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Forests in the tropics are critical for tackling climate change – yet the people showing how are being exploited

Forests in the tropics are critical for tackling climate change – yet the people showing how are being exploited

A person in a harness ascends the trunk of a tropical tree.

Nowhere is nature more vibrant than in Earth’s tropical forests. It is believed to contain more that half of all the species PlantAnd Animal species, the forests around Earth’s equator have sustained foragers and farmers since the earliest days of humanity. Their bounty is a major component of our globalized diet today and holds great potential. Existing and new medicine. Those who are still locked up Billions of tonnesThe best natural solution to climate change is carbon dioxide. It is impossible to achieve net zero emissions if tropical lands do not get attention.

Nations are clamouring for information on how much carbon tropical forests can keep out of a rapidly warming atmosphere to help limit global warming to well below 2°C. Long-term measurements of these forests can be done in carefully-defined plots, one tree at time, year after year. This is the best way to study them. These plots can tell us which species are present and require help, which forests store most carbon and grow the fastest, and which trees are best at resisting heat and producing wood.

Tropical people collect the data that is the foundation of our knowledge about these vital ecosystems, far from the capital cities and laboratories where forests are studied and legislated on. According to conventional wisdom, making all their data freely available is egalitarian. But for the people measuring tropical forest species and carbon, offering the fruits of their labour without fair investment won’t reduce inequalities – it will increase them.

A person in a harness ascends the trunk of a tropical tree.

A Colombian colleague measures a giant Dipteryx tree in the Chocó rainforest.
Zorayda Restrepo Correa, Author provided

That’s because those gathering the data in tropical forests are extraordinarily disadvantaged compared to the researchers and policymakers who use it. Field workers can put their lives at risk to expand the world’s understanding of one of its best bulwarks against climate change and its biggest repository of biodiversity. They receive little protection and very limited compensation for their efforts.

To make the most of nature’s resources to combat biodiversity loss and climate crisis, it is important to value these workers. For example, tropical forests are able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere in a way that is unmatched. Without measuring this, the potential contribution of tropical forests in slowing climate change is overlooked, undervalued, and not adequately paid for.

Now, 25 top researchers in Science of tropical forestsAfrica, Asia and Europe are calling for an end the exploitation of forests that threatens their sustainability.

Precarious, dangerous, underfunded

Collecting and identifying data is required to determine the carbon and biodiversity of a single hectare Amazon forest. You can get up to ten times the amount the number of tree species present in the UK’s entire 24 million hectares. Those who expect this information for free ignore the risks, costs, and skill involved in gathering it.

Two world maps separately coloured to denote national GDP and tropical forest area.

How (a) 2008–2018 national average GDP per capita compares with (b) tropical forest area.
Lima et al. (2022), Author provided

Fieldworkers risk their lives in order to identify and measure remote tropical trees. Many face the danger of kidnapping or murder, as well as natural hazards like fires, floods, and snake bites. Long-term workers have experienced infectious diseases such as malaria or typhoid. They also face dangers from dangerous transport and the threat of gender-based violence. They may not be able to work once the data have been collected. How many of them use their outputs to calibrate satellite instruments, or write high-level reports? The most recent oneSimilar conditions will be faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It costs approximately US$7,000,000 per yearTo determine how much carbon is being sequestered in intact tropical forests. This is far more than the piecemeal funding provided by a few charities and research councils. Because of the insufficient investment in field research, tropical countries don’t know how their forests will fare as climate change accelerates. They’re unable to say which are slowing it and lack the bargaining power to raise the finance needed to protect them.

The US spends more than US$90 million annually on its infrastructure national forest inventory. Wealthy countries have a good understanding of their forest carbon balances and can easily show the world the contribution their forests make in slowing climate change.

Field workers get a fair deal

Different approaches must be taken to ensure data gatherers are considered first, and that those who benefit from their efforts are supported financially. Funders, producers, as well as users of tropical forests science should work together in equal partnership.

See Also
In the wake of the China-Solomon Islands pact, Australia needs to rethink its Pacific relationships

Students gather hold a measuring tape around a tree trunk.
Sierra Leone: University students learn data collection techniques from Moses Sainge, field botanist.
Moses N. Sainge, Author provided

Research funding must not only cover the costs of data acquisition, but also training and guaranteeing the employment of forest workers. Involving local communities is critical too – they often own the forests and need economic opportunities as much as anyone. After the fieldwork, funding should be available for the vital work of curation, managing, and sharing data.

Journals and authors who publish scientific studies on tropical forest can benefit by including the people who collected the data as authors. They should also consider publishing in their native languages rather than assuming English suffices.

Open data sharing could be beneficial for everyone. The tree of knowledge bears many fruits. However, if we do not take responsibility for its roots, there will be very little left to harvest.

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