The first time I traveled down the Amazon River was in 1975. The International Palm Society had held a conference in Colombia. On a lark, Mike Evans, a California nurseryman and I hopped on a mail plane to Leticia, Colombia.
This small Amazonian village bordering Brazil and Peru, later became one of the main routes used by the South American drug cartels. At that time, however, it was nothing more than an outpost and trading spot for the local indigenous people. The Amazon rainforests seemed untouched by the outside world with no roads anywhere.
In the years since then, I have been up and down the Amazon from the tributaries near Machu Pichu to the Atlantic several times. Now Voltaire Moise and I are traveling up river via Manaus to the tributaries on the border of Venezuela. As we flew over the Amazon basin toward Rio earlier this month, I was shocked to see the amount of deforestation that has occurred over the last 35 years.
Roads are cut into the virgin forest in many areas and soon after, land clearing by burning occurs with cattle ranches following. This is one reason we are seeing beautiful forest hardwoods made available for flooring and other construction uses. It is hoped that reforestation will occur along with deforestation. Some of the areas where indigenous people live are being protected but will it be enough to keep these “lungs of the planet” healthy?
Let’s reflect on what is happening and can happen right here at home.
If you think the drought was bad in West Hawaii last year, you should see what is happening throughout the new world tropics. It was so bad that on the flight to Brazil, we saw a heavy haze all across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to Florida and west from Texas. It was much like the vog we experience in Hawaii. Forests are truly the lungs of our planet. They are burning and it is happening all across the tropics.
We all know that our planet is suffering from deforestation, but what can we do to reverse this trend as we move forward in this millennium? Parts of Mainland China, Africa and India are examples of vast areas that were deforested over the centuries. However more damage has been done in the last 50 years than in the last several centuries.
Unfortunately, untold numbers of native species have been lost and climates altered. Now reforestation projects often require drought-hardy species like eucalyptus and neem, or very fast growing types like bamboo. Whatever trees we use, we need to do it soon. Much of the tropics including Hawaii could become desert if this deforestation and climate change continues.
Imagine how our island might have appeared when the first Polynesians set foot on it. There were forests covering the Kohala mountains, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and much of Mauna Loa. Dryland forests extended to Kawaihae. Well, it is time to reverse the trend of deforestation. At least here where we can have some control.
Some key advantages to planting forests have been to reduce wind velocity, erosion, preserve forest watersheds, native ecosystems, recreation and of course, tie up some of the excess carbon in our atmosphere.
Forests and their effect on the local climate are nothing new, but as important as they are, they have not been put to use as much in Hawaii as they should be. The primary purpose of forests including windbreak plantings is to reduce wind velocities to a degree that will provide needed protection.
Some secondary effects of reducing wind velocity are modification of temperature in the protected area as well as increased humidity and reduced evaporation in the protected area. This reduces dust problems and supplies shelter and food for wildlife. They also add beauty to the area.
Examples of change in local climate due to tree planting are found in the Ka‘u district of the Big Island. Over the last 40 years, thousands of trees were planted. The entire Ka‘u region around Pahala has been literally reforested with macadamia trees and windbreaks. It was transformed from a dry, dusty region known for its incessant winds to a green and productive oasis. Lava flows of West Hawaii are being transformed by urban reforestation to create parks, gardens and golf courses. This means jobs for local landscapers, gardeners and plant nurseries.
Areas like Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea and Waikoloa could greatly benefit from this kind of long-range planning and planting. Unfortunately, trees take years to grow and we too often think in terms of short term profits.
Around East Hawaii, forests of macadamia, banana, rambutan, and other tropical fruit are sprouting up where sugar cane lands were abandoned. Giant timber bamboos from the Orient could be grown as well. These can reach heights of 100 feet and more. There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo. The giant timber types are clumping. They are easily maintained and extremely ornamental.
Thousands of acres of the Hamakua and Hilo sugar lands have been reforested, but many more are still available. Native trees are great, but remember, even the much maligned eucalyptus and ironwood play a part in increasing oxygen, reducing carbon dioxide and protecting the land. Landscaping coastal lava fields to golf courses and trees is not popular with some folks but this too is urban forestry. North Kona lava fields north of Kua Bay are being terraformed to create tree covered communities.
In many ways, we in Hawaii are on the right track, but we must continue to make a difference. If each Hawaii Island resident plants one tree per month, that is a couple of million new trees in one year. We also need to change our agricultural and urban development practices to give incentives for land managers and owners to keep and protect our forests. Presently, there are tax reduction incentives for those who dedicate there lands to forest. Marginal grazing lands are ideal for reforestation, but our laws and regulations need to reflect more support for ranchers interested in planting and maintaining forests on their lands.
It is very sad to see so much destruction of our world’s great forests, but we can demonstrate good forest stewardship here in Hawaii if we truly make that commitment. During tough economic times like these, it is difficult to think far into the future, but we must remember what we waste and misuse now, steals from our children and grandchildren.
This information is provided courtesy of the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.