Non-wood forest products information

You may remember I blogged recently about a couple of FAO news resources, on plant breeding and on biotechnology. I just want to mention today a third: FAO’s Non-Wood Forest Products Digest, the focus of which is pretty self-explanatory. You can subscribe to it here((FAO’s link is broken.)) (there does not seem to be an RSS feed), thereby joining 1300 other people around the world. The website also has past issues. It comes around by email a couple of times a month, and it has the introductory text of articles, announcements etc., with links to the full pieces.

Before Columbus

There’s quite a debate going on about what the Americas – and in particular the Amazon – looked like before Columbus arrived. This has been the subject of a bestseller entitled 1491, whose main arguments are summarized by the author, Charles Mann, here. It is always dangerous to simplify academic controversies as being between two diametrically opposing camps, but I’ll do it anyway. One side thinks that population levels were high in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and that even the Amazon was essentially a gigantic, closely managed orchard, hence talk of the “pristine myth.” The other side thinks that the real myth is that of a large, widespread human population in the Amazon. This has important practical implications because, inevitably, some have seized on the debate to argue that the Amazon could be more heavily exploited today, because it was in the past.

Coincidentally, there are stories today which summarize papers coming down on opposing sides of this argument.

According to this piece, Dolores R. Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, “found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America” when she reconstructed vegetation patterns and fire histories from pollen, phytolyth and charcoal records.

Noting the vast body of research indicates the existence of large, dense, sedentary populations in the Amazon, Piperno implies that conservationists should come to terms with the fact that tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today, and then move forward with effective strategies for preserving what remains.

A different view emerges in this discussion of the work of Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. He looked at charcoal and pollen records at two Amazonian lakes and found that

…rather than being widely dispersed, people living in the Amazon most likely clustered near the good places, and that overall population numbers were likely not as high as the top estimates of pre-Columbian people.

This will run and run.

Putting a forest together again

How would you rebuild a forest? There’s an enormous effort underway to do just that for the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, now down to only 7% of its original extent. This really short but intriguing SciDevNet piece led me to a fascinating Science article here. About 15,000 trees of 800 different species have been identified as mother trees, “the starting stock for the forest’s regeneration.” There’s a big awareness campaign aimed at local farmers explaining the long-term benefits of devoting some of their land to forest. And lots of different approaches to the actual reforestation are being tried. Sounds like this project is going to be a testing ground and model for years to come. How is it that there’s been so little news about it? Or do I just move in the wrong circles? Perhaps I just subscribe to the wrong RSS feeds.

To cork or not to cork

Well, I’m officially in a quandary. On the one hand, with the risk of TCA-induced (that’s 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a by-product of microbial activity) taint so high, there’s no reason except snobbishness for jettisoning natural cork for screw-tops and other ways of stopping wine bottles. On the other hand, as this article points out, producers are addressing quality concerns and cork is biodegradable, recyclable, and sustainably harvested from woodlands whose management over centuries has led to high levels of biodiversity. Pass the bottle.

Privatized trees roll back the desert

An article in the New York Times got a lot of traction among some of the more conservative-minded bloggers because it said that the ownership of things previously assumed to be a common good gave a better incentive to look after them. Fair enough. More interesting still is that the trees preserve soil and water, which enables a greater diversity of crops to go, which improves everyone’s livelihoods. I found the piece here, which has the link to the original article. And that, I think, is a much more illuminating and nuanced read.