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Dark and disappearing

30 July, 2010

The plundering of the world’s forests is having a devastating effect on creation, and for thousands of species life on earth is becoming a thing of the past. Columban missionary Seán McDonagh reports.

At the beginning of the second millennium of the Christian era forests covered half the world. The next thousand years witnessed the widespread destruction of forests in every part of the world.  In a single century, the 20th century, half the forests of the world were destroyed.  And the devastation continues.  The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in its ‘State of the World’s Forests 2001’, confirmed that deforestation is continuing at a very high rate in tropical countries, especially in Africa and South America.  In the 1990s the countries with the highest forest loss were Brazil, Congo, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mexico, Nigeria, Sudan and Zambia.

Even in Russia, with its vast expanse of woodlands, stretching right across Siberia, forests are under threat.  Russia contains about one fifth of the world’s forests spread over 763 million hectares.  Since the fall of the USSR a dramatic increase in illegal logging has taken its toll.  In 1998 officially sanctioned logging cut 1.5 million cubic metres, but the real worry is the volume being cut by the estimated 2,600 small logging companies that have sprung up near export markets, especially near the Chinese border. The destruction of Russia’s forests would be a catastrophe, not just for Russia but for the world.  They absorb around 600 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  If they are lost global warming will accelerate (1).

My own interest in ecology and religion stems from watching the tropical forests in the Philippines being decimated in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Tropical forests comprised about 70 per cent of the total land area of the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century.  By the end of the century this was down to less than 20 per cent.  It is predicted that it will slip further to 6 percent unless urgent remedial action is taken now to stop legal and illegal logging (2).

The destruction of the rain forests has many adverse effects. Removing forest cover leads to massive soil erosion. The knock-on effect of this is a decrease in agricultural productivity and consequent malnutrition and even famine. I experienced this directly during the 1980s when I worked with the tribal people called the T’boli who lived on the edge of the rain forest in South East Mindanao. Flash floods during typhoons and the wet season cause destruction to roads, bridges, schools and houses, often resulting in the death of many people. The decrease in forest cover on the mountains renders costly irrigation projects ineffective; the trees no longer hold the water, so the rivers stop flowing during the dry season.

Irish broadleaf forests were destroyed during the second half of the last millennium. In 1600 over 12 per cent of Ireland was still covered in broadleaf forests. The 17th and 18th centuries saw a concerted attack on Irish forests. By the time the Act of Union was passed in 1800 only 2 per cent of the country was covered in woodland. Since the foundation of the State in 1922 forest cover in Ireland has increased, but the bulk of the planting, unfortunately, is made up of conifers rather than broadleaf trees.

Given the history of forest exploitation in this country, Irish people should be very sensitive to forest destruction elsewhere.  Unfortunately it seems that we have learned nothing from the forest mining that scarred our own country.  We are now the largest per capita importers of tropical wood in the European Union.  Imports grew a staggering 64 per cent during the decade between 1977 and 1987.  Most of our tropical wood, especially iroko (commonly called teak) comes from West Africa, and especially the Ivory Coast, where the forests are being logged in an unsustainable way. If the present rate of depletion continues the forests there will be gone within five years.

The greatest tragedy flowing from the destruction of tropical forests is the mega-extinction of species. It is estimated that human activity is extinguishing species at 1,000 times the natural rate seen in evolution (3). Already tens of thousands of species have been lost. E.O.Wilson, a Harvard Biologist and author of’ The Diversity of Life, estimates that we are losing 27,000 species each year. Many scientists would consider this to be a conservative estimate, but Wilson warns that the destruction of species will soar if the last remaining areas of tropical forests are exploited and destroyed.

If the present rate of extinction continues, 50 per cent or even more of all the life-forms on earth could be extinguished during the next few decades.  A study published in September 2000 has placed 11,046 plants and animals on the danger list.  Mammals and birds are most under threat in Indonesia, India and Brazil and China. Plant species are declining fastest in West Africa and South East Asia (4). It is estimated that one in eight of the world’s bird species are facing extinction (5).  Norman Myers, a British biologist and expert on tropical forests, considers that the present ‘extinction spasm’ is the greatest setback to life’s abundance and diversity since the first flickering of life emerged almost four billion years ago.  Extinction on such a scale is so horrendous that it is difficult to grasp.  Many species are being pushed beyond the precipice of extinction before scientists have been able to identify them and see how they may be useful as sources of food and medicine.

