New Internationalist

Breathtaking

Issue 319

new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

Breathtaking
Nicola Baird
reveals the power and mystery of rainforests,
whose destruction is making the Earth short of breath.

‘Come and listen to this!’ instructs my friend Dorothy as she clamps a pair of headphones over my ears in a Melbourne record store. The CD whirrs and then I hear the unmistakable rhythm of cicadas and rain. It is followed by the haunting voice of a woman singing a cappella. At once I think of my first trip into the rainforest – the agonizing skid down the ridge on a steep, sticky red path, made possible only by grasping tree roots and vines and then the perfect pay-back: a swim in the cold bright water pool at the base of a waterfall. There were orchids overhead, parrots chattering as they flew in gangs between the thin buttressed trees – seemingly hundreds of metres above the sunny tropical sky’s peak of blue.

The song ends and I take off the headphones reluctantly. Outside a tram rumbles across the city. The song triggers so many memories of rainforest ‘walk about’ around Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands that Dorothy has to shake my arm to get any response. ‘Do you recognize it? That old woman is from Solomon Islands!’ I stare at her stupidly. ‘Yes,’ she insists breathlessly, ‘that old woman – who has never worn shoes in her life and has never even seen a CD – who sits all day singing lullabies to her grandchildren under the ngali nut tree on a tiny island, is now singing to the world.’

She sings in her own language of course, but Dorothy knows it well. Her mother is from the same area – Lau, the northeastern tip of the island of Malaita, about 24 hours’ boat-, truck- and canoe- ride away from the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara. Like most of the Solomon Islands’ 1,000 or so isles, Malaita is heavily forested. Although the people of Lau have lived further from the rainforest than almost any other of the country’s 80 or so language groups – instead of struggling to make a life deep in the bush their ancestors built artificial islands around the Lau lagoon – every part of their lives is shaped by its presence. The rainforest is celebrated in their carvings, dances, songs, traditional customs, beliefs and stories. It is sanctuary, larder, bank and inspiration.

The rainforest – whether the Brazilian Amazon, the African jungle or these forested islands of Oceania – is well named. Most afternoons, during the rainy season, the thunder clouds build up and the humidity rises until at last the rumbles turn to roars, the wind picks up and the rain starts cracking to the ground. Where there is no tree-cover the first of the big heavy drops can be heard long before great sheets force their way to the ground. It is so noisy that it can be hard to hear anyone talk as the drops splosh on to the ground then bounce right back up again to give anyone caught in the downpour a double soaking. But in the forest the tree canopy becomes an umbrella softening the rain’s force, its direct path to the ground constantly re-routed as the water runs off glistening green leaves.

At night the rainforest is cloaked by darkness; the bright stars of the southern skies and the moon are hidden by layers and layers of leafy canopy. But it is far from quiet – turned into an amphitheatre of the sounds of life by a cast of chattering frogs, flying foxes (bats) and insects. Never is the forest less accessible to people – or more magical – than at night.

The incredible way that rainforests – and all the life that lives in them – function is just as magical. Tropical forests are found on very poor, shallow soils. To combat this, nature has honed spectacular recycling skills. In the rainforest this recycling is almost visible as the steamy heat makes everything decay fast. Stand on a log and at once it breaks into saggy wafers of timber. And as it rots a multitude of organisms – from insects to fungi – compete for the nutrient feast.

Jungle magic: illustration by Solomon Islands' artist Marcellin Maetarau. Global thermostat
The forest is also a living store of carbon; it forms about half of every tree. Because trees function by photosynthesis, drawing down carbon dioxide (one of the most damaging greenhouse gases) from the atmosphere, the rainforest functions as a massive carbon storehouse or carbon sink. This carbon will only be released in a way that is damaging for the atmosphere if it is burnt – if it falls down, the recyclers of the rainforest take care of it. But destroy the trees and the world risks running low on places where carbon generated by car exhausts, planes and industry can be stored safely. Worse still, some climate scientists fear it could be just 100 years before the world’s last remaining rainforests are put under such stress that they turn from essential carbon sink into a massive source of carbon dioxide – with unthinkable consequences to the delicate balance of life on earth.

Rainforests play another critical role: they are the world’s thermostat. The hot, humid air generated over the rainforest, particularly the vast Amazon, is carried away in massive rain clouds and then in great air masses high in the atmosphere before being distributed as rain and warmth over cooler zones. This means that any loss of healthy rainforest could trigger serious climatic changes worldwide. For example, Northern Europe and Scandinavia could end up drier and colder, causing havoc to agriculture and people’s lifestyles.

Yet despite its importance few people nowadays can cope in the rainforest without specialist help. That’s why outsiders – whether scientists, tourists or city dwellers like me and Dorothy – have to rely on the skills of local people even on the shortest of bushwalks. In the forest, newcomers quickly get lost. They sweat, they squelch through mangroves, they suffer from blisters as their booted feet stay damp from crossing and re-crossing rivers, sometimes the only practical route in and out of the forest. Bodies respond with a yeasty smell and fungal infections. It is all one can do to cope with the physical challenge of keeping upright along a slippery forest trail in 30°C, in 90-per-cent humidity, in hot sun, then a downpour, then steaming heat and finally the cold of a dark forest night. This is not the friendly boardwalked rainforest of tourist Queensland, the sunlit groves of Disney’s Jungle Book or the air-con recreation of the Rainforest Café chain – so popular it even has branches in Mexico, not far from where the rainforest used to be. This is the real thing. No wonder the rainforest at first seems a dull place to the visitor used to zoo exhibits of hyacinth macaws and chattering monkey troupes. And it’s this lack of understanding which has helped allow so much of the world’s forest to be abused.

