Can fig trees regrow lost rainforests?


This post reproduces an interview with Erik Hoffner of Enjoy!

“By themselves the figs could build a forest,” ecologist EJH Corner wrote almost a century ago. Now a fascinating book, Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers: the secret history and redemptive future of fig trees (titled Ladders to Heaven in the UK), delves anew into this tropical species’ biology and key ecological role, as well as its deep cultural (and spiritual) place in human history. Author Mike Shanahan also describes in detail how figs and wasps rely on each other for survival, and devotes chapters to figs’ incredible ability to grow virtually anywhere and feed many species of animals, thereby providing footholds for other colonizing plants, from trees to epiphytes, and the creatures that feed on them in turn.

Mongabay asked Shanahan how figs are being harnessed to regenerate degraded tropical forestland.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE SHANAHAN I’ve always thought of strangler figs as parasites on innocent trees, but your book suggests that their ecosystem services far outweigh that pejorative. What benefits do figs supply?

Mike Shanahan: Strangler figs have bad press but they are trees of life, not death. More than once a year, they can produce as many as a million figs and these huge crops attract a great variety of fruit-eating animals such as birds, fruit bats and primates.

One aspect of fig biology that makes these plants particularly important is that they can produce their figs at any time of year, sustaining animals when other fruit is scarce. This helps explain why, overall, more than 1,200 species of birds and mammals have been recorded eating figs – far more than any other kind of fruit.

But the benefits don’t end there. The strangler figs support animals that disperse the seeds of thousands of other tree species. Research from parts of South and Central America, Africa and Asia suggests that without year-round fig production, many of these other animal and plant species would suffer.

That’s at the macro-scale. Zoom in on the figs again and you’ll find they themselves are full of life. Biologist Frode Ødegaard recorded 78 species of plant-eating insects on a single Ficus maxima fig tree in Panama. Stephen Sillett and colleagues found 127 species of plants called bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) in the crowns of just six Ficus tuerckheimmi trees in Costa Rica. It has often been said that once a rainforest is cleared, it can never come back. Can you describe projects involving figs that challenge this notion?

Shanahan: In Costa Rica and Rwanda, researchers have been chopping branches off mature fig trees and planting them as ‘instant trees’ in deforested areas. The idea is that they will attract seed-dispersing animals and serve as central points around which biodiversity blooms. It is early days for this research, but initial results on abandoned cattle pastures in Costa Rica show that the planted trees produced figs within a year. I expect that within two more years, there will be a small forest forming there.

Wild fig trees are magnets to biodiversity. Plant them and other species, both plant and animal, soon follow. In Thailand, researchers have used fig trees to accelerate rainforest regeneration in an area of a national park that people had cleared to grow crops. Within a few years of them planting fig trees there, the number of fruit-eating bird species increased from 30 to 87. Dozens of other tree species returned as the figs lured in seed-dispersing birds and mammals. Do any other tropical trees or plants rival their potential to regrow tropical forests?

Shanahan: Several kinds of plants encourage rainforest regeneration by shading out weeds, and producing fruit that attract animals that disperse the seeds of other tree species. But the figs are really superlative in this regard. They can germinate in bare ground, volcanic lava, and cracks in concrete. Their roots can even split rocks apart. They grow fast, breaking up the substrate and encouraging soil to form. These plants produce figs quickly and, critically, they produce figs year round.

When Sergio Guevara and colleagues in Mexico collected all the seeds that fell beneath five fig trees standing alone in fields where cattle roamed, they identified 149 different plant species, mostly those dispersed by birds and bats. They also observed 47 species of fruit-eating birds visiting those fig trees.

This was in a landscape that was once wild forest, but which is now utterly agricultural. The researchers put up fences around the fig trees to keep the cattle away and within three years, dozens of tree species had naturally returned. Some were already five meters tall. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of the power of fig trees to accelerate reforestation. Each kind of fig relies on a certain species of wasp to pollinate it. What happens if a warming climate is deleterious to the wasps’ biology, as has been shown in the lab?

