Stretching across the heart of the African continent, the Congo rainforest is a global treasure. There, you’ll find the forest giraffes and elephants, along with the critically-endangered mountain gorilla. There are also countless communities living across the six countries that the forest spans. To survive, many of those families have little option but to turn the forest into farmland.
And that could spell the demise of the Congo’s primary forest, according to a new study. At projected rates of deforestation and population growth, old-growth trees in the world’s second-largest rainforest may be gone by 2100. That’s not only bad news for the wildlife that rely on these mature trees. It’s bad news for the people who live there—and for the rest of us who rely on this forest to sequester our carbon and turn it into the very oxygen we breathe.
“Mechanisms of climate regulation in the tropics are different from those in the temperate regions, and conversion of all primary tropical forests to the ever-rotating mosaic of young secondary forests might have a fatal effect on global climate,” said lead author Alexandra Tyukavina, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences, in an email to Earther.
The study, published in Science Advances Wednesday, takes a focused look at the Congo’s primary forests because they “are the most biodiversity-rich terrestrial ecosystems and play a crucial role in climate regulation,” as Tyukavina put it. Nearly half of forest loss the researchers documented in the region over 15 years is primary forest and mature secondary forest, which have been disturbed but have had enough time to grow that they’re not distinguishable from primary forests in the satellite imagery.
In total, the forest lost more than 16 million hectares between 2000 and 2014—an area larger than the state of New York. The authors attribute about 84 percent of this loss to small-scale farming, which could be for subsistence or commercial crops. These are families just trying to grow some food to get by. This is especially the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic. The authors reached their 2100 projection using UN population growth estimates and assuming deforestation will keep growing alongside population.
The study’s conclusions about forest loss are based on satellite data, which has limitations. Images aren’t always clear, and cloud-cover can mess with the analysis, so satellite findings must be taken with a grain of salt, especially when they can’t be confirmed through on-the-ground observations (as was the case within this region, which isn’t all that safe or accessible).
Reliance on satellite data to calculate deforestation rates and a strict focus on primary forest cover have been points of contention among scientists, especially in developing countries like Haiti. But when it comes to the Congo, this study seems to hit the mark, said Kevin Njabo, the Africa Director for the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. He worries what this loss of primary forest could mean for the rest of the world. After all, the Congo holds a newly discovered peatland that sequesters a staggering 30.6 billion tons of carbon. Destruction of that peatland threatens to release all that carbon into our atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming.
The study points out a critical issue: Population in much of this region is set to grow, and that means more pressure will be put on the forest. However, Njabo wants us to remember that we can’t think only of the forest. We must also keep in mind the people who call the Congo home.
“This study is timely and comes at a period of time where we need to restrategize and think of the way we use the forest ,” Njabo told Earther. “We need to look at what the forest people want to gain, what input they have, how they survive, what is their livelihood. The question is not just for the forest but also for those who live within the forest and how do we make sure they can be able to survive just with the minimum standards of life: enough water, health, education.”
They key is to empower them and figure out what alternative sources of income they can find. For those trees that are gone, replanting must occur with the people’s needs in mind, Njabo said. Trees with medicinal and food value should be prioritized in areas closest to people. Farmers need to be taught how to farm in a manner that works in harmony with the rainforest. We can’t take this livelihood away from people, Njabo said. Instead, we must hear them out and figure out how to make their farming more sustainable.
“If we don’t do that, they are going to continue doing what they know how to do,” he told Earther.
And if that happens, the Congo as we know it could soon vanish.