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Earth Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Tropical Deforestation edited by Sharon L. Spray, Matthew D. Moran (Exploring Environmental Challenges: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Tropical Deforestation introduces readers to the important concepts for understanding the environmental challenges and consequences of deforestation. Contributions from scientists and academics in the social sciences and humanities provide readers with an initial "tool kit" for understanding the central con­cepts in each disciplinary perspective and the multidimensional aspects of deforestation.

In the last decade, a rapidly increasing number of institutions of higher education across the country have developed a wide variety of interdisci­plinary programs in both environmental science and environmental stud­ies. While many of these programs are centered primarily within the sci­ence curriculum, more and more institutions are strengthening their environmental sciences and environmental studies majors, minors, and concentrations by adding courses from both the social sciences and the humanities. The importance of integrating information from a variety of disciplines, including the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, has been recognized and considered in the design and revision of environ­mental curricula. Liberal arts institutions, in particular, are moving toward the development of inter- or multidisciplinary approaches as a basis for their environmental programs. These approaches are as varied as the in­stitutions themselves. While many programs offer team-taught courses to provide true interdisciplinary approaches, others are built around a series of courses from across curricula that address environmental topics. The foundation for, and value of, such programs is the recognition that com­plex environmental challenges will necessarily require strengthening the interface between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences if we hope to find productive ways of addressing these issues.

To this end, many environmental programs across the nation are in­tegrating innovative courses into their curricula that cross disciplinary boundaries. To what extent these courses are "multidisciplinary" versus "interdisciplinary" is often unclear. These two terms are frequently used interchangeably. For some, the distinction between the two may be of little consequence, but for others trying to identify texts that meet spe­cific needs in the classroom, some clarification about this series may be in order.

By "multidisciplinary," we are referring to distinct disciplinary ap­proaches to the study of a particular topic. Such perspectives do not pre­clude the integration of knowledge or material from other fields, but the interpretation of the information reflects a particular disciplinary per­spective. We view this as a matter of disciplinary depth. As scholars, we necessarily cross the boundaries of knowledge and scholarship from other fields, but most of us have more depth in the field in which we received our academic training. Consequently, we interpret information through par­ticular theoretical perspectives tied to our disciplinary training.

We view interdisciplinary teaching as the attempt at balanced integra­tion of material from multiple disciplines. This, however, is a difficult goal when studying environmental issues. Most texts written about specific en­vironmental issues reflect heavy bias toward the natural sciences, with some discussion of policy and economics, or, alternatively, the focus may be in the opposite direction, with an emphasis on policy and economics and limited discussion of science. More problematic is that many of the available texts fail to incorporate in any meaningful way the work of hu­manists, anthropologists, or sociologists—areas that we believe are essen­tial for understanding complex environmental challenges.

This series was developed to facilitate interdisciplinary teaching in en­vironmental studies programs by acknowledging that different disciplines bring distinctly different perspectives to the table and that scholars trained in those fields are best suited to explain these perspectives. The texts in this series are designed to assist faculty trained in a traditional social science, natural science, or humanities field to venture into areas of research out­side of their own training.

The texts are purposefully balanced with half of the chapter contribu­tions from the natural sciences and an equal number of chapters con­tributed from scholars in the humanities or social sciences. Each chapter identifies important concepts and theoretical perspectives from a particu­lar field, and each chapter includes a supplemental reading list to facilitate additional study. We envision these texts to be the foundation for intro­ductory environmental studies courses that examine environmental topics from multiple perspectives, or other courses that seek an interdisciplinary focus for the study of environmental problems. Because we anticipate that students from a variety of majors, both science and nonscience, will use these texts, the chapters are designed to be understandable to those with little familiarity of the topic or the field about which it was written.

