Understanding the threat to the natural world
The issue of the destruction of tropical rainforests hit the headlines in the late 1980s. There were areas of the globe where the extent of widescale logging – and the profits to be had from the timber trade – were changing landscapes overnight; they were also changing communities and livelihoods. As is often the case, short term gains spurred on by greed in the name of ‘development’ pay no heed to potential long-term repercussions of such resource mining, many of which we may not understand until it is too late.
"Communication through inspiration can raise widespread awareness of both the wonder of and the threat to our natural world." - Catriona Prebble, Fellow
Tropical rainforests are incredibly diverse in flora and fauna. The ways in which individual creatures and plants have adapted to exist, interact and flourish in such an environment are infinite. My Fellowship in 1991 enabled me to participate in an international scientific research project in Brunei, the focus of which was to establish a field centre in a pristine area of rainforest – fortunately protected from the logging taking place across the border – in order to provide baseline data about the site, on which future research could be built, all to enhance understanding of the area’s rich biodiversity. Without understanding what is present in these natural ecosystems, how can we protect what is vital and manage demands on their resources?
As Field Coordinator for the Royal Geographical Society at the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre, I had the privilege of working alongside a diverse group of international specialists in their respective fields, together with local people whose knowledge of the forest was extensive. Over an 18-month period, the collective contribution to the knowledge base was significant, as demonstrated by the publications which followed.
In addition to the academic advancements, of equal significance was the educational opportunity to learn, which the new field centre provided. The groups of local schoolchildren who visited (and, I believe, continue to visit) and who have been inspired by the rainforest and its many inhabitants – whether creepy crawly, furry or flighted – make the best ambassadors, through their enthusiasm and pride, for the future protection of such special places. Creating such opportunities for individual experience is hugely important.
Over the three decades since then, attention to the significance of tropical rainforests has increased as appreciation of their capacity to store carbon dioxide – serving as ‘the lungs of the Earth’ – has grown and been documented. Not only do they provide a habitat for multitudes of flora and fauna and for communities, but their role in the global ecosystem makes them fundamental to the long-term survival of citizens around the world, not just those who are forest-dwellers.
Despite this, regrettably, the problem of rainforest destruction has not gone away. However, international scrutiny of such activity has intensified and regulatory systems have been established to discourage and distinguish illegally sourced timber. My Fellowship experience in Borneo enabled me to go on to work for an international trade body endeavouring to improve the sustainability of the tropical timber trade.
Since then, my career has taken a number of turns under the environmental ‘umbrella’ and I am no longer up to date on progress and policy to protect and manage tropical rainforests. My understanding, however, is that what we are doing is not enough nor quick enough to reverse the effects of biodiversity loss and rising CO2 levels, despite the increasingly vocal debate on climate change and moves to attribute quantifiable value to biodiversity.
What is evident, though, is that knowledge and communication are key if these issues are to be addressed. The scientific research needs to continue, local communities need to be engaged with to understand the full picture, and the story needs to be told. The likes of Sir David Attenborough have so ably shown how communication through inspiration can raise widespread awareness of both the wonder of and the threat to our natural world.
Means of communication have changed unrecognisably since my rainforest days and the experience of the past two years under Covid-19 has highlighted the amazing capacity of the internet to facilitate the global exchange of ideas. But nothing beats the learning gained from face-to-face encounters and the experience of being in a different environment. I am therefore delighted that the Churchill Fellowship is once again able to send people out into the world to learn from and communicate directly with their international counterparts and to experience at first hand nature’s rich biodiversity and its peoples.
For information on our Fellowships in this theme, see "Our current themes”.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.