Learning to see
On paper it is easier to appreciate the varieties of green, the staggering shapes of leaves, the tangle of liana vines, the unique niche each forest plant, insect and bird has engineered for itself to ensure the best possible chances of survival. In the scattered forests of the Solomons there are 170 species of birds, many of which have developed distinctive forms. There are 4,500 plant species, with 230 varieties of orchids alone. The butterflies are huge. Reptiles thrive and the seas teem with life – much of it spawned in the mangrove forests on the islands’ shores.

Yet it takes a lifetime to learn how to see all that is there – not least because so many of the animals, reptiles and invertebrates mimic the colours and shapes of the vegetation around them.

Even in a country as small as the Solomons the forests are very different. There are the buttressed trees of Rennell which manage to cling to a pitted grey coral floor; the amazing virgin forest left standing in the mist on the top of the circular island of Kolombangara; the steep tree- and fern-covered slopes of volcanic Savo with its bubbling hot geysers and the perfect islands scattered around the World Heritage-listed Marovo lagoon. Much of the wildlife is gentle and unique to the islands. My favourites are the smudgy grey ibis, the glistening white cockatoos that can be seen patrolling the forests of Isabel, the flying foxes which roost together at dusk, the chattering frogs of Malaita or the flightless black hen which uses the volcanic black sands of Ngella province as an incubator for her eggs.

Sadly there are also ruined forests. Many islands have been logged with little care for this fragile environment. Flying over the country, in one of the small Twin Otter planes which hop between the island airstrips cut from the bush, it is easy to see the damage. Where the loggers – typically Malaysian companies selling to Japan – have opened up the forest there are massive red scars. When it rains these logging roads turn into streams washing the thin layer of forest soil away. This turns the rivers cloudy and eventually suffocates the coral reefs with a blanket of sediment, driving the fish away. From the air it looks as if the forest is bleeding into the sea.

Sinking spiral
In the villages where the trees have gone, life is no longer worth singing about. Growing food is hard because the thin layer of fertile soil gets washed away during the rains – so dollars are needed to buy essentials like rice. The clear water is muddied, causing outbreaks of sickness and creating an endless struggle for women to find safe, clean drinking water for their families. The lack of tree cover can lead to devastating floods for the villagers and far less protection from the Pacific’s deadly weather foe, the Christmas season of cyclones. Removing the trees can also trigger unusually long periods of drought, adding to the hardships of people more used to daily downpours.

The destruction of the forest may bring a short-term bonus – dollars – for some families, but in the long term it makes life so much harder for everyone. As Dr John Collee, writing in the Observer newspaper during his stint as an island doctor at Gizo Hospital in Western Province, points out, destroying the forest destroys the individual. ‘The lifestyle of Solomon Islanders has evolved, like the rainforest around them, over many generations. When you destroy the individual’s lifestyle, you destroy the individual, which is why, inevitably, the health of these islanders deteriorated dramatically in areas which have been logged. Their fishing and gardens are destroyed so we see malnourished children in the hospital. Their social structure is destroyed so we see crimes of violence and venereal disease. Their water supply is destroyed so we see skin infections and water-borne diseases. Their men become drunkards, their women turn to prostitution, their children buy cheap sugary drinks and rot their teeth.’

These are devastating effects – and yet even this suffering in the Solomons is nothing compared to the worldwide misery which will surely occur if the rainforests, and the amazing biodiversity within them, continue to be removed.

Illustration by Solomon Islands' artist Marcellin Maetarau. Smoke signals
Even before the worst predictions can come true, we are running into trouble. Only a few months ago Indonesia was forced to declare a state of emergency because of the return of a deadly smog caused by fires in the forest. These fires were not started by lightning strikes – they were set off by people clearing patches of forest land for agriculture. And it’s happened before – between mid-1997 and early 1998 ten million hectares of forest were wrecked in the region. Not only have the fires destroyed pristine rainforest and wiped out rare species, they have also created a thick choking smog which has caused shipping collisions, traffic accidents and even an aircraft crash. Billions of dollars have been lost in neighbouring Malaysia as tourists have cancelled holidays, airports have closed, schoolchildren have been sent home and the number of people suffering from asthma, bronchitis and breathing difficulties has soared.

In a region where sitting down to story is one of the best parts of life, it is strange that the modern storytellers, the media, can’t make people see climate change as the apocalyptic force all the pointers suggest it is going to be. Perhaps there is something in the sheer scale of it which makes it hard to believe.

Dorothy has brought me to a downtown Melbourne record store because she knows I’ll find it hard to believe an old woman from the Solomon Islands – who has never even learnt to speak English – could end up on a CD played in sitting rooms all over the world. I may be surprised, but at least this woman’s heart-felt song from her forested homeland is alerting the world to the magic and mystery of the rainforest. Few of us – even journalists like Dorothy and myself – can manage anything like that.

Nicola Baird is an environmental journalist based in London who has worked in the Solomon Islands and gone back for numerous visits. She has written several books including A Green World? (Watts,1997) and The Estate We’re In: Who’s Driving Car Culture (Indigo, 1998).

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