Deforestation threatens the survival of the entire ecosystem

The fifth debate in the Women Scientists for the Environment series organised by Casa América Catalunya in collaboration with DIPLOCAT focused on the importance of controlling tree felling to prevent forest degradation and ensure the survival of the ecosystems that depend on them. The cycle comprises a series of debates offering a female perspective on the major issues likely to be the focus of future scientific research into how we can preserve the planet and our lives, with leading scientists from Latin America discussing issues such as the pandemic, the climate, water, biodiversity and mountains with Catalan scientific commentators.

In this fifth session, forestry engineer Tatiana Espinosa, who campaigns to protect the Amazon forest in the Las Piedras river basin in Madre de Dios (Peru), and biologist Àlex Richter-Boix, discussed how deforestation threatens the survival of planet Earth. Espinosa pointed out that deforestation is primarily caused by illegal logging and mining operations, changes in agricultural production and road construction. Scientific data has been successful in drawing attention to the gravity of the problem, but has so far failed to raise sufficient awareness to prompt action to reverse it, which is why she believes we must now "look beyond the scientific data and rekindle the relationship between people and nature". Boix agreed with her diagnosis. In his opinion, we need to shift from a purely scientific and academic message to a more emotional one. "Sociology, rather than ecology, is what's needed to address the issue," he said.

Espinosa was emphatic in stating that the forests have a crucial role to play in combating climate change because no reforesting or replanting process can replace the original essence of a primary (non-reforested) forest. Forests are vertical structures containing an immense variety of plants that, in turn, provide a habitat for thousands of organisms. To highlight the importance of forests, Espinosa offered some surprising facts: a single tree can accommodate up to 5,000 different species of insects and a large tree, like those in the Amazon, pumps up to 1,000 litres of water a day, creating what's known as "flying rivers", air currents that transport this water to higher levels, stimulating the creation of rivers that then help to nourish populated areas living at higher elevations. For his part, Boix supported this argument and pointed out that deforestation threatens the survival of 10,000 living species and can change the entire ecosystem.

According to Espinosa, we're facing the human-induced sixth mass extinction of vertebrate species; in other words, the extinction of vertebrates by vertebrates themselves. The Amazon is reaching a point of no return, a collapse from which it may never recover. If that happens, the degraded forest will stop emitting water and cease to nourish the entire ecosystem that has developed around it. The engineer emphasised the critical nature of her work in Peru, explaining that although people tend to think of Brazil when they think of the Amazon, it also occupies 50% of Peru's landmass, making her country home to the most extensive area of Amazon forest outside of Brazil. In this context, she drew attention to the fact that, in 2020, Peru set a new record by sustaining the deforestation of an area equivalent to 1,150 football stadiums every day.

Espinosa also talked about the mining industry's role in the disappearance of the forests and how it produces pollution and relies on human trafficking. However, the initial stages of deforestation often start with road construction. From then on, a chain of events plays out, starting with the burning of deforested areas to plant new crops, which often results in the fire spreading to areas of primary forest due to the degraded nature of the land.

In regard to using reforestation to maintain balance and preserve natural resources, Espinosa points to the example of the Shihuahuaco tree, a type of hardwood tree that, while highly prized for the quality of its strong wood, cannot be logged sustainably because of the number of years it takes to grow. Which is why she believes it's vital we stop felling hardwood trees. It's not just about saving the forests; it's about not degrading them because, ultimately, they are "genetic banks", said the engineer.

Espinosa went on to explain that large trees are connected to smaller ones, creating neural chains that share resources and information. By cutting down large trees, we're cutting down the "forest's energy core" and sparking the process of deforestation. "We think of trees as a product that gives us wood, but we should think of them as living beings that give us everything", said Espinosa, who believes "we're killing the goose that lays golden eggs".

Upcoming talks

The Women Scientists for the Environment debate cycle puts the spotlight on female scientists who stand out for their perseverance and success in natural research fields. It features women who have become a point of reference in their field, created a working school, made a significant scientific discovery, had their work published in highly regarded scientific journals or won international awards.

The last two sessions of the cycle will feature Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia for eight years, and Yolanda Kakabadse, who campaigned for the Declaration on Environmental Sustainability in Latin America. They will be joined by the Catalan scientific commentators David Bueno and Vladimir de Semir.