Why Preserve Rainforests?

By Anna Mazzaro

"Is it important to save rainforests? Why?"

One of our readers wrote to us with those questions, so Anna Mazzaro did some investigating in books and journals and has summarized her findings here:

Anna writes:

Did you know??

For many years people from industrialized countries have exploited rain forests. In doing this, they introduced big changes and created a lot of problems for the various ecosystems that we call "the rain forest." There actually are many different kinds of forest that are called "rain forest."

Tropical rain forests once constituted 20% of the Earth's land surface. Today they cover less than 7%.

Although rain forests grow in more than 50 countries, about half of the total area is contained in just three: Brazil with 33%, and Zaire and Indonesia with 10% each. By 1990, an area of about 150,000 square kilometers of tropical forest (equivalent to the size of England and Wales) was being destroyed every year. Deforestation is happening in the rain forests all around the world: West Africa, Indonesia, and South America.

Why do people destroy rain forests?

There are many reasons why people destroy rain forests:

Commercial logging- timber companies are interested in the hardwood trees (such as mahogany, sapele and lauan) that grow only in the rainforest areas. Even if loggers take just a few of these trees from one area, it is enough to cause great damage to the entire forest. When one big tree is felled, it will damage the trees around it and those connected by big vines. Loggers use big equipment to move the giant logs and so they build roads to move the equipment. Road-building means cutting down more trees that are in the way. Once a road has been built, then hunters find it easy to get to the center of the forest where they can shoot deer, monkeys, apes, wild pigs, various birds, and other tasty animals for sale to people in cities. Then native people who live quietly in the forest and the big predators like jaguars or tigers who normally live there too will find it difficult to get enough to eat from their forest.

Mining- some forests are growing on top of very rich deposits of precious metals and other minerals. Governments and commercial organizations can make a lot of money from mining. Mining causes river pollution that poisons animals and farmlands, as well as the natives that live in these areas. This causes great destruction to the environment.

Cattle ranching- natives that live in rainforest areas have been encouraged to change to cattle farming to feed their families and to produce beef to export and milk for local use. There is a high demand for beef because so many Americans eat so many hamburgers! This means that forested areas have been cleared to plant grass to feed cattle. Ranchers need a lot of land to raise just a few cattle. As a result, millions of acres of rain forest in Central and South America have been destroyed to make room for cattle ranchers. Unfortunately, the quality of the grass is very poor and the production of the meat and milk is very low. The land is exhausted after a few years and the production of beef benefits few people for a short time.

One thousand pounds of forest life is destroyed for every hamburger produced in Central America.

Road building- new roads bring new settlers, and although road building is not the cause of massive forest destruction, new settlers are. Usually the new settlers don't have the same knowledge of the rain forest as indigenous people do. They often don't know how to harvest resources or how to care for soils. Once the natural vegetation is removed, the fertility of the soil is quickly removed. The forests are replaced by agriculture that gives low yields and is productive for a short period of time

When forests are removed, what we call "deforestation," this is what happens:

  • Many tropical forests grow on soil with high clay content. The exposed ground bakes in the hot tropical sun and becomes as hard as concrete, increasing drought problems in the dry seasons.
  • In rainy season, when the heavy tropical rain hits the bare, hardened soil, there is a massive water runoff and erosion of soil into the rivers and lakes.
  • Rivers swell and flooding increases, often leading to people dying and entire villages being swept away.
  • Native Indians, what we call "indigenous tribes" (especially in Brazil and Sumatra, but also elsewhere) are losing their special, unique, ways of life.
  • The world's capacity to produce the oxygen that we all breathe is reduced! Loss of forests, especially by burning, adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As much as one-fourth of the carbon dioxide now in the air was released when rain forests were burned.
  • Greenhouse gases help warm the Earth too much and increase climate changes that are unwanted.

When a rain forest is completely cleared, it probably takes 400 years to re-grow a forest with big trees. This is if the soil is not permanently damaged, in which case many weed species will take over, not forest.

Why protect rain forests?

  • Tropical rain forest is a region of year-round warmth. An average of 50-260 inches (125-166 cm.) of rain falls yearly. Rain forests act as a pressure pump, sending the stored heat and humidity to the colder temperate zones. This mechanism helps to stabilize the world climate. Tropical rainforests produce 40% of Earth's oxygen.
  • Rain forests serve many important functions. They capture, store, and recycle rain, which prevents floods, droughts and erosion of the soil.
  • Even though rain forests now cover less than 7% of Earth's land surface, they are the home to over 50% of all known species of living organisms.
  • A tropical forest has more kinds of trees than any other area in the world. One half of all growing wood on earth is located in the tropical forests.
  • Tropical rain forests can save your life. About one-fourth of all the medicines we use now come from rainforest plants. More than 1,400 varieties of tropical plants are thought to be potential cures for cancer.
  • Leaves of trees and other plants are the most important chemical factories in the world. They provide the oxygen and food for humans and animals.
  • Insects make up the largest single group of animals that live in tropical forests, and insects are another growing source of products useful to people.
  • Extinction of different species of animals and plants makes the world ecosystems less stable and our own lives less interesting and varied.

What can be done to save rain forests?

  • Make people aware of the problem.
  • Educate children and adults on the value of rainforest.
  • Provide funding for international foundations that preserve forests.
  • Don't buy souvenirs made from wild or endangered animals.
  • Eat less beef. (Eating less meat of all sorts than Americans normally eat is also better for our health.)
  • Don't buy furniture made from rare tropical woods.
  • Recycle paper.
  • Use recycled paper to write on, or paper made from non-wood sources.

Saving rainforests is NOT a matter than concerns only those countries where there is rainforest! Saving rainforests is something than concerns the whole world. Please tell your friends and family about the importance of rainforests: the benefits we get from rainforests, the beautiful animals and plants that live in rainforests, the special cultures of the indigenous peoples who live there, and the many species that can become extinct if we don't preserve rainforests.

I'm sure that you have heard this before: the Earth is the only planet in our solar system that is inhabitable by humans. The Earth is the only planet we have! By recycling, saving water, eating less animal protein and more fruits and vegetables, by not buying artifacts made from forest animals and plants, we are going to help protect the environment in which we live, as well as rainforests, and our entire planet.