The destruction of the rainforests is one of the most crucial environmental issues of our time. It is also one of the most misunderstood and neglected. There has been so much propaganda and publicity attached to this crisis that Save the Rainforests is becoming almost as clich as Save the Whales. Why dont we take this problem more seriously? Is it because we, as Americans, simply dont understand the devastating, long-terms consequences that continued deforestation of the rainforests would have? Is it because our own government is involved in the deforestation, either directly or by financing its development? Or is it because we live in a society of excessive consumption, oblivious to the problems that dont directly affect us in some tangible way? The facts are out there, and the results of continued deforestation of tropical rainforests are very real and becoming more evident everyday. It is a tremendous global concern, one that we can only resolve by popping our protective bubble of ignorance and taking action.
Rainforests are the Earths oldest living ecosystems. They cover only about 6% of the Earths land mass, yet they are home to more than half the plant and animal species in the world (de Blig, Muller, 228). A typical four square patch of rainforest contains as many as 1500 species of flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 125 mammal species, 400 species of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians, and 150 different types of butterflies (National Academy of Sciences, 1997). In the Amazon Basin, 18,000 square miles of rainforest is lost per year due to logging, mining, oil drilling, and clearing large tracts of land for cattle ranches and highways. There are dozens of beneficial reasons for protecting this land from deforestation, but I will touch on a two that I feel are particularly critical.
Medicine The abundant botanical resources of tropical rainforests have already provided considerable medical advances, yet only one percent of the known plant and animal species have been examined and researched for the medicinal potentials. Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest. (Jackson, 1989). The alkaloid d-turbocuarine found in the poisonous bark of curare lianas in the Amazon forest is used to treat such diseases as multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons disease, and other muscular disorders. Chemical structures of forest organisms can also serve as templates from which scientists and researchers can chemically synthesize drug compounds. Because certain plant compounds enable scientists to understand how cancer cells grow, rainforests can also assist in research (WRI, 1999).
But we are hardly the first to discover the medicinal benefits of the rainforest. For thousands of years, indigenous groups and their shaman have made extensive use of the rainforest plants for their health needs. The World Health Organization has estimated that 80 percent of the population in developing countries still rely on traditional medicine for their health care needs (WRI, 1999). Shamans have also helped modern scientists to discover the potentials of tropical plants. The cultural survival of these indigenous groups is seriously threatened as loggers, miners, and landless farmers invade the forest.
Tropical plants serve as a vital resource for the eradication of disease, but we could easily lose these plants if these ecosystems and their indigenous cultures are not preserved. One step towards saving them is to increase public knowledge of the importance of rainforest medicine. Why not share this information with the thousands of people who rely on these medicines to treat their cancers and other life-threatening diseases? Their support of the preservation of the rainforests would be immense and the word would inevitably spread.
Global Warming In 1988, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the risk of global warming due to human activities. In 1990, the IPCC predicted that if present rates of emissions of carbon dioxide continue, the Earth will experience a 1.8 degree warming by 2030. The anticipated impacts of global warming include widespread extinction of plant and animal species, the rise of sea level and coastal flooding, an increase in severe storms, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, an adverse impact on agriculture, and salt water intrusion into fresh water.
Clearing and burning rainforests releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation contributes 20 to 30 percent of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and carbon dioxide is believed to be responsible for approximately half of global warming (King, 1993). At present, Brazil leads the pack in countries emitting the most carbon into the air. Tropical deforestation also leads to global warming by destroying one of the Earths only ways to absorb excess atmospheric carbon. Through photosynthesis, rainforests absorb and store such a great deal of carbon that scientists refer to them as carbon sinks. (Arms, Camp, Jenner, Zalisko, 1994). Rainforest canopies also absorb nitrous oxide and ozone, which are released through deforestation. According to Myles Allen at the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Planetary Physics at Oxford University, greenhouse gases affect the way air circulates, changing cloudiness and precipitation, weather patterns on which most of the worlds population depend for their day to day survival. Already in some deforested regions of Brazil, annual rainfall has dropped considerably. The potential cost of weather-related losses has already caught the attention of the insurance industry, whose costly payoffs have made it a powerful ally in the war against global warming. We must do our part by simultaneously protecting the rainforests and cutting down on our own consumption of fossil fuels and domestic waste.
Are there other viable solutions to rainforest deforestation? One idea is sustainable development within the rainforest; in other words, creating a balanced economic system where the integrity of the ecosystem is maintained while the human needs of the present are met without compromising the needs of the future. (RAN, 1999). Sustainably harvested rainforest products are goods that can be replenished such as fruits, nuts and oils. However, it is believed that sustainable products will have a very minimal economic impact because most transnational companies are only interested in huge profits, like the ones made from timber.
Theres also the trendy idea of ecotourism, which is defined as purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people. (RAN, 1999) Tourism dollars can provide much needed income for remote communities, improving living standards and thereby reducing the pressure to degrade the natural environment. However, it is believed that the rainforest would only benefit from ecotourism if tourists money can change land use patterns of the local people or sway corporations towards more sustainable activities.
On a more grass-roots level, there are things we as a community can do, such as:
1. Boycotting destructive companies when you become aware of their practices. If you buy lumber, insist that it be certified using Forest Stewardship Council guidelines to reduce logging impact (RAN 1999).
2. Switch to tree-free paper, and encourage businesses and government to do the same. Paper made from straw, kenaf and hemp is available and is often higher in quality than wood-based paper. The more consumers demand tree-free paper, the more affordable it will become.
3. Reducing beef consumption will reduce the demand for it. Rainforest beef is typically found in processed beef products or fast foods. Once it enters the U.S., it is not labeled with its country of origin and there is no way to trace it (WRI 1999).
4. When shopping, choose products with least amount of packaging and dont buy old growth or tropical wood products such as mahogany and teak.
5. Educate others about the benefits of the rainforest. Write letters to government officials and corporations who support deforestation. Believe it or not, it can work. After receiving hundreds of letters from Rainforest Action Network members, 3M, one of the worlds leading producers of office products, agreed to audit more than 50,000 products in over 200 countries to ensure that all old growth wood or pulp is taken out of their business operations.
6. Join a program such as Protect-an-Acre, an organization that gives small grants to communities of indigenous people living in the rainforest. The communities use the money to gain land titles from the government and ultimately control of their land. This means it cant be logged for trees, mined for oil, or otherwise harmed without their permission. You can raise money through schools or businesses by having rummage and bake sales, car washes, walk-a-thons, or anything that works for your community (RAN, 1999).
To put it simply, we need to break the cycle of laziness and get pro-active. It is not enough to simply be aware anymore. The roots of this crisis are not out there in the rainforest, but embedded in the way we live. They lie in the way we as humans have excessively and unsustainably consumed the Earths natural resources. The worlds economic systems have failed to set a proper value on the environment and we continue to misuse and exploit it. We must find sustainable ways to live if biological diversity, and ultimately the rainforests, are to be conserved.
- Arms, Camp, Jenner, Zalisko, Biology: A Journey Into Life, Fort Worth, 1994, p. 781.
- De Blig, Muller, Geography, Realms, Regions and Concepts, New York, 1997, p.228.
- Jackson, D. Searching for Medicinal Wealth in Amazonia, Smithsonian, February 1989.
- King, Anthony, Global Warming and Biological Diversity, Ecology, July 1993.
- Rainforest Action Network, http://www.ran.org, November 1999.
- World Resource Institute, http://www.wri.org, November 1999.