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September 1996

Geo Factsheet
Fig 2. The Role Of Forests In Development
Primary Forest Product Processing Industry Products Rate Of Deforestation (percent; Annual Average) None Large Unsawn Logs Veneers Sawmills Sawn Logs Producing Polewood Or Blockboard Logs For Sleepers Wastes-Shavings, Sawdust

Number 2

Managing Tropical Rainforest-The Ecosystem Approach

Tropical rainforests are disappearing at a rapid rate (see Figure 1). Human activity has reduced their global coverage from over 2 2 18 million km to less than 10.5 km . Although the clearing of the forest produces many short term benefits, to provide a long term sustainable resource, tropical rainforests must be carefully managed. The ecosystem management approach uses farming techniques that are more applicable to the rainforest environment. These techniques are developed through an understanding of the ecosystem and allow the production of valuable resources, but still conserve the rainforest.

Fig 1. Loss Of Tropical Forests In Developing Regions, 1980-90

Area Deforested (millions Of Hectares; Annual Average)

(Or why do developing countries want to exploit their forests?)

Industries Based On Products Or End Use Export Export Of Luxury Furniture Construction Including: Shipbuilding Furniture Railway Construction Used As Fuel Construction Furniture Joinery Packaging Transport Mining Matches Tool-Making Used As Fuel Printing, Packaging Packing, Containers Printing Printing, Construction Mining Toolmaking Communications Charcoal Production Fuel Wood Food Production For Home use and export

Large Unsawn Logs

10 8 6 4

1.5 1.0 0.5

2 0 0
Latin America And The Caribbean Asia SubSaharan Africa Sawmills Sawnwood

Area Deforested
Source: WWF (1992)

Rate Of Deforestation
Small Unsawn Logs

Waste-Shavings, Sawdust Paper Cardboard Newsprint Fibreboard Pit Props Poles Sawmills Cut Poles Residues (Stumps, Diseased Or Damaged Wood, Branchwood, Leaves, Bark Edible Products

The Threat To Rainforests

The major causes of rainforest destruction are:1. International debt. 2. National policies e.g. transmigration schemes in Indonesia, government subsidies for ranching, incentives for growth of cash crops. 3. Fuel wood collection. 4. Demand for timber e.g. mahogany, teak from developed countries. 5. Overpopulation. 6. Base for economic development. (see Fig 2). These root causes accelerate the agents of destruction:1. Non-traditional small scale shifting agriculture. 2. Cattle ranching. 3. Plantation for cash crops. 4. Logging. 5. Development projects e.g. mining, road building.
Exam Hint - The Fact Sheet will not cover the causes and effects of deforestation in detail. However, it is important that students have a clear understanding of the complex interrelationships that occur during deforestation (see Factsheet on Tropical Rainforests). The consequences of rainforest destruction are summarised in Fig. 3.



Chips, Fuelwood Briquettes

Food Processing Industries

Fruits, Nuts, Oils

Forests can provide a huge range of products which form the basis of many industries. As a result the governments of developing countries have been under great pressure to exploit the economic potential of their virgin forests. In practice this has usually meant clear-felling or selective felling and clearance through burning; sustainable management is more difficult, time consuming and, in the short term, expensive.

Fig 3. Consequences Of Deforestation

Migration to cities Economic loss (Medicines, Foods, Industrial Products)



k Temperature



k Insolation/

Homes, income, food, culture. k Disease

Loss of biodiversity


Cloud cover

Habitat destruction,wildlife disturbance, species extinction



Forest Cover

Managing Tropical Rainforest-The Ecosystem Approach

Geo Factsheet

The Ecosystem Concept

An ecosystem is an interacting community of living things existing in and interacting with a particular non-living environment. An ecosystem is therefore composed of two components:

