NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Expert Debunks Tropical Rain Forest Myths

January 27, 2000

"'Tropical rain forest' does not exist and never has existed," claims Philip Stott, a professor of biogeography at the University of London. What is loosely called "tropical rain forest" is a concept resulting from a century of colonial myth making, first by imperialists, then by environmentalists, says Scott, in a study published by the Institute of Economic Affairs.


  • Tropical rain forests are not a million or more years old -- in fact, in most areas identified as "tropical rain forest," the land has been forested less than 12,000 years.
  • Forests are not the normal clothing of the Earth -- dry grasslands and deserts dominate the continents, and tropical savannas alone occupy around one-fifth of the Earth's land surface.
  • The tropical rain forest is not a "living carbon sink," since (like "old growth" forests in the northern hemisphere) its vegetation often consumes more oxygen than it gives out.
  • Nor is the tropical rain forest the richest remaining library of genetic resources or the last refuge of primitive cultures living in harmony with nature.

Scott points out that the burning of the tropical rain forest is neither a consequence nor a cause of global warming. Forest fires in Borneo and other tropical regions are a repeated occurrence, often brought about by catastrophic climatic events such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which are not apparently related to any human-caused climate change.

"The world functions largely in non-equilibrium, with its biological components being endlessly remixed in response to change, so that 'forests' ebb and flow, with the World surviving unharmed. This is not a fragile Earth; it is an intrinsically restless Earth, flexible but ever tough."

Source: Philip Stott, "Tropical Rain Forest: A Political Ecology of Hegemonic Mythmaking," 1999, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street, London, SW1P 3LB, 020 7799 8900.


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