The recent financial collapse of a forestry plantation on an island in Northern Australia moved me for a number of reasons. For starters, the story, beautifully told by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times, serves as a timely reminder of the long-term loss that follows land cover change. More personally, the topic is close to my heart because my Master’s thesis was on tropical savannas.
The Australian project began with positive intentions. Logging the land and planting acacia for wood chips was supposed to provide 300 jobs and develop an industry in a poor, indigenous community. The project was also designed to provide positive financial returns to its chief backer, an investment company called Great Southern. Then Great Southern collapsed and the plantation went into receivership. No new jobs exist, and 75,000 acres of native tropical woodland have been lost. (A silver lining: the project was initially going to cover 247,000 acres, but the bankruptcy prevented the full expansion.)
Tropical savannas and woodlands are one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth, under severe pressure from grazing, land use change, invasive species, and fire suppression. They are unique and special systems, and as we consider economic development, we must continually balance short-term wants with long-term needs. Klinkenborg does a fantastic job summing it all up:
> “We should have left the savanna as it was,” one Tiwi said to me. The more I listened, the more it seemed there was a forceful analogy between the plight of the Tiwis and the plight of all of us. How do we balance the need to find the economic wherewithal to educate children, to bolster self-confidence and a sense of self-determination, with the need to preserve our cultural integrity and our homelands?