2. Rapid Nutrient Cycling.

The biomass of a tropical rainforest is on average 700 tonnes/ha, whereas biomass of a temperate forest it is around 130 tonnes/ha. This abundant biomass is due to three main factors: 1. Rapid overall rate of growth produced by the high levels of solar energy at tropical latitudes. 2. Abundant amounts of water 3. Rapid nutrient cycling (see Figure 5). Rainforest vegetation is constantly shedding leaves. The resultant leaf litter is decomposed within 3 to 4 months by the high density of detritivores and decomposers in the shallow topsoil (around 3 cm deep). In comparison, in temperate latitudes decomposition can take more than two years. Released nutrients are then taken up by the shallow roots of the vegetation. Rapid nutrient recycling is assisted by the high average daily temperature (28-30 oC) and high humidity of the climate in tropical rainforests.

Exam Hint - Many students fail to realise that tropical rainforests do show daily temperature variations, along with significant micro climate differences between the upper tree and shrub layer. In addition, at higher altitudes and latitudes rainforest even show noticeable seasons.

1. Abiotic components.
These are the non-living, or physical and chemical elements of the environment; topography (altitude, aspect), climate (temperature, insolation) and non-living components of soils (nutrient content).

3. Vulnerable Soils.
The high temperatures and rainfall result in very high rates of weathering of the ferrisols present. This means nutrients are quickly leached out of the ecosystem making them unavailable to vegetation. Rainforest vegetation therefore relies on removing nutrients directly from the humus at a the top of the soil profile.
Exam Hint - Tropical soils, like any others, vary greatly depending upon factors such as parent material, precipitation patterns and vegetation cover. Better candidates always show an understanding of soil processes hence, recognise that soil types may be changed as a result of even minor alterations to such processes.

2.Biotic components.
These are the living elements, including animals, plants and microbes existing within the abiotic components. The total biotic component, or total organic component is known as the biomass.
Exam Hint - Students are expected to be able to describe ecosystems with reference to the vegetation present (variety of species, vertical layers of vegetation), climate(temperature and precipitation variation) and soil type. Marks are often lost for a lack of detail when describing ecosystems.

Tropical Rainforest Ecosystems

Tropical rainforest ecosystems are significantly different to other forest ecosystems. They have the following combination of characteristics:

Fig 5. Percentage Of Nutrients In The Vegetation Of Tropical And Temperate Woodlands

Tropical Lowland Cote D'Ivoire N P K Ca Mg 100 Kg ha-1 2600 25 120 220 80 Temperate Deciduous W. Germany N P K Ca Mg Kg ha-1 8196 2777 479 264 43

4. Rapid Succession.
Due to the low nutrient content of tropical rainforest soil, cleared areas of rainforest has very Red Clay Layer Due To Iron Compounds; low levels ofHorizons. No Marked productivity. However, within 3 to 4 years (depending on the region) a secondary growth of vegetation will become established and the soil humus content replenished. This rapid rate of succession is a result of the high growth rates of the rainforest vegetation, along with the high temperatures and levels of precipitation. For example, some bamboo species can grow by 1m per day.

1. Multi-layered vegetation.
Tropical rainforests show a distinctive layered structure as illustrated in Figure 4. This layered structure: Reduces the impact of rainfall reaching ground level. Limits the amount of sunlight reaching ground level. Provide large amounts of leaf litter. This structure also provides a vast number of potential habitats for plant and animals, with rainforests containing up to 300 plant species per hectare, compared to temperate forests that only contain about 25. For example, many forest trees support other vegetation including numerous epiphytes such as orchids. These are herbaceous plants that grow on other plants without damaging them.

Elements In Vegetation





Fig 4. Multi-layered structure of a tropical rainforest

40 (m)

N P K Ca Mg

P K Ca Mg





0 Root Zone Layers And Zones Through a Lowland Forest

In rainforests, as a result of very rapid recycling, most nutrients are in the vegetation (roots, stems, branches, leaves, fruits), not in the soil. The classical picture is therefore of a thin, nutrient and humus-poor soil. Recent research has shown this to be over simplistic but the key point remains that tropical soils are much more vunerable to exposure than their temperate counterparts. Removal of the forest canopy, even in small gaps, will result in rapid leaching and erosion.