Shanahan: All fig species depend on their own fig-wasp species to pollinate their flowers. If the wasps disappear, the figs would have no seeds and wouldn’t ripen, depriving many birds and mammal species of a critical food source.

Although fig-wasps survived 80 million years of change, including periods warmer than today, some fear the current trajectory of global warming will put the fig/fig-wasp relationship at risk.

When researchers in Singapore raised the temperature in a lab by just a few degrees, the lifespans of several fig-wasp species fell dramatically. While this experiment showed that adult fig-wasps are vulnerable to extreme heat, it did not replicate the gradual nature of global warming.

Fig-wasps may well be able to adapt to rising temperatures. They have very short generation times – just a few weeks – as well as large numbers of offspring. This means that when environmental conditions change – as they are doing – any fig-wasps whose natural genetic variation helps them to survive should produce more offspring, thereby enabling the fig-wasp species to adapt.

Fig biologist Steve Compton suggests the wasps will therefore adapt to rising temperatures through changes in either their physiology or their behavior — like flying at night instead of the heat of the day.

How well the fig-wasps survive in a warming world will depend on how high and how fast temperatures rise, and that is in our hands.

More immediate threats to fig trees, also posed by us, are deforestation and the loss of their seed dispersers. Many of the larger animals that provide this service are threatened by hunting and habitat loss.

As to climate change, I’m more concerned about humanity’s limited capacity to adapt and our slow pace of removing carbon from the atmosphere. The good news is that fig trees can help us to do both. Just as figs and wasps rely on each other, figs and binturongs (aka bearcats) are said to also lean heavily on each other since the latter is such a prolific consumer of figs and therefore a key spreader of their seeds. What other animals are also important for seed dispersion?

Shanahan: Binturongs are shaggy-haired nocturnal creatures that inhabit rainforests in Southeast Asia. They depend heavily on figs for their diet and spend nearly all their time high up in the rainforest canopy. This makes them particularly important dispersers of strangler fig seeds, which need to germinate in nooks and hollows on tall rainforest trees.

There’s a myth circulating that binturongs are among the only animals that disperse strangler figs, but in reality a huge variety of birds and mammals also pass strangler figs intact and capable of germinating, so long as they land in the right place on a host tree.

Among the birds, some of the most important seed dispersers of strangler figs include hornbills, barbets and fruit doves. Among the mammals, many primates and fruit bats play this role. Like the binturong, many of these animals depend heavily on figs, eating little else for much of the year. But, to my mind, few are as cool and curious as the binturong. How are fig restoration projects possibly useful to climate change mitigation efforts? Do you think they should be included in ‘carbon farming’ schemes?

Shanahan: Mitigating climate change will require a rapid increase in forest cover in the tropics. While plantations have a role to play, more natural forests are also good for conserving biodiversity and providing resources and livelihoods to local communities. It makes sense to include native fig trees in any efforts to reforest land in the tropics and subtropics because they accelerate progress, benefiting both people and wildlife.

I saw this in action in South Africa in 2011. The municipality of Durban was using several species of wild figs, among other plants, to encourage reforestation of what was once a landfill site, and prior to that a landscape of sugarcane plantations. By boosting forest cover and storing carbon, the city was offsetting carbon emissions that resulted from South Africa hosting the World Cup the previous year. The project created jobs, paying local people to collect seeds, grow trees until they were ready to plant, and then plant them on the site. There has been a huge increase in biodiversity and thousands of tons of carbon pulled out of the atmosphere.

On the ‘carbon farming’ side of things, fig trees are already used in agroforestry systems around the world. They provide shade for other plants, livestock and people. Their foliage provides fodder and, along with their roots, bark and latex, is a source of several traditional medicines. People have long had plenty of reasons to keep fig trees alive even when they clear land. In fact, around the world cultures have developed taboos against felling fig trees. In Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific, fig trees have become central to religions with connections to gods and spirits. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it has an ecological basis with deep roots in our distant past. How are drones being investigated as a tool to reforest lands with fig trees?

