Squeezed in Panama

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports on the controversial findings of Joe Wright, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, that the rate of secondary rain forest formation (through abandonment of farms via urbanization, and other causes) is outpacing the rate of primary rain forest destruction. The arguments critical of Wright and those in his support tend to tangle together the function of rain forests as a carbon sink with their role as a refuge for biodiversity.

Regenerated forests in the tropics appear to be especially good at absorbing emissions of carbon, but that ability is based on location and rate of growth. A field abandoned in New York in 1900 will have trees shorter than those growing on a field here [in Central America] that was abandoned just 20 years ago.

For many biologists, a far bigger concern is whether new forests can support the riot of plant and animal species associated with rain forests. Part of the problem is that abandoned farmland is often distant from native rain forest. How does it help Amazonian species threatened by rain-forest destruction in Brazil if secondary forests grow on the outskirts of Panama City?

Here in the East, you can observe the results of old field succession by taking a short drive to the Blue Ridge. Much of the now-protected parkland in the Appalachians was once in agricultural production, as the evidence of a family cemetery in the woods will attest.