Exam Hint - Exam questions which focus on the kind of data presented in Fig 5 fall into two categories: descriptive questions, which simply ask for a comparison of parts of the data. interpretation questions which, besides a brief description, require candidates to show that they understand the significance of the differences in the nutrient content of the two types of forest. Candidates very frequently lose marks by answering descriptively when interpretation is required.

Managing Tropical Rainforest-The Ecosystem Approach

Geo Factsheet

The Ecosystem Management Concept

Management techniques are usually aimed at improving forests for a particular use. By using techniques based on an understanding of the unique characteristics of tropical rainforest ecosystems, large areas of the rainforest can be conserved and exploited sustainably. Sustainable management is when the level of exploitation is not greater than the ability of the ecosystem to replace itself. There are a wide variety of ecosystem based management techniques, however, most sustainable management practices will usually mimic natural processes: 1. Use natural regeneration not planting. 2. Set the annual yield at the maximum sustainable yield. This is equal to the volume of timber which can be removed from an area annually without damaging the forests ability to produce the same volume in the succeeding year or any yet thereafter. 3. Do not fell just one or a very small number of species currently only a very small fraction of utilisable species are used and this means that very large areas are often logged for the extraction of just a very few trees. 4. Minimise damage caused by felling most destruction of forest comes through access roads and damage caused when trees are felled and dragged out. The ability of a partly logged forest to recover depends upon sufficient survival of: seedlings; seed trees; natural pollinating and dispersal organisms and the maintenance of soil fertility. 5. Maintain the canopy or create gaps which would naturally occur. This maintains micro climate, avoids sudden changes, for example, in the intensity and volume of rainfall hitting vulnerable soils (see Table 1) and avoids drastic fluctuations in soil or canopy temperatures (see Table 2).

Case Study. Manu Biosphere Reserve, Peru

The Reserve covers 1-5 million ha and, whilst the majority of the area is now managed without exploitation, an area of 300,000 ha provides a zone in which sustainable management is attempted. The reserve protects over 1000 bird species, 110 species of bats and 16000 plants but also contains important populations of top predators, Highland areas of the Reserve are protected as watersheds but within the sustainablymanaged areas a population of 600 Indians are allowed to selectively fell a wide range of species, practice Manu Biosphere Reserve, Peru aquaculture and agroforestry based upon fruit and rubber trees intercropped with maize.

6. Protect natural saplings which emerge in gaps; gap size should be closely related to the growth characteristics of the sapling. If no natural saplings emerge then native species should be planted. 7. Avoid damage, at all costs, to key wildlife food trees this means that a detailed knowledge of food webs within the ecosystem is required. 8. Maintain some areas unlogged as refuge areas for animal and plant species e.g. in Sabah strips are left along water courses equal to 5% of the logged area. In Uganda 20% is regarded as the optimal logging-free area. It can be seen that these practices take into account the extremely high species diversity of tropical forest areas removing just one species in an area where up to three hundred species may be present in one hectare does not make sense. Similarly, management aims to minimise

unnatural gaps within the forest canopy, thus protecting the micro-climatic effect of the forest and the vulnerable, nutrient poor soils. Other approaches can then be used in conjunction with the ecosystem approach. Plantations are man-made forests usually consisting of one valuable and even aged tree species e.g. mahogany. Plantations have none of the biological diversity of the original forest and their main function is to divert attention from naturally growing mahogany etc. in virgin forest to maintain national timber production levels. Plantations are an attractive option since; 1. Many tropical countries have low population densities and large areas of unused land e.g. Brazil has 100 million hectares of cerrado i.e. land which has been cleared and roughly grazed but is now covered with scrub. 2. Plantations are densely stacked i.e. use all the planted land efficiently, consist of one species (making marketing easier) which can be carefully matched with the site conditions. Productivity is therefore high e.g. Gmelina arborea acheives a mean annual growth of 35m3 ha-1 yr -1