Shanahan: It takes time and money to raise fig trees from seeds in nurseries, and it takes a whole lot of human energy to carry them up long distances, over rugged terrain, to plant them out in land that is available for reforestation. When you think about the scale at which reforestation needs to happen it is clear that even fig trees, with all their superpowers, need some help. In Thailand, biologist Steve Elliott is trying to overcome these challenges by getting drones to deliver the seeds, each one packaged in a hydrating gel to give it the best chance of germinating upon delivery. That’s what it has come to, robots in the rainforest.

This interview was first published by and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.

Photo credit: Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons)

Palm oil: The pros and cons of a controversial commodity


Oil palm fruit gathered at a mill in Indonesia for oil extraction

On 18 December 1591, a seven-month sea voyage from Africa to England ended when a ship anchored at Limehouse docks in London. Along with 150 elephant tusks and 589 sacks of pepper, the ship carried 32 barrels of palm oil. It is thought to have been the first arrival into Europe of what would become perhaps the most controversial plant product that is not a drug.

To say that palm oil is divisive is an understatement. To its advocates, it is a cornerstone of economic development, making efficient use of land and supporting millions of smallholders through profitable international trade. To its detractors, it is a cause of deforestation and social conflict, a direct threat to endangered species and a contributor to climate change.

With demand for palm oil rising rapidly, there is growing concern about its sustainability and awareness that some palm oil is “good” and some is “bad”.

What is palm oil?

The term covers various things we get from a species of tropical palm called Elaeis guineensis. “Crude palm oil” is squeezed from the palm’s fleshy red fruit. “Palm kernel oil” is extracted by crushing the fruit’s hard stone. Finally, many “palm oil derivatives” are acquired through industrial processes, which together accounts for about 60% of global palm oil use.

What is it used for?

Palm oil is in around half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets, everything from processed foods to cosmetics, soaps and detergents. It is also used as a cooking oil (predominantly in Asia and Africa), in industrial lubricants, in animal feeds and as a fuel – in 2018, half of the palm oil imported into the European Union was destined for biodiesel.

Where does palm oil come from?

The oil palm is native to West Africa, but it was in Southeast Asia that vast plantations first came to dominate landscapes. Today, about 86% of all palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. More than 40 other countries produce it, in far lower but fast-increasing quantities. The top producers in South America and Africa are Colombia and Nigeria.

Who are the biggest importers?

The top importers of palm oil are India (17.5% of the global total) and China (10.8%). Overall, Asia imports 53.5% of all internationally traded palm oil, while Europe takes 24.7% and Africa imports 14.1%. Other continents account for the remaining 7.7%.

Why get oil from palms?

Oil palm is something of a wonder crop. It yields 4-10 times more oil per hectare than other sources of vegetable oil such as soybeans or coconut palms. This makes it an efficient and profitable use of land. The economic value of palm oil translates into jobs, infrastructure and tax revenues. In Indonesia and Malaysia, some 4.5 million people earn a living from the palm oil industry. In Indonesia alone, another 25 million people depend indirectly on palm oil production for their livelihoods. This all means palm oil could play a big role in reducing poverty ­– if done right.

So why is palm oil so controversial?

Where to start? The palm oil rush of recent decades has come at considerable cost to forests and people who depend on them.

  • Social impacts: Palm oil production has been associated with corruption, forced evictions and land-grabbing. It has sparked conflict with local communities, including indigenous peoples. There have also been serious concerns about forced labour, child labour and violations of worker rights on some plantations.
  • Harm to forests and biodiversity: Oil palms now cover a combined area about the size of Syria, and an estimated 60% of this land was previously covered with forest. Much of this deforestation has been in Indonesia and Malaysia, destroying the habitat of rare creatures such as orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants.
  • Climate impacts: According to a recent study, replacing rainforest with oil palm plantations releases 61% of the carbon stored in the forest, mostly into the atmosphere. Each hectare of rainforest converted releases 174 tons of carbon.

How big a problem is this?

The ubiquity of palm oil and the growing demand for it highlight the scale of the challenge. Between 2000 and 2015, the global average amount of palm oil consumed per person each year doubled to 7.7 kg. Demand for palm oil is set to triple from 2015 levels by 2050, with much of the growth coming from markets with low sustainability requirements.

