Like the coral reefs we talked about last time, rainforests are one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems. Found on all the world’s continents except Antarctica, rainforests come in two forms: temperate, found in cooler climes, and tropical, those clustered around or near the equator between latitudes of 23.5°N and 23.5°S. The tropical Amazon, by far the largest of all rainforests, carries a 54% share of primary forest, covers almost 40% of South America, and includes parts of nine separate countries. Its largest temperate cousin, Tongass National Forest, covers 17 million acres and 90% of Alaska’s southeast panhandle.
Tropical rainforests cover a small percentage of the earth’s surface, yet host more than half the planet’s terrestrial animal species. Add to that the medicinal plants—such as those used in drugs to treat cancer, malaria, heart disease, hypertension, and a host of other common diseases—found only in rainforest ecosystems, along with all the species both animal and vegetable that have yet to even be discovered, and it’s easy to see the world’s rainforests as the treasures they are—or should be. The Amazon alone is thought to host around 10% of the world’s biodiversity.
So where’s the problem?
Both types of rainforests regulate global temperatures, in part by reducing the planet’s surface reflectivity. Their presence also stabilizes things like ocean currents, and wind/rainfall patterns. Sustaining them is one major way to mitigate global climate change, and stabilize warming to below 2°C. Yet every day, about 200,000 acres of rainforests are lost. In fact, since the 1960s, more than half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed, reducing their previous 14% coverage of the earth down to 6%.
That’s not all. Rainforests are a crucial part of the freshwater cycle on Earth. Not only do the trees help to channel rainwater into underground reserves, they contribute to rainfall by releasing moisture into the air during the process of photosynthesis. And not just in their local regions. Water generated by the rainforests travels around the world. Sources say that moisture generated in the forests of Africa ends up as rain in the Americas! It’s estimated that about 15% of the world’s freshwater comes from the Amazon basin alone. Unfortunately, this intimate link between the rainforests and the world’s rainfall has a downside. Without the trees there to contribute, rainfall decreases, and what does fall is not reabsorbed into the ground to return to the reserves. Drought follows, bringing with it famine and disease. In addition, the forests filter impurities and debris from flowing into water supplies. Without their filtration, the water that does collect is polluted.
But wait—there’s more. Not only do rainforests release the oxygen we depend on for our survival, they served as a major carbon sink for the entire planet. Note the past tense of that verb: served. Now, however, because of deforestation and human activity in those regions—slash-and-burn clearing practices and the farms and cattle ranches that have replaced the trees—they are emitting more carbon than they absorb. The crops that replaced some of the trees absorb only a fraction of what the trees did. If we can stop their deforestation and restore them, they can regain their ability to sequester carbon from our atmosphere. If we fail to save the rainforests, climate change may well be uncontrollable.
You read that part about crops right. Large portions of the Amazon are being leveled in exchange for “low cost” land for farmers to grow crops. If that was limited to a handful of small private farmers, it might not be such a problem. But commercial agriculturists join in, fell hundreds to thousands of hectares and leave it to dry, then burn the resulting mass to clear the land for massive commercial agriculture projects. And yet the soil in the rainforest is nutrient poor because those nutrients are stored in the plants and trees instead of the soil. Even in slash-and-burn tracts, where nutrients from the trees are released into the soil, the land’s fertility is not sustainable for more than a few years without the constant addition of fertilizer, which then washes into local streams to affect fish and other aquatic life. When the land is no longer sustainable, it’s abandoned, and the cycle of subsistence begins. Even if the land’s fertility could be maintained, it would not sustain crops for long. What soil remains is easily eroded after the trees are removed and the ground cleared.
Unfortunately, clearing of the rainforests is proceeding at an incredible pace. According to the Rainforest Alliance, segments the size of 40 football fields disappear every minute. Other sources agree that these precious resources are disappearing at alarming rates. Not only are we losing the trees and all they have to offer but clearing of the forests and the actions of humans in those regions have pushed many of the irreplaceable animal and plant species to the brink of extinction.
And don’t forget the indigenous peoples who have lived in the rainforest territories for generations. It’s all they know. The presence of outsiders in their lands not only threatens the ecosystem on which they depend for survival; it threatens the people themselves. They are not immune to our common diseases, which could easily wipe them out, and has come close to doing so on a number of occasions (some of which you can read about in history books).
What Is being done?
The Rainforest Alliance has set a Sustainable Agriculture Standard designed to protect standing forests and increase productivity on existing farmland. For example, they require shade standards for specific crops like coffee and cocoa, both of which grow much better in shade than in direct sunlight.
Some fragments of rainforests are being protected by global or local programs. For example, Sinharaja—a rare primary rainforest in Sri Lanka hosting 60% of endemic flora and 50% endemic fauna—has been recognized as a UNESCO heritage site since 1978, which grants it certain protections.
Reforestation is also being undertaken in some regions by replanting native trees and plants. In 2017, Conservation International worked with Brazil’s government to plant 73 million trees in the Brazilian rainforest. (weforum)
But nonprofits alone will not be enough to make a difference in time to keep us from the tipping point. Investments from groups like the Rainforest Trust and the UN REDD have managed to help local groups finance their efforts. Hopefully, these will be enhanced and enlarged soon, and by ever-expanding groups of volunteers and donors.
So, what can we do?
- Whenever possible, choose food items and other products that bear the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal.
- Eliminate foods from your diet that come from deforested lands; things like beef and soybean/palm oil are major drivers behind deforestation in the Amazon. If you choose to eat meat, buy from local farms. Look for products with sustainably produced soybean or palm oil.
- Buy responsibly sourced products, such as jewelry made from recycled gold (gold-mining is a leading cause of deforestation and river pollution in the Amazon). Look for alternative, non-tropical hardwoods instead of mahogany, rosewood, and ebony. Use paper products made from recycled pulp, or that have been certified by organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council. Research the companies you buy from. Find out their score in terms of eliminating deforestation from their supply chains.
- Buy from companies that give back. Many companies donate directly to these environmental causes. Check out Certified B Corporation’s website for a list of companies and their scores.
- Support indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples are the best defenders of their territories. Buy artisanal or fair trade products but do your homework and choose companies who actually support the indigenous peoples and not those that benefit from cultural appropriation. Ten Thousand Villages is a good one to check out. If you are travelling to a rainforest area, participate in ecotourism, as long as the tour is owned and operated by indigenous peoples. I had the privilege and joy of doing this with a couple of friends in 2008 when we visited La Reyna, Nicaragua. There, I got the chance to actually pick shade-grown coffee berries from the mountainside (it’s tedious, challenging work), see the process of drying and curing the “beans” (the seeds, which are whitish beige when plucked from the berry), and meet the people doing the work (we actually stayed with one of the families on the land). My experience there helped me understand why fair trade products are so much more expensive. To this day, I buy only fair trade coffee. (Learn more about fair trade certification here or here or here)
- Educate your children, your family members, your neighbors on the issue.