Table 2. Relationship between the loss of soil and rainfall intensity in northern Thailand beneath different vegetation densities on more or less forested experimental plots.
Soil Losses (kg/ha) Density Of Vegetation Cover (% Of The Area Which Is Covered) Rainfall Intensity (mm/h) 0-10 10-20 >20 20 to 30 50 to 60 60 to 70 80 to 90

35m / 100m yr

100m X 100m = 1ha 1m3 = 1 tonne

6.1 19.1 43.6

4 19.2 25.2

2.9 9.8 28.1

2.6 10.9 16.9

3. Plantations effectively: a. reduce impact velocity of rainfall on soil b. regulate the rate at which water reaches the soil via stemflow and leafdrip c. reduce the total volume of water which reaches the soil (because of evapouration from leaves). This eliminates raindrop erosion.

Managing Tropical Rainforest-The Ecosystem Approach

Controlled cutting. This involves removal of a limited number of trees in a particular area, of varying size and age, to conserve the rainforest species diversity. This technique is used to develop community forests which maintains the original forest ecosystem and also provide local people with medicinal plants and timber for furniture and building, for example rattan. Agro-forestry. This involves combining trees spatially and/or temporally with agricultural crops and/or animals (see Figure 7). Soil-enriching trees, such as those with nitrogen fixing nodules on their roots can be planted to reduce the fallow time needed by the soil. This means that less pressure is placed on virgin land for agriculture. Timber crops can be grown along with food and cash crops. The trees provide shade for the low growing cash crops and increase productivity per unit area. This also simulates the natural multi-structure of the rainforest, so maintaining habitat diversity. Cash crops used in this way include cocoa, rubber, maize and green legumes and provide corridors along which species can move to colonise logged forest. Table 3 illustrates some examples of sustainable management techniques used in tropical rainforests around the world.

Geo Factsheet

Fig 7. Agroforestry In Guatemala Sauco Tree (Sambucus Mescicana) Over Maize Or Potato Fields

ASSOCIATED MICROCLIMATIC CONDITIONS l Radiant energy l Air movement l Evapotranspiration l Max. air temp k Min. air temp






l l l l



Table 3: Sustainable Rainforest -based Industries

Craft items. Products and carvings from sustainable bark and wood Brazil nut oil production Rubber. Widespread harvesting from individual trees Butterfly Farming. Intact habitats are needed to farm the largest, most valuable butterflies. This encourages conservation Ecotourism. Provides money for conservation and increases understanding of rainforests without damaging the environment. The non-timber value of tropical forests often far exceeds the timber value Gene Pool. Providing a potential resource for future medicines and agricultural crops

Global Example
Bilum bags made from tulip bark by the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea Kayapo Indians of Brazil Kuna Indians of the offshore islands of Panama WWF community butterfly farm, New Guinea Island, S.E. Asia

Exam Hint - Be explicit in your explanations. How does the combination of trees and crops fit in with our knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem?

WWF (1992): Forests: Types, status and value Data Support sheet 29, December 1992

This Geo Factsheet was researched and written by Kevin Byrne and James Sharpe.. Geo Press 10 St Pauls Square Birmingham B3 1QU Geopress Factsheets may be copied free of charge by teaching staff or students, provided that their school is a registered subscriber. No part of these Factsheets may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any other form or by any other means, without the prior permission of the publisher.

The Cuyabeno Nature Reserve, Ecuador. This employs local Indians organising tourist groups limited in size, who must have a trained guide. Activities of visitors are very closely controlled

Pharmaceutical group Merk & Co. have paid US $1 million to a scientific and conservation charity to screen unexplored plant and animal species

ISSN 1351-5136

ASSOCIATED SOIL CONDITIONS k Organic matter k Cation exchange capacity k Nutrient concentrations k Soil moisture k Moisture retention l Surface temperature k Soil Stabilization