Summarising SEARRP

Another catchy acronym; another interesting symposium.  The Royal Society’s Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme held a two day meeting in London, quite a few weeks ago now, that managed to attach some of the top contemporary tropical forest scientists, as well as a bunch of my good friends!  All the great people work in SEA forest conservation, it seems.  (Conjecture only.)

Here are my five take-away points/unanswered questions from the meeting:

1. Should we rethink our current approach to conservation or try a bit harder doing what we’re already doing?

Good question, and probably the answer is it is depends on the situation.  I know I could certainly try a bit harder with both advocating for forest conservation and with figuring out a method for translating the words I’ve written on paper into something useful for those ‘on the ground’.

2. Native charismatic leaders are needed in the country where a conservation action is required.

This is a particular favourite of mine and one I hear people bring up frequently: change starts with respected, charismatic leaders.  I think I would be more likely to participate in the annual ragwort-pull in my New Forest village if the long-standing Doctor (come theatre director, actor and charmer) encouraged me to, than if someone popped by from Sevenoaks to give his/her opinion on what us villagers should do.  Not a great example, but we all take more notice when someone we know, trust and respect gives their opinion on something concerning us.

3. The risks associated with not doing anything about forest loss and biodiversity conservation are major.

….in case anyone was considering a change of profession – please hold off for a bit longer.  We need to know more about these risks so that we can prioritise our efforts and use the knowledge to incentivise behavioural change.

4. Should scientists be aiming to publish their work on the front page of Science or on the front page of the Daily Mail?

I would say both.  As to which is more important if only one is possible, again it probably depends on the situation.  But I think there should be an obligation for scientists to somehow find the time to translate their work into publicly-accessible pieces (with advocacy potential), and for politicians to put more emphasis on the use of policy-relevant research so that society becomes more tuned-in to evidence-based decision-making….and to all of the proven c**p that’s going on in the world today.

This point is along similar lines to something that came up at this year’s Earthwatch Debate, which focused on the controversial topic of rewilding in the UK.  As summarized for the twitter nation:

Need to take the #rewilding debate from London to the village halls where people will be dealing with the #beavers head on.

5. What potential does the plethora of new technologies have to deal with the old threats?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, and again it probably depends.  There are hundreds of people who are better placed to give their opinion, one of which is the Captain of the Carnegie Plane of Dreams.  Professor Greg Asner, along with his hardworking, uber-intelligent minions, has developed technologies to map the chemistry of forest canopies, allowing for species-level identifications over vast areas.  I didn’t fall asleep once during his presentation.  And there are lots of other things going on out there, one of which I’m involved with.

6. Just remembered a 6th Roads: the bane of tropical forests, or are they?

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A road that I wish wasn’t there.  It was constructed illegally (though it seems that’s disputed) into land owned by the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Central Kalimantan, and not the plantation company that built it and has started to convert the area on the left into the bland oil palm plantations that this region is now accustomed to.

Fronting the “yes” campaign, Bill Laurance provided a convincing argument, showcasing his work on the impact of roads on the tropical forests across the world.  On the “No” side, the incredible Vojtech Novotny told a captivating story of the meaning of roads for the people of New Guinea.  His colleagues from the island were shocked to hear that people in the UK campaign to halt road building.  In a country where access to many places during much of the year is near impossible, and formal education and health care near absent, the thought of getting a road is equivalent to a lifetime of Christmases rolled into one (though the concept of Christmas is probably even more alien to them than roads).  In this richly forested nation, the argument for/against roads is nuanced and warrants consideration.

The answer to most of these questions seems to be that it mostly depends on the situation.  This isn’t just my indecision shining through; I think many tropical forest conservation projects have suffered in the past from the imposition of general rules on unique situations, as each project focus inevitably is.  General theories, principles and strategies are obviously necessary and useful, but there’s a whole load of specifics beyond these, which need to be gleaned from every forest and every community.

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Selungo & the Penan Peace Park

At the end of September, the documentary Sunset over the Selungo was released.  It beautifully portrays the culture of a community belonging to the Penan tribe, living in a very remote part of the remaining rainforest of Sarawak.

                  Sarawak, one of the Malaysian States in Northern Borneo, Southeast Asia.                    (Thanks Mongabay for the image….and for all of my tropical forest news!)

Though I’ve spent some time in Sarawak over the last 6 years, and so learnt a bit about the State’s many different tribal groups and their unique cultures, I was mesmerized when I watched this film last night.  You get a privileged insight into just how skillfully these people live off the riches of the rainforest.

Then in the last few minutes of the documentary, the bomb drops/chainsaw starts.  After cleverly drawing you in to the sustainable romance of the Penan’s forest existence, the Producer/Director extraordinaire (Ross Harrison) hits you with the hard-line campaign behind his piece: deforestation.  Illegal and legal loggers are trying to move into the area, and have been for some time, despite its remoteness and importance to local and global communities.

Unfortunately, this is no new story for forest-based communities.  A friend of mine, Dr Fran Lambrick, had the premier of her documentary, I am Chut Wutty, last month also.  She tells the story of the incredibly brave Cambodian campaigner, Chut Wutty, who tried to prevent the logging and destruction of the forests in his country that many communities rely on for sustainable rubber tapping and a range of other forest products and services.  He was killed.  Probably under the direction of his own Government.

Before Chut Wutty died, he made a great noise about the injustice and destruction he saw, and generated action and support that continues in his absence.  The Penan people in Ross’ film have created a voice for themselves too, and are working to create the Penan Peace Park.  If you manage to watch the film and feel inspired to help their campaign, you can donate to it here.

Spotting peat

For anyone who wants a relatively concise introduction to the Peat Spotter project I’ve been working on for the last year with Rezatec, funded by the European Space Agency, we’ve just published a promo video on YouTube.  I’ll aim to write a bit more about it soon for those avid peat spotters out there.  For now, prizes for those that spot my precious clubbed thumb in action.

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An area in Central Kalimantan where we trialled some of the equipment and protocols that we’ll use to spot peat, in the ‘field’.  Here we have a typical Southeast Asian scene of drained peat, with oil palms planted in the fore- and background, and a degrading fragment of forest off in the distance.  Whether that patch of trees can actually be called a forest is another thing.  

 

Exploring recovery rates in tropical forests

After one near-missed flight (trying to correct the proof in time for the deadline in an airport flying between islands whilst peat spotting in Indonesia), several near sleepless nights (correcting previous drafts) and three attempts to download free-trial software (for last minute figure alterations whilst >1000 miles away from a computer that had the software on)….I was relieved to have my first paper published earlier this year.  And excited to have Cole associated, in print, with tropical forests, at long last.  The paper describes some research I did as part of my PhD, exploring the rates of tropical forest recovery after different disturbance events in the past.  Many a fossil pollen diagram was trawled to collect the data and we found some interesting results of relevance to the debate on tropical forest resilience.

Back in June, I had the privilege of writing a post on this research and our findings for the Kew Science Blog and to make a cameo appearance on Phil Martin’s Ecology for a crowded planet website, so if  you’d like to read more about the work, have a click (one’s enough – bit of a cut-and-paste job!).  Soon after, to my delight, the great Professor Corey Bradshaw wrote a bit about the research on his ConservationBytes blog.

As a first exploration of the vast data stored in published palaeoecological studies of tropical forest ecosystems, I was pleased with the insights I gleaned, but there’s a lot more potential locked up in these fossil pollen datasets.  I’ve got a long list of questions ready to start researching….as soon as a philanthropist with a tropical forest leaning gets word of the opportunity!