In 1997/8, fire devastated huge areas of Brazil, Indonesia,
Venezuela, Guyana, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, China, Vietnam,
Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei. Some were accidental:
poor logging management left open spaces with twigs,
leaves and small branches drying out in the hot sun,
or fires set to clear land got out of control. Others
were probably deliberate: by plantation owners wanting
to drive out small farmers or local people acting in
revenge for being kept out of their traditional forests.
The extreme weather conditions of those years made the
problem worse, but fire has been an increasing hazard
for many years.
Large areas of tropical American rainforest have been
cleared for cattle ranching; the beef produced in Brazil
is mostly for the domestic market, but much from Central
America goes to the USA. In the past, ranchers have
been given Government grants to convert forest to pasture.
When the grass is planted, everything is fine for a
few years. However, the soil starts to dry out, the
grass gets thinner, non-edible weeds spread, and, without
the rotting of leaves and twigs on the ground, the nutrients
in the soil are not replenished. Although some ranches
are being replanted with new grasses, many are abandoned
and the ranchers move on and cut down more forest. It
is hard for the forest to regrow because the abandoned
areas are so large, seeds from the surrounding forest
are not carried there.
Oil, natural gas and certain minerals are plentiful
in some forest areas. They might be used within a country
or exported to gain foreign currency. However, it is
very difficult to extract them without environmental
damage. In the Siberian taiga forests, huge areas have
been ruined by leaking oil pipelines; bauxite mining
in Guyana has left scars in the forest landscape and
gold mining in the Amazon has caused river pollution.
Such projects often create disagreement in the local
communities: some (often the men) are in favour because
of the jobs created; others (often the women) are more
concerned about the forest destruction.
Hydroelectric dams on rainforest rivers produce power
for both industry and domestic consumers. Although hydroelectricity
can replace the burning of trees as fuel, the dams themselves
cause lakes which flood vast areas of forest. The proposed
Bakun Dam in Sarawak, Malaysia, will involve flooding
an area the size of Singapore.
As well as the damage caused to woodlands by the hundreds
of millions of ordinary people who use wood as their
day-to-day fuel, rainforest trees are sometimes used
for industry. In Brazil, huge areas of forest are being
felled and not replanted to provide fuel to smelt iron
ore, which is then sold to the European car industry.