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Forests and climate change in Latin America

William Milliken
18 March 2011
Blog team: 
William Milliken explains how Kew's science programme is helping to address the issues in this part of the world.

Forest destruction around the world is estimated to account for almost 20% of all carbon emissions into the atmosphere: a major contributor to global warming. Kew’s science programme in Latin America aims to help slow this process by supporting conservation and sustainable use of the region’s forests.



Burning forest in the Amazon (Image: W. Milliken)

Our Amazon research programme, for example, is primarily focused on the north of Mato Grosso state in Brazil in the ‘arc of deforestation’ where cattle ranching and soya farming are pushing northwards into the Amazon basin. Aiming primarily at supporting the establishment and management of protected areas, this work also provides important understanding of the vegetation in an area which, according to the latest predictions, will become increasingly dry over the coming decades. What this means for the biodiversity of the region, or for the people who inhabit it, remains unclear. Targeted research of this kind will help us to improve our predictions, and to take remedial or adaptive action.

On the south coast of Peru, an area of almost zero rainfall and high vulnerability to climate change and desertification, we are working with local communities to restore and conserve the last vestiges of dry forest vegetation. An ongoing tree planting programme now has support from a voluntary carbon offset programme, helping to sequester greenhouse gases whilst contributing to biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

And in the dry caatinga vegetation in northeast Brazil, where firewood still provides the main source of fuel for rural communities, Kew has a long-running collaborative project researching and communicating the most efficient ways of managing the local trees in order to maximise fuel yield and sustainability. Fuelwood is a sustainable energy source, but only if it can be extracted without destroying the natural vegetation.

Fieldwork during the rainy season can be challenging (Image: W. Milliken)

In theory, controlling deforestation is the quickest way that we can address global greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s only one of a number of vital areas in the fight against climate change. Reducing our ‘carbon footprints’ and developing renewable energy sources are, in the long run, equally important. From Kew’s perspective, however it’s of particular relevance. Protect the forest and you don’t just reduce the emissions: you also protect the biodiversity in it. And that, after all, is our mission.

- William -

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