The series is not neutral in its basic premise. The various topics in the series were chosen because we believe that the topics addressed are envi­ronmental challenges that we want students to better understand and for which we hope they will work toward future solutions. Individual authors, however, were asked to provide objective presentations of information so that students and faculty members could form their own opinions on how these challenges should be addressed. We care deeply about the environ­ment, and we hope that this series serves to stimulate students to take the earth's stewardship seriously and promote a better understanding of the complexity of some of the environmental challenges facing us in this new century.

In the southwestern region of the Amazon basin, nestled against the east­ern flank of the Andes Mountains, lies the Brazilian state of Rondônia. The natural vegetation of Rondônia is tropical rainforest, an area of incredible diversity, supporting numerous species of plants, birds, mammals, arthro­pods, and fish. By the 1960s, most of the state was still completely covered in undisturbed forest. At this time, Brazil began a program of settlement of the area through the building of a portion of the Transamazon highway. The road brought in thousands of settlers who began clearing land for farming and ranching. By 1978, 7,800 square kilometers had been defor­ested as the migration began in earnest. By 1988, the amount of land de­forested had risen rapidly to 58,000 square kilometers, and by 1996, it was up to almost 80,000 square kilometers, an area equal to the size of Mis­souri, or about 25% of the total land area of Rondônia. What had been rainforest was replaced by coffee plantations and cattle ranches. The year 1997 brought an unusually strong El Nino event that resulted in drought conditions throughout the region. Fires started by ranchers to clear land quickly got out of control and burned more of the previously undisturbed forest.

The settlement of this forest did not just affect the wildlife and plant life of the area. Indigenous people were pushed out or died out because of dis­ease. Rubber tappers who could potentially exploit the forest sustainably were also pushed out by the new wave of settlers. Over time, the settlers who had moved looking for land found that the soils could not support small-scale intensive agriculture. Soon larger corporate farms began to dominate the area. Cities grew and expanded, and the capital, Porto Velho, reached a population of a quarter million people, making it the third largest city in the Amazon region.

Today the state of Rondônia is a typical province in the developing world. Cities are growing in size, forest is still being felled, and industries are developing. There is both wealth and poverty, often in uncomfortably close quarters. A large proportion of the wildlife has disappeared, and many species have probably become extinct. Yet much still remains, and that surviving biodiversity is spurring conservation efforts. The loss of forest and the problems associated with it are now recognized by the gov­ernment and common citizens, although solutions are still elusive. Rondônia has therefore become a poignant example of the biological, cultural, and social changes that are occurring in areas of tropical forest through­out the world.

The chapters in this book represent different viewpoints, including the social, biological, and cultural issues that deal with the problem of tropi­cal deforestation. Chapter 1, "Diversity and Complexity: A Biological Per­spective on Tropical Forests," explores the causes of high species diversity in tropical forest and addresses the process of deforestation and how this human impact is threatening diversity. The author argues that this de­struction can be halted and tropical forest restored, although the chal­lenges to this goal are extensive. Chapter 2, titled "A Changing Landscape: A Geographical Perspective on Tropical Deforestation," focuses on the conversion of tropical forests to agricultural land, the most important fac­tor in forest loss, and also discusses other processes that affect land use, such as fire, logging, mining, and development. The author concludes the chapter with a case study of the developing national forest system in Brazil, which could promote conservation and sustainable resource ex­traction to be implemented in other tropical countries. Chapter 3, "The Sweet Earth: A Biogeochemistry Perspective on Tropical Forest Soils," ex­amines the impact of tropical deforestation on soil patterns and processes. Humans are ultimately dependent on healthy soils, and tropical soils pre­sent significant challenges for sustainable use. However, with careful man­agement, the authors argue that tropical soils can produce food over the long term and that forests can be conserved.

