Harvesting and Helping the Rainforest

Sustainable Forestry Imperative

When a tree falls in the rainforest, good things can start to happen.

Since the 1970s, Dr. Gary Hartshorn has studied how natural tree falls create openings or gaps in the rainforest canopy and allow for the regeneration of native trees.

“Initially, I was surprised by the results,” he said. “They indicated that many native tree species actually require these gaps for successful regeneration.”

forest conservation and climate change mitigation

He found that gaps in the rainforest canopy are the key to the natural rebuilding process because sunlight can then reach the forest floor and promote rapid growth of seedlings.

Although most traditional development of tropical forests is synonymous with total deforestation, Hartshorn has developed a management system based on this gap theory. It allows for native people to both harvest the rainforest and help it regenerate at the same time.

In a small Peruvian valley near the Amazon River basin, a pilot project has been under way since 1986 and has proven successful. A similar project is now being tested in Bolivia, Hartshorn said, and he hopes to eventually set up the process in the rainforests of Africa and Southeast Asia.

In Peru, the Yanesha Indian tribe is simulating these tree fall dynamics by clearing thin strips in the rainforest and harvesting all the timber from them. Hartshorn has discovered that the optimum size for these openings is between 30 and 40 meters wide by 100 to 300 meters long.

“This is really the antithesis of clear cutting,” Hartshorn said. “It’s a way of managing tropical forests on a sustained-yield basis.”

The Yanesha Forest Cooperative harvests the wood with oxen to keep costs low and minimize damage to the forest. From a small processing facility on their land, the Indians produce raw lumber, preserved posts and utility poles, and charcoal.

Research on two harvested strips has revealed that the Peruvian rainforest can regenerate itself quickly in these artificial openings, Hartshorn said. Nearly two times the amount of tree species have grown back in the harvested strips than were originally removed.

“It’s an ecologically sound process in the sense that we’re doing very minimal damage to the ecosystem,” he said. “It promotes excellent natural regeneration of hundreds of tree species and can be easily implemented by native people.”

Through this management system, the lives of the local people can be improved without depleting natural resources, he said, and the chance to use tropical forests without destroying them presents an exciting opportunity.

Earth Tip: Many Amazonian forests have between 150 and 200 tree species per hectare — a metric unit of area equal to just over two acres.

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