Can Farms and Rainforest Co-Exist?

By Fran Zak
August, 2003

women below the Ravenshoe summit sign

After visiting Barro Colorado Island in Panama, I was excited to visit and compare a similar ecosystem (a tropical forest) in the southern hemisphere, namely in northeastern Australia (Queensland). Although I visited both of these in July and August, I noticed a huge temperature difference since Panama was in the middle of its warm rainy season while Australia was in the middle of its winter season. I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt in Panama only to prevent insect bites (look how hot I look in this photo by a trap that research scientists used to catch animals to tag them for scientific study). In the tropical forests in Australia, I needed a sweatshirt, warm socks, and a jacket for morning and night hikes. I was shocked that it could get so cold in a tropical forest. We were at latitude 17 South, which is between the equator and the tropic of Capricorn and I often had the hood of my sweatshirt up and tied.

Besides the chilly temperatures, the thing that shocked me most about this beautiful tropical ecosystem in Northern Queensland is how much of the rainforest has been cleared. The rainforest has been destroyed for 2 two main reasons: To cut down trees to sell for lumber at a large profit

To clear land for farming such crops as: strawberries, sugar cane, and potatoes

Only about 20% of Australia’s rainforests remain today, and much of these areas are small, disconnected rainforest patches, separated by huge expanses of grassy farmland. The native animals are no longer free to roam in a large rainforest, but rather are confined to their small rainforest patch. You can see what I mean in this photo overlooking Cairns. This is an example of severe geographic isolation that could lead to extinction
of animal species.

overlooking Cairns

Of the 20% of rainforest that still remains in Australia, only 2% of that is pristine or virgin rainforest that has never been de-forested for the lumber industry and then replanted. Our guide in Queensland, Jonathan Munro, is a well-known naturalist who informed us of recent environmental issues in Australia. He showed us his own reforested and pristine forest plots for comparison. Dr. Jackie Willis, our guide and biologist from Montclair State University could confirm that major habitat loss had occurred since her first visit to Queensland 20 years earlier. This extensive loss of rainforest has caused many more nights with frost than when the rainforest was intact. These colder temperatures cause stress to many tropical species of plants and animals.

In some respects, Australian environmental conservation measures are quite good, such as the toilets having a water saving feature by offering a "small flush" option for "smaller jobs." On the other hand, it seems the government shows little concern regarding habitat loss and preserving the natural environment. For example, I was surprised that I did not run across a single recycling bin during my 3-week visit to Queensland in July 2003. Is it possible that such a civilized country does not try to reuse its non-renewable natural resources and decrease the disposal of plastics?

Even though the total human population in Australia is very small, the impact on the landscape is major, with farming and construction occurring on a large scale. According to our naturalist guide, Mr. Munro, on several occasions the government did not complete a thorough environmental study before approving a construction project. We passed over a small tunnel that our guide told us was built to help protect the wildlife from coming in contact with car traffic. The problem is, the tunnel was built to allow arboreal animals to migrate from one side of the road to the other. Not surprisingly, the arboreal animals for whom the tunnel was designed preferred to be in the air, not underground, so they never used this tunnel. This was but one of at least a dozen examples of what I would call insufficient environmental research and planning. For example, the government gives you a better tax rate if you use your land by cutting trees rather than keeping it as a natural forest. This loss of large sectors of rainforest has created a huge decrease in biodiversity compared to other tropical rainforests in, for example, Panama. We already know that human disturbance of ecosystems reduces productivity and decreases diversity of an ecosystem (Leigh, 2002).

I hope that the Australian government will continue to remain sensitive to environmental issues and enact smart legislation to protect Australian’s unique flora and fauna, including its marsupials. I would also hope that my students in the future will have opportunities to see native Australian wildlife living in their natural forests, not just in zoos.


Leigh, Egbert. A Magic Web. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Munro, Jonathan. Personal Interview. July, 2003.

Written By:
Fran Zak
Pascack Valley HS
Hillsdale, NJ

Edited By:
Jackie Willis, Ph.D.
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, NJ

Special thanks to Professional Resources in Science and Mathematics (PRISM) at Montclair State University and Dr. Jackie Willis for making these ecology trips possible and for sharing her wealth of knowledge, her expertise, and her photographs with us.

group by a trap