Social scientists writing for this volume highlight a number of addi­tional variables important for understanding causality, consequences, and the future of tropical forest management. In chapter 4, "From Farmers to Satellites: A Human Geography Perspective on Tropical Deforestation," the author further debunks the myth that tropical deforestation is part of a linear chain of events. Social, political, and economic variables interact to produce a complex, multidimensional mix of forces that shape re­source extraction throughout the tropics. These variables include shifts in government policies, fluctuating commodity prices, and population pres­sures. Direct and indirect economic factors are further discussed in chap­ter 5, "Tropical Tradeoffs: An Economic Perspective on Tropical Forests," where the authors introduce the idea that some level of deforestation is socially optimal. Determining appropriate levels of deforestation, how­ever, is difficult given that the distribution of costs and benefits is not spread equally throughout society. Hence, the authors suggest, correctly pricing the goods and services provided by tropical forests is an integral component of any future market-driven policy approaches for managing tropical forest resources to the benefit of societies as a whole. Finally, in chapter 6, "Global Governance: An International Relations Perspective o Tropical Forests," the author addresses international responsibility for de forestation. The author reviews a series of failed efforts in the interna tional community to develop binding international agreements for man­aging tropical forests. While these efforts have not been abandoned totally, the author contends that international cooperation is more likely to occur in the form of private-sector cooperative efforts. Such efforts, however, are fairly recent, and more empirical research is needed to assess their viability.

While all of the authors in this book discuss a complex network of eco­logical, social, and cultural variables that contribute to tropical deforesta­tion, they also provide us with a sense that there is still promise for pre­serving many tropical forest regions. Deforestation is not a phenomenon that, once started, cannot be slowed or stopped. Understanding the inter­face of variables and the degree to which each is at work in specific regions is inherently important in developing appropriate, regionally specific policy solutions. To this end, we hope that after reading this book, readers will have a better understanding of these variables and will be better equipped to understand what is at stake and what work lies ahead for scientists and policymakers in addressing this important environmental challenge.

People Managing Forests: The Links Between Human Well-Being and Sustainability by Carol J. Pierce Colfer, Yvonne Byron (Resources for the Future) An international team of 26 investigators focuses on the communities in and around managed forests, examining how efforts to preserve ecological integrity can also address the cultural and physical needs of human residents. Issues covered include the identification and roles of stakeholders, security of access to forest resources, and rights and responsibilities to manage forests cooperatively and equitably. Chapters include data and case studies from Indonesia, Cameroon, Trinidad, Gabon, Brazil, and North America. The contributors are experts in anthropology, natural resource management, social science, forestry, botany, and other disciplines.

Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests: A Sourcebook for Research and Application edited by Peter Friederici (The Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration Series: Island Press) On June 18, 2002, the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world—a swath of trees that extends from west-central New Mexico into northern Arizona—caught fire. Flames leaped hundreds of feet into the air. The smoke plume was visible from space. It was the largest fire in Arizona history. By the time the smoke had cleared two weeks later, what became know as the Rodeo-Chediski Fire had burned more than 460,000 acres of trees, destroyed over 400 buildings, and driven 30,000 people from their homes.

Edited by Peter Friederici, Associate Editor at the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests explains that fires of the intensity and size of Rodeo-Chediski were virtually unheard of prior to the 1960s and nonexistent before the area was settled by Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century. While fire habitually shaped the pine forests of the Southwest, scientific evidence in the form of tree-ring records, studies of sites of previous fires, and reconstructions of past forest conditions reveals that pre­settlement fires were not generally intense. The blazes that have ravaged the Southwest in recent years are the result of decades of human disruption of natural forest conditions.

This important volume presents informed and innovative strategies for reinstating the natural balance of the area, and thereby protecting both vital ecosystems and their human inhabitants. It examines the science behind restoration projects from a great variety of perspectives and disciples—ecological and economic, social and philosophical.

Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests brings together practitioners and thinkers from a variety of fields—including forestry, biology, philosophy, ecology, political science, archaeology, botany, and geography—to synthesize what is known about ecological restoration in ponderosa pine forests and to consider the factors involved in developing and implementing a successful restoration effort.


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