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Creating a niche to save the rainforests

abracad, · Categories: environment, externally authored

Interview with David Seaborg

by Monte Leach

The World Rainforest Fund, a nonprofit group founded in 1984, is dedicated to preserving biodiversity and saving rainforests worldwide, primarily tropical rainforests in Latin America. The group's focus is on the Brazilian Amazon, the largest intact rainforest on Earth. The fund helps indigenous people save their rainforest homes; gives grants to nonprofit groups carrying out projects of special value to conserve rainforests; and educates the US public on the importance of preserving rainforests. David Seaborg, founder and president of the World Rainforest Fund, is an evolutionary biologist and a long-time environmental activist. Monte Leach interviewed David Seaborg for Share International. Source: © Share International

David Seaborg
David Seaborg, founder and president of the World Rainforest Fund

Share International: What is the current situation regarding the destruction of tropical rainforest? Your website includes a dramatic statistic, that 300 acres are being destroyed every minute.

David Seaborg: That's right. Three hundred acres per minute worldwide of tropical rainforests are being destroyed either through cutting or burning, which is about half the size of the state of California every year.

SI: During the time you have been involved with this issue, has it gotten any better or worse?

DS: Better and worse. Ecuador is making progress. Costa Rica has reserved a lot of its land. Brazil has slowed down the rate (until recently). On the other hand, it is speeding up in Indonesia and Malaysia mainly because of the production of palm oil - cutting bio-diverse forests to plant monocultures of oil palm trees to produce palm oil, which is used in many products. So it's getting better in some areas, there are some victories, and it is getting worse in other countries.

SI: Overall, would you say it is getting better or worse?

DS: Overall, it's getting worse but there is also more awareness. Both sides are getting stronger in the battle. The side fighting for reserves is getting more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, creating better alliances among environmental groups around the world, as well as with indigenous and local people, and winning a lot of victories, for example in Ecuador with the Ecuadorian government. So it's not all negative. But there is a growing number of people in the world, and overpopulation puts pressure on the forest. There's also more disparity between the rich and poor. Money gives the rich more power to take destructive actions and win.

Victories in the Amazon

SI: Could you talk about the work that your group has been doing and highlight some of the victories you've helped to achieve?

DS: One of our latest projects was in Ecuador where we are now focusing more attention. The Ecuadorian government was building a road, contrary to Ecuadorian law, which would have led into a 10,000 acre rainforest. According to scientists at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, this rainforest has the highest numbers of species per acre in the world. Last year we gave a grant of $3,500 to Fundacion OSA, a foundation run by a man who has done a lot of work saving and expanding Ecuador's rainforest. He used our grant to hire people to inspect the road. They found that it was wider than approved by the Ecuadorian government. The grant was also used to print magazines to show the Ecuadorian government how destructive the road would be to this pristine rainforest. If the road were built, anyone who wanted to go in and cut and burn and exploit the forest for anything they could get for profit would do that.

This work convinced the Ecuadorian government to take away its approval of the road. We are now working to protect the forest permanently. But at least we saved the forest for now because the road would have led to its destruction. As the forest has such a high number of species, and we saved it for only $3,500, it appears that we may have set the record for the most species saved per donor dollar in history.

SI: Are there other World Rainforest Fund projects you'd like to mention?

A: We are also working with the Kaya Foundation. Kaya empowers people by providing microloans. They give loans with the stipulation that if one person cuts the forest and therefore breaks the agreement to sustainably harvest the forest, all of the people in the project lose their microloans. This model is a good one because it helps people monitor one other.

These microloans are in Quechua communities in Ecuador. Quechua Indians, the indigenous people, were offered money from oil companies to be allowed to come in and 'develop' the forest with oil drilling. But the Ecuadorian constitution says the oil companies need to have permission of the indigenous people or they can't drill. The Quechua people are very poor so they are tempted by the money. At the same time they want to save their forest.

The Quechua have the expertise to create an organic farm, but they need the money to jump start it. If they can start an organic farm, they can eat the produce, sell the excess and tell the oil companies, "No". This is a great project because if we don't help them it is likely that the forest will be destroyed, but if we do help them the forest will be saved. We have already given a grant to The Kaya Foundation to get the project going. We want them to get a matching grant to double its power, so we are helping them set up this project on a crowd-funding website. They are using our grant as leverage to double the amount of funds available.

SI: It sounds like your group is a facilitator, helping to raise funds for worthwhile projects that might not otherwise get funded.

DS: Exactly. Our niche is getting funds to projects other people can't support and that are carefully researched. We find the best projects to fund so that donor dollars go the farthest in saving rainforest. We consider projects that save the maximum amount of biodiversity, empower indigenous or local people, and are in rainforests where it is likely that if the projects are not helped they will not succeed but if they are helped they will succeed. We also facilitate matching grants to double or triple our impact. And we limit ourselves to helping those people who have a good track record, who we can trust to work hard and do a good job.