Shouldn’t we just ban palm oil?

No. That could have disastrous effects. It would affect the livelihoods of millions of people and would lead to even more land being used to produce alternative oils. Environmental organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature say that, instead, we need to prevent further deforestation for new oil palm plantations and focus on promoting sustainable production.

But how can we tell the good from the bad?

It is not easy, for a couple of reasons. First, many products contain palm oil but their labelling does not make this clear; palm oil derivatives with names like sodium laureth sulfate or palmitic acid are listed in the ingredients. Second, it is not easy to trace the palm oil in products back to the land on which the fruit were harvested. This makes it hard to tell if palm oil comes from plantations that have deforested land or infringed local people’s rights.

What about eco-labels?

Various schemes certify companies and/or supply chains as “sustainable” if they meet certain environmental and social criteria. These schemes use different standards and means of verifying performance, and some leave much to be desired. The strongest standard is that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is also the main certifier. However, about one-fifth of globally traded palm oil is certified by the RPSO – and it isn’t always labelled as such.

So, is certified palm oil really sustainable?

Some academics and nongovernmental organisations say certification standards and audits are too weak or, worse, that they greenwash the damage companies do. Others say that in the absence of stronger national laws and regulation, certification is the best tool for making palm oil production less harmful. All eyes will therefore be on the RSPO, which adopted a considerably stronger certification standard in November 2018 and is meeting again from 3-6 November 2019 in Bangkok.

This article was first published here by China Dialogue on 4 November 2019 and is reproduced here with permission under a Creative Commons licence.

Photo credit: Sevki79 / Wikimedia Commons

Expert insights into the past progress and vital future of environment journalism

EJN Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows, including Pierre Fitter from India, Gustavo Bonato from Brazil and Pia Faustino from the Philippines, interview a Danish wind energy executive.

Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows from India, Brazil and the Philippines interview a Danish wind energy executive (credit: James Fahn)

How do journalists who cover the environment cope with the relentless flow of depressing information? Should they strive for neutrality or become advocates for action on issues such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis? And how can these journalists stay safe when powerful forces want to silence them, and too often succeed?

These are some of the questions I posed to a distinguished panel at a recent event celebrating the 15th birthday of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), a programme created by Internews to improve the quality and quantity of media coverage of environmental issues around the world.

My relationship with EJN dates back to 2007, when I was working at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Together with colleagues at Panos, we set up the Climate Change Media Partnership, which took 40 journalists to the international climate change negotiations for a fellowship programme that has repeated every year since.

More recently, I have been helping EJN manage its Biodiversity Media Initiative and a project supporting journalists who are investigating illegal wildlife trafficking. So, I was very happy to be invited to moderate the discussion at EJN’s anniversary event.

The panellists were: James Painter, research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford; Mona Samari, a fisheries expert and independent consultant who ran an EJN project supporting journalists covering fisheries in West Africa; Navin Khadka, Environment Correspondent for the BBC World Service; and James Fahn, EJN’s executive director and a lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Among other things, we discussed whether media outlets should drop ‘climate change’ in place of ‘climate emergency’, whether biodiversity is still the poor cousin to climate change in terms of coverage, and whether media outlets are ever legitimate targets of climate change protestors.

We also talked about what ‘quality’ means in terms of environment journalism, whether or not overdramatic stories erode public faith in science, and what the future holds for media coverage of the environment.

We could have talked for hours, but had just 60 minutes to pick through these and other topics. You can watch the full discussion here:

Wanted: Climate Heroes. No experience required


There is a monster at the door and I need your help to fight it. It is a universal enemy, a threat that can connect and unite us all. It doesn’t care if you are left-wing or right, urban or rural. It is coming for us all. Defeating it is our only option.

The monster is climate change and it is already claiming lives. The slower we react, the worse it will get. Tackling it will benefit our health, our societies, our economies and our wider environment. But, so far, the response has been pitiful.

