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World Land Fund


By Arlene


For those of you who may be at Chelsea next week ~ check this out.

How the Chelsea Flower Show will save the rainforest

It was a beautiful May afternoon and I was deep in the rainforest with Sir David Attenborough. Far below, the Piccadilly traffic hummed, for we were high in the canopy of the Linnean Society at Burlington House. It was the rainforest that had brought us together for this meeting; that, and, rather unexpectedly, the Chelsea Flower Show.

Sir David was just back from his trip to the North Pole, but he is a man who can always find time for the rainforest. And so he was telling me about his finest rainforest moment, when he was winched to the summit of one of the emergents in a tract of rainforest in Papua New Guinea. From above, rainforest looks like a vast rolling meadow studded with great bushes. These bushes are the tallest of the trees, emerging from the canopy. “I looked across from where I was, I could see another emergent — and on it, there were 20 birds of paradise, all in full display. It was one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen.” And that man has seen more wonder than anybody else on Earth.

Rainforest is the world’s great wonder: the world’s masterpiece; life’s ultimate achievement. Life works by creating lots of different living things: the heart of this process is rainforest. “Places of humiliation,” Sir David says. These places are resounding with life, and yet it is very hard to find the sort of living things that move. “You can never see anything, and you don’t know what it is once you’ve seen it.” Rainforest may be glorious, but it is also very difficult. You find yourself hot, sweaty and at the same time cut off from the sun. It is hard to see the creatures you long for, and impossible to avoid the creatures that have been longing for you, such as leeches and mosquitoes. I had never known the meaning of the expression “coming out in hives” till I made a trip to the forest of Belize; now I can tell you with immense precision. I had been bitten so many times my body more or less exploded.

It will be a fraction easier at the Chelsea Flower Show. Here, you will find a section of rainforest: an exhibit put up by the World Land Trust. It has lovingly re-created the Atlantic rainforest. This is without doubt the most murdered, raped, threatened and destroyed habitat on Earth, and the competition for that accolade is pretty intense. It was the first bit of rainforest that the Europeans came upon, and it was the first that they — we — started to destroy. We have so far got rid of 20 per cent of the Amazon rainforest. Atlantic rainforest? Make that 93 per cent.

“It’s the golden lion tamarin I mostly think of when we talk about the Atlantic rainforest,” Sir David says. The golden lion tamarin is a tiny and exquisite monkey. “It is emblematic of all the hidden species you find there.”

The Chelsea garden is designed to capture a fragment of that mystery: to convey something of the extraordinary biological richness of the place. The World Land Trust has set it up because we, as a species, have a desperate need to preserve that 7 per cent that still stands. That still teems. That still has its mystery.

Sir David gets an awful lot of calls on his name; after all, it is a name full of good, rich magic. The potent combination of his colossal integrity and his vast understanding of the world’s wild places makes him the perfect person to front up any money-raising effort for conservation. Giving his name is not a thing he has ever done lightly, or without taking a serious look at the organisation and the individuals within it.

Sir David is patron of the World Land Trust. “The thing about WLT is that they recognised that ecosystems are what need saving. If you want to save badgers and humming birds, the only way to do so is to save the places where they live. They have Land in the title and land is what matters.” WLT had arrived at this conclusion more than 20 years ago: it has always been an organisation on the cutting edge.

There is also a personal connection. Sir David is famous for gorillas. When he came back from that well-known gorilla-hugging trip to Rwanda, he had promised to raise money for Dian Fossey’s project with mountain gorillas. He went to a man called John Burton, who did the job swiftly, brilliantly and without fuss. Some years later, Burton founded the World Land Trust. “I know John, and he is a remarkable guy. He is truly admirable, passionate and ingenious. The organisation he runs has a small and excellent staff, and everything they do is built on respect. They don’t go about buying up places and then telling the local people that you are not allowed to go into the forest where your grandfather hunted.”

WLT doesn’t actually buy up land at all; rather it funds local conservation organisations to buy land. In Paraguay it has enabled Guyra Paraguay, a conservation charity similar to the RSPB, to buy Atlantic rainforest; in Brazil it has funded Regua (Reserva Ecologica de Guapi Assu) to buy Atlantic rainforest and it’s doing the same in Argentina where one of the biggest swaths of Atlantic rainforest survives.

I wanted to get into the deepest and most dramatic bit of Atlantic rainforest. I was visiting Regua, as a council member of WLT. The best bits of forest are the hardest to get to because the easy bits have already been destroyed. So I borrowed a rawboned little horse and spent the day climbing. It was like riding a horse through a cathedral; one that had been, for some reason, built on a one-in-one slope.Up and up we went, ever thicker, into the cloud, through a world of teeming invisibility: and then down again, my boots higher than my horse’s ears. Mystery, wonder: and the sense of a place where humans are never really at home.

Sir David talked about the terrifying experience of being lost in rainforest: “You look at a bird or a butterfly and suddenly you’ve lost the path. And it all looks the same. All equally incomprehensible.” He got himself saved by prolonged hallooing: “The local people who found me were rather contemptuous. Couldn’t understand how I could have lost myself.”

There’s something forbidding about rainforests: something that says, humans keep out. Few humans have ever felt at home here. “But there is always the realisation that if you get rid of this lot, you bugger up the climate system, you disrupt the rainfall patterns of the world. Plenty of destruction came about because of carelessness, or because we didn’t really know what we were doing. But with the rainforest you know what you’re doing. There is no excuse.”

Rainforest: the land with no excuses. The World Land Trust: an organisation dedicated to the principle that the glass is a good 7 per cent full. That the remaining 7 per cent is not only worth saving but is also worth celebrating.

Rainforest on show: from rare orchids to aerial ponds

The World Land Trust Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show is designed to represent the 20,000 plant species of Atlantic rainforest.

Among the treasures on show are:

Philodenron bipinnatifidum A giant plant, with banana-like fruits. The Guaraní people of South America make rope from its fibres and its sap acts as a coagulant on wounds and snakebite.

Orchids There are 25,000 species worldwide and more are being discovered. The Atlantic rainforest is particularly rich in orchids. Chester Zoo has lent a selection of flowering orchids to the Chelsea garden, representing rare and endemic species.

Bromeliads use other plants as supports. A good rainforest tree will have an impossible range of colleagues: plants on plants on plants. The big bromeliads hold several litres of water. These aerial ponds are filled with frogs, tadpoles, snails, and beetles: life within life within life.

Heart of palm tree There are many species of palm in Atlantic rainforest, including the ruthlessly over-exploited tree from which the delicacy heart of palm is extracted. It takes ten years for a palm to reach maturity. The heart of palm tree is now considered commercially extinct.

Yerbe maté The pan-South American cure-all drink maté is made from the plant.
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Arlene, I found your blog very interesting indeed! :-) I've read about the WLF before & their work in making land available to the native people is admirable!

I'm a great admirer of Sir David Attenborough & I've always watched his series on TV with fascination!

22 May, 2010


It's a pitty that such a lot of the forests have been lost. It's very important to save what's left. Sir David Attenborough is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work in bringing this to people's attention.

22 May, 2010


This is an amazing blog, Arlene! Beautifully written :~))

23 Jun, 2010

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