decade,” Steffan said. “It really is our last call.”

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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