If we don’t transform the world in the next few years, we will trigger widespread misery. We have to be clear about this. But we must also be clear that is it not too late to join the fight. And that the more people who do, the faster we will slay the monster. We need a legion of everyday heroes, winning with acts large and small.

I first heard about climate change in the late 1980s, and I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and communicating about it. Part of me used to think it would all be okay, that our leaders would fix it. But they have badly let us down. So now we must step up.

Powerful forces have misled us

As we fight the climate change monster, we must not forget those who summoned it, who feed it and protect it. They are few dozen companies and their investors whose profits are built on the loss of our planetary life-support systems. They are a small number of billionaires and bad-faith politicians. They are the media outlets that played down the problem for fear of losing advertising revenue, and failed to report on the true costs to society of high-carbon businesses.

These groups have long known the problem and have actively delayed action. They knowingly misled us. For decades. They told us climate change does not exist or that human activities are not to blame. They have told us that our actions are too little or too late to make a difference. They allowed millions of us to believe we should not act.

Many people still believe that. Many others are aware but are trapped in states of shame or hopelessness and so rarely even bring themselves to think about climate change. There are many ways our minds can work against us. In a powerful article that I urge you to read, Mary Annaïse Heglar says it is time to snap out of our collective denial.

We need both individual and collective action

“In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up,” she says. “We can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.” She’s right. No doubt you have heard by now of Greta Thunberg. But if you think this young woman is going to save us, you are wrong. We will find the heroes we need looking back at us from our bathroom mirrors.

Getting involved does not imply becoming a hermit. As Max St John says, “we’re being fed — and feeding each other — a lie” that ‘now’ is as good as it gets, and that a cleaner, greener future must entail hardship. “The lie,” he says, “is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.”

Nor does joining the climate fight require great wealth. The simplest actions involve learning about climate change, talking about it and using our voices and our votes to demand change. We need a mix of personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and collective action that forces governments to hold polluting businesses to account.

What we will gain by taking action now

With public pressure and bold leadership, in just a few years we could have limitless supplies of green energy and decent jobs for those who used to work in the fossil fuel sector. We could have growing forests that don’t just lock away carbon but also support secure livelihoods and protect wildlife. We could have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution. We could have peace and equity and prosperity for all, not just those at the top of the tree.

These are things we can and must demand of our leaders. They are dreams we can summon into our waking lives. Climate change may be a monster to slay, but in fighting it now and with vigour, we can gain so much.

This is no pipe dream of utopia. It is our only viable option. Failure to address climate change fairly, productively and fast will diminish the futures of all but the wealthiest minority. They are already pulling up the drawbridge. They would abandon us in an eyeblink.

Fighting climate change is our only option

One of two futures awaits us. In one, people will look back and asked how we allowed ourselves to fail, how we allowed ourselves to destroy our only home. In the other, people will look back and hail the heroes who came together and, through acts large and small, saved humanity and the living world on which we depend.

We are at that crossroads. Whatever life may throw at us, there is one important decision before us all: do we act for the climate and a secure future, or against the climate and a secure future. It’s not really a choice. We need to start organising for — and celebrating — a new birth, not a death.

It will be hard. There will be tragic losses on the way. But not beating climate change is not an option, and the sooner we all realise that and get to work, the better. Mary Annaïse Heglar in another article I recommend, says: “We need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

The good news is that almost anyone can be a climate hero. While some people will lack the means, or have more urgent needs to attend to, most people will not and can get involved today. Here are 20 things you can do right now to join the fight. We will always need more heroes, so please share this. And let’s all team up and defeat this monster.


Related post: 20 things you can do right now to join the climate fight

This ancient biomaterial making a 21st-century comeback could change millions of lives

Across the tropics, people worked out long ago how to transform fig tree bark into comfortable cloth—the practice could even predate weaving. In Uganda, such barkcloth has served as a symbol of protest, a form of money, and the exclusive raiment of kings and queens. It has been suppressed by religion, colonialism, and war, yet the tradition has persisted. And now barkcloth has found a new life as a source of local pride, as well as in international markets for home furnishings, high fashion, and even aerospace materials. It is creating jobs, and is entirely sustainable. Continue reading