January 9, 2017

Disturbing Rainforest Research

Most environmentalists would claim an area with 80% forest cover is a good thing. So would many conservation charities. But new research shows landscapes like these only have 50% of the conservation value of primary rainforest.

Traditional conservation focuses on preventing large-scale deforestation: clear-cutting for timber, huge swathes of rainforest burned for cattle ranching. If most of the forest remained, the project was declared a success.

Some small-scale logging was expected in these kinds of projects. Brazil’s forest code allows a maximum of 20% loss of primary forest under its protected areas.


Small scale damage to forests is known as ‘disturbance’. It’s things like local people selling off individual trees, selective logging, and local wildfires caused by human activity. According to recent research1, this disturbance is having a much bigger effect on the health of the forest than previously thought.

It took two years for Professor Barlow and his team to gather data from 400 plots across the Eastern Amazon. They painstakingly measured population densities of trees, birds and insects.

Disturbed forests, which look protected to the untrained eye, turn out to have half the conservation value of untouched rainforest.

In fact, the conservation value lost by the areas of disturbed forest in the Brazilian state of Para that they studied is greater than the area deforested across the entire Brazilian Amazon between 2006 and 2015.

The research paper calls for an urgent need for policies that go beyond simple maintenance of forest cover. It’s only by preventing the small-scale disturbances as well that we can protect the amazing diversity of tropical forest ecosystems.


It’s why that’s exactly what Cool Earth does. We partner with local people with a vested interest in making sure there’s no forest disturbance. Our model means there’s no need to sell trees to loggers because we work with communities to develop alternative income streams. And cutting edge techniques like Inga alley cropping mean far less land is cleared to grow food. It all adds up to next to no canopy loss, and high levels of biodiversity. Good news for conservation, and good news for the planet.


  1. Anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests can double biodiversity loss from deforestation (Jos Barlow, Gareth D. Lennox, Joice Ferreira, Erika Berenguer, Alexander C. Lees, Ralph Mac Nally), Nature, Jun 29, 2016


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