The trees we don’t want to lose

It is not difficult to imagine that The main threat that trees have is the advance of deforestation due to agriculture, livestock and urban developments. There is also uncontrolled logging or the “substitution of ‘non-productive’ species with fast-growing tree species that only impoverish tree diversity,” the report highlights.

Emily Beech highlights that, in several areas, mining activity is taking a greater role as a threat to trees. One of those regions is the one that extends between Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname: “There are many species threatened by mining there.”

The spread of pests, diseases and invasive species are also contributing to declining tree populations. And, as if that were not enough, climate change complicates the picture even more.

“With climate change, the process of forest decline that we are experiencing will accelerate, especially in the face of drier and hotter droughts. That is a terrible combination for trees,” says Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, from the Natural Resources Research Institute (INIRENA), of the Michoacana University of San Nicolás Hidalgo.

The researcher highlights that trees, being organisms with a long life, have developed defense mechanisms against extreme climate events: “They close their stomata, stop growing, do not produce seeds, they throw away a large part of their foliage to reduce their consumption. of water…”. Even so, he also warns, “those mechanisms may prove insufficient in the face of the hottest droughts we are now experiencing. Although these droughts do not kill the trees, they do weaken them and make them more vulnerable to pests and fires.”

These conditions can accelerate the extinction of tree species with small populations or that are only distributed in a few places. Cristina López Gallego explains that the tree species that have been identified as possibly extinct are those that “have not been seen again in the last 20 years. There are no records about them.”

As already mentioned, the Global Tree Assessment determined that there is a strong possibility that 142 tree species are extinct worldwide. Of them, 31 are from the region called neotropics, which covers a large part of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Among researchers there is still resistance to declaring them extinct: “We still have hope that they exist somewhere,” says Emily Beech.

Palo morado, a tree that only grows in certain corners of Guerrero, Mexico. Photo: Iván Castaneira.

Conserve trees to conserve worlds

The report “The state of the world’s trees”, published in 2021, provides data that allows us to resize the leading role that trees have on the planet. For example, they are the ones that define the distribution, composition and structure of forests. And its presence allows it to provide habitat for half of the known species of terrestrial plants and animals. Not to mention its contribution to soil production, air purification, protection against hurricanes, and regulation of climate and hydrological cycles.

So each tree is a world that supports the life of other worlds.

Trees also remind us that there are other time scales: “They do extraordinary things: they move, they react to subtle changes, but on a long time scale,” says Cristina López-Gallego.

Trees provide habitat for half of the known species of land plants and animals. Photo: Max Cabello Orcasitas

Nobody can deny the ecological, cultural and economic importance of trees. Even so, actions to ensure its conservation are scarce.

“Of the 157 tree species that are Critically Endangered in Mexico, less than 10 have ongoing actions for their conservation,” says Marie-Stéphanie Samain, researcher at the Institute of Ecology (Inecol). She and Esteban Martínez, from the UNAM Institute of Biology, led the work of the Global Tree Assessment in Mexico.

Cristina López Gallego highlights that “the loss of biodiversity is not so important on the political agendas of our countries. When talking about biodiversity, the discourse focuses on ecosystem services, but the species remain very invisible… There is very little attention and few resources focused on the conservation of species.”

In Panama, Cocobolo populations have decreased drastically due to the indiscriminate logging carried out to market their wood. Photo: Javier A. Jiménez Espino

Is it difficult to save a tree from extinction? The question is answered by researcher Marie-Stéphanie Samain: “It is difficult. A budget is needed, because in addition to conservation actions, it is necessary to do research to learn about the biology of the species. In the case of Mexico, several of the species at risk are in territories where there are not always working conditions, where there is a lot of insecurity. If the people who live there are not safe, how are they going to commit to saving a tree. “We need to do research and, above all, support local communities.”

Cristina López Gallego mentions that each country could use the information from the Global Tree Assessment to make its own national conservation strategy. “With each species at risk, we have to evaluate what is the best path: propagation, reintroduction, stopping the threat that is affecting it…”

For the researcher, one of the main and necessary actions is to protect habitats: “Promote that forests are conserved so that species are conserved. “This protection can be through a protected natural area, private area, management area, voluntary area, community forest… There are many figures that can be used.”

A copaibo in Santa Mónica, department of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Photo: Karina Segovia.

Among the initiatives that exist worldwide to conserve tree biodiversity is the BGCI’s Tree Conservation Programme, which promotes a comprehensive approach to the conservation and management of different tree species, to prevent them from becoming extinct.

The Global Tree Assessment project has not stopped. Emily Beech explains that researchers now track and compile all the tree conservation actions in the world. This information will allow us to identify the species that are already protagonists of projects and those for which it is necessary and urgent to promote conservation work.

In addition, the IUCN also promotes a strategy called the Green List to disseminate and recognize those actions that have contributed to conserving species of both flora and fauna.

The Quito myrtle has survived because it began to be used as an ornamental tree. Photo: Alexis Serrano Carmona

Know them to preserve them

There is a maxim that says: “You don’t preserve what you don’t know.” Given this, Mongabay Latam made an alliance with El Espectador, Ladera Sur and Revista Nómadas to make this special that features eight trees that can only be found in Latin America and that face various threats.

One of those trees has such a unique figure that its name is even its description: ceiba barrigona (Cavanillesia chicamochae). This species was named by science 20 years ago and is only found in eastern Colombia, in one of the largest canyons on the planet.

The araucaria (Araucaria araucana) also has a striking shape: when it is an adult it looks like a giant umbrella. In addition, it is one of the oldest trees that inhabit the territory that we know today as South America. For the Mapuche people it is a sacred tree. Today its only populations are found in the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina.

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