Other species are well-known and closely related to humankind. Time magazine (January 31st, 2000) estimated that many of our close cousins among primates are on the brink of extinction. These include orangutans, mountain gorillas, golden bamboo lemur and Hainan gibbons. The Time survey ends with a very pertinent question: ‘How long will Earth be an hospitable place for humanity when it is no longer a fit home for our next of kin?’ (6).

Extinction is not confined to forests in the tropics. The intensification of agricultural production in Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has taken its toll on other creatures. Three species of wild flowers – corn cockle, corn chamomile, and shepherd’s needle have all become extinct in recent years. Agricultural practices and thoughtless building programmes have silenced birds like larks, yellow hammers, corn buntings and corncrakes, that brought joy to the hearts of previous generations of Irish people. Wetland drainage schemes destroyed the habitat for wetland breeders like the black-necked grebe, the bittern and the marsh harrier. We have also lost the crane, the bittern, the marsh harrier, the ospery, the goshawk, the red kite, and number of species of eagles. These birds have survived in other countries and, theoretically at least, could make a come-back in Ireland. There is no possibility of a come-back for the great auk. This bird that was once so common is now extinct, not just in Ireland, but globally (7).

Because the reality of extinction and the process by which it is taking place is removed from us, our traditional human-centred moral categories fail to even register what is happening. Our present moral principles can deal in some adequate way with human-centred moral issues like suicide, homicide and even genocide, but we have no way of dealing with biocide or geocide. The evil of species extinction does not appear, for example, in the encyclical Veritatis splendor which was written by Pope John Paul II to restate Catholic moral teaching in the contemporary world (8).

Extinction negates the labour, care, energy and untold experiments which were needed to bring forth this gorgeous earth with its great diversity of creatures. The irreversible destruction of life on such a scale, within the past few decades, must be one of the most important ethical issues of our times. Yet it is seldom discussed in either secular or religious publications.

God the Author of Life
The present mega-extinction phase is not alone sterilizing the planet and rendering it barren for future generations by eliminating species, but it is seriously compromising our ability to develop new insights into the nature of God. As one species after another is jostled over the abyss of extinction the unique way that each one has of reflecting the Divine is lost forever. Moreover, despite the importance of trees in the biblical tradition and the role of the Cross in our Redemption, contemporary Christians seem oblivious to the present destruction of forests globally. Humans have learned a lot in recent years about the importance of forests in stabilising climate, cleaning the air, combating global warming, supporting millions of other living creatures and providing human kind with medicine, food, and other important human needs. Despite this we have not developed adequate policies at a global and national level to cherish and protect forests. At the very least, when we buy wood we should enquire whether the wood came from forests that are managed in an ecologically sustainable and socially just way. We should also challenge our politicians to ensure that here in Ireland we give top priority in our forestry policy to promoting indigenous broadleaf trees. We should support non-government organisations like the Forest Stewardship Council that is attempting to protect forests globally and, as Christians, we should never forget that Christ, Our Lord, died on a tree for our salvation.


1. Carter, Stephen and Shulyakovskaya, Natalya, Into the woods, The Guardian Supplement, Aug 8, 2001 pp.6-7.
2. Decline of the Philipine Forest, 2002 1/F Manila Observatory Bldg., Ateneo de Manila, University, Quezon city, Philippines.
3. Radford, Tim, Dead zones in the oceans and the rate of extinction 1,000 times faster than evolution, The Guardian, Aug 3, 1999.
4. Brown, Paul, Mankind speeding extinction of wildlife, The Guardian, Sept 29, 2000, p. 11.
5. Nutaal, Nick, Hundreds of birds on ‘extinction’ list, The Irish Times, Oct 15, 1999, p. 9.
6. Alexander, P Charles, Death Row, Time, Jan 31,2000, pp. 62-65.
7. D’Arcy, Gordon, Ireland’s lost birds, Four Courts Press, Dublin 1999.
8. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, Catholic Truth Society, London 1993.

This article first appeared in The Word (June 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.