9 December 2005

It’s not too late to save the world’s tropical forests but it will take more than fast-growing exotic timber plantations that are currently being used, according to University of Queensland researchers.

UQ rainforest ecologists Dr David Lamb and Dr Peter Erskine believe some of the degraded or partially cleared tropical forests in Asia, Latin America and Africa, can be restored.

The say the first step is to learn more about the condition and biodiversity of secondary forests, according to their findings published in the latest edition of the international scientific journal Science.

Dr Lamb said the second step was to assess which native trees could be grown on degraded land.

“This involves trialling many different native species including higher valued timber species to diversify income for local farmers,” Dr Lamb said.

“Farmers need to buy short and long-term insurance in the form of having a variety of tree species in their farm plantations.

“They might be species that produce timber as well as fruit and nuts or it might be fast growing trees mixed with a slow growing tree.”

He said these reforestation programs could benefit individual farmers and also improve biodiversity and regional water supplies.

The challenge was to conserve the remaining diversity in the world’s most species-rich areas while also improving the livelihood of poor farmers who live in these areas.

“Simply creating national parks in degraded forests is not enough.

“Sometimes this has even been detrimental to poor farmers who have had to leave these new protected areas.”

The pair’s alternative is to strategically reforest degraded areas both in and around nature reserves.

This method differs from traditional reforestation methods which have relied on monoculture plantations of acacia, pine or eucalyptus.

Even though 850 million hectares of tropical forest was estimated to have been cleared or degraded in the last century, Dr Lamb said it wasn’t all bad news.

“There’s forest restoration work going on and it’s not all a one-way degradation process. It’s not all doom and gloom.

“Most people tend to focus on big industrial scale plantations which do little to conserve biodiversity and are often of limited benefit to rural communities.

“But in Asia and many other parts of the tropical world, there’s also an enormous number of small farmers who are planting trees for a whole variety of reasons.”

Dr Lamb and Dr Erskine based their Science article on several years studying forests in northern Queensland, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

The pair, both working for the Rainforest Cooperative Research Centre in Cairns, also collaborated for the Science article with US forest ecologist John Parrotta who is an expert on Latin American forests.

Additional content expanding on reforestation methods in northern Laos, Thailand, Africa and Latin America can be viewed here.

Media: Dr Lamb (0411 126 286, +61 7 3365 2045, d.lamb@sib.uq.edu.au) Dr Erskine (+61 7 3365 1767, p.erskine@sib.uq.edu.au) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (+61 7 3365 2619, m.holland@uq.edu.au)