Importance of the rainforest

SI: In your public education efforts, do you find that most people are aware of why it is vital to protect the rainforest?

DS: Not always. Some people know, but some people only know part of the story. Rainforest is important because it controls the global climate in two ways. One is that photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere and adds oxygen. When trees are burned or cut, carbon dioxide is added back to the atmosphere so things get worse. It isn't that you take away the ally by killing the trees. You turn an ally into an adversary because the trees are giving off carbon dioxide when they are burned or cut.

When a mega-dam is built, which floods the rainforest, methane is given off. Methane is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. So you have tremendous global warming effects there. When you cut the rainforest and raise cattle to produce hamburgers, the cattle give off methane.

Another way that deforestation affects climate is albedo, the reflectivity of the earth. When there is a green surface reflecting from the earth, that's different than when you cut the trees and the surface becomes brown. That change in reflectivity changes air currents and rainfall patterns, causing floods and droughts. Local climate is also affected because the trees produce rainfall locally by the process of evapo-transpiration. The xylem of the tree takes water up to feed the leaves, and the water then comes out of the leaves. Half the water in the Amazon rainforest comes from trees, the other half from evaporation of the Atlantic Ocean.

This process works its way across in convections, circles, from the Atlantic, and through rain, and all the way to the Andes where it's cold, condenses to snow, and melts and then feeds the rivers. When you cut the trees you break this cycle and get local droughts, and the local farmers and indigenous peoples can't grow food.

When we affect global warming, this affects world food production by affecting rainfall. Floods and droughts are caused, instead of the rainfall falling normally on the farms. Plus, half the world's species are in the rainforest. So we're causing a mass extinction of the world's species by destroying the rainforest.

Surviving on planet Earth

SI: Working in this field for so many years, what do you think it will take from an environmental standpoint to make sure we survive on the planet? 

DS: It will take a complete transformation in our thinking and outlook. Nature has a right to exist in itself and humans have a moral obligation to protect it. We need to have an awakening where we become aware of our ethical obligation to protect nature.

world rainforest fund sumaco park ecuador
The World Rainforest Fund is working to preserve rainforest next to Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park in Ecuador.

We also need an awakening of practical environmentalism, that we need the services of ecosystems in order to be able to grow our food and get our water.

We need an understanding of the magnitude and urgency of the problem - for example, global warming, which as I pointed out, is related to destruction of the rainforest. The destruction of rainforest is causing the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains to melt, which feeds seven rivers on the Asian continent. The water is necessary for 2 billion people and the ecosystems of the forest there. If the glaciers keep melting, at first there will be more water coming down, but then the glaciers, the source of the seven rivers, will be gone. Then the 2 billion people, plus all the wildlife and ecosystems, will have no water. That's just one of many problems.

We are knocking out our ability to get water and produce food, so it will lead to the fall of many higher species of life and the human race itself. Either every human will die or we'll at least have a fall of civilization and billions of people will die. There will be a tremendous mass extinction and catastrophe bigger than anything the human race has ever experienced. We need an awareness of the importance of this problem.

We have to get away from fossil fuels, get rid of coal as an energy source and go to solar, wind, certain biofuels, and conservation and energy efficiency. We have to reduce population because the world population is over 7 billion and doubles every 40 years. More mouths to feed, more people using energy, puts more strain on the planet. So we need to empower women to have access to birth control and abortion and not just be regarded as mothers but people who go out and work and have their own choices.

We need to get away from cars and airplanes and into public transportation and trains. We need to recycle as entire societies, everything recycled. We need to set aside reserves of biological hotspots. Twenty billion dollars is all it would take, maybe a little more, to preserve the 20 or so biological hotspots around the world. Hotspots mean the highest species diversity in the world. We need to set aside preserves, national parks worldwide, of rainforest and coral reefs. We need to empower the local, indigenous people to save the rainforest and also other ecosystems.

We need to get money out of the military and into helping with conservation and empowering and feeding people. We need to get rid of traditional agricultural systems and move toward organic agriculture. We need to transform corporate capitalism into a more just economic system, and redistribute the wealth so that there are not a few very rich and many poor people.

SI: How much time do we have to do all that?

DS: We don't have much time. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarizes the findings of scientists worldwide on global climate change and publishes periodic reports. They get attacked by the climate deniers as being wrong. In fact, they are wrong but in the other direction.

SI: You think the IPCC is too conservative?

DS: Yes. The problem is much worse than even the IPCC reports and the news media present. The news media doesn't give this nearly enough attention and doesn't go into the seriousness of the problem nearly enough. So we really have to get it together and work very hard right away to prevent catastrophe.

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