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Rainforests are powerhouse ecosystems that support a healthy Earth. Characterized by high levels of rainfall, an enclosed canopy, and high species diversity, rainforests enable life to thrive. They produce clean air and water, absorb our carbon dioxide, stabilize climate patterns, and contain half of all plant and animal species . Most importantly, rainforests are a crucial defense against climate change. You cannot chop or burn them down without running large climatic risks.
Yet, that is exactly humanity is doing. Every second, we lose a football field of rainforest. Deforestation produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change. However, stopping deforestation, restoring forests, and improving forestry practices could remove 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, or as much as eliminating 1.5 billion cars—more than all of the cars in the world today! The question we must ask ourselves is “People do not burn Picassos or cathedrals, so why should they burn the Amazon Rainforest?”
Rainforests are being destroyed because they are perceived by their short-term value by short-sighted governments, companies, and landowners. We need to realize the true, long-term value of these forests and the impact their loss would have. Massive deforestation has many consequences – air and water pollution, soil erosion, less rainfall, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the displacement and decimation of indigenous tribes, and the extinction of plants and animals. With all this in mind, what can be done to prevent this catastrophe?
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Protecting Earth’s Rainforests
What’s Happening to the World’s Rainforests
In 1950, about 15 percent of the Earth's land surface was covered by rainforest. These areas took between 60 and 100 million years to evolve and are believed to be the oldest and most complex land-based ecosystems on Earth, containing over 80% of Earth’s land based species.
Yet in fewer than fifty years, more than half of the world's tropical rainforests have disappeared. Tropical rainforests now cover just around 5 percent of the world's land surface. Due to fragmentation and degradation by humans, much of this remaining area no longer retains its original biodiversity.
In 2019, deforestation in the Amazon climbed to the highest rate in a decade. An area of forest the size of Lebanon was burned in just a few months in the Brazilian Amazon. Roughly 20 percent of the Amazon Rainforest is already gone, and scientists say we are close to a tipping point. The Amazon is a closed loop system that waters itself. If enough forest is destroyed, the world’s largest rainforest could see a die-back scenario, where large swaths of once wet forest turn into a dry savanna and the whole system collapses. We need to put a stop to this needless destruction.
Why Are We Losing Rainforest?
The fundamental factors driving deforestation are economic — at both the global and local level.
Unsustainable agriculture, illegal logging, mining, oil drilling, forest fires, dams, poaching, and urban development are all wiping out rainforests and the life within them. The production of agricultural commodities such as beef, soy, palm oil, and cocoa is responsible for the majority of global deforestation.
Political will, incentives, and policy also play a massive role. The current lack of recognized land tenure for indigenous territory, economic opportunities, and enforcement of environmental regulations makes it difficult for rainforest communities to keep their forest standing.
People who live in forest communities need a basic income–particularly for education and health care. Many have found that the surest and simplest means of making money is to cut down the trees and replace them with cash crops and pasture land.
Without alternatives, we can all understand why they would make this choice. Unfortunately, this practice degrades or destroys the environmental value of the forest, and due to the poor soil of rainforest land, it is not economically sustainable.
In addition, large agribusiness and resource companies will buy land or offer these communities large sums of money to extract resources from their land. Unlike local communities, these large companies have no connection to the land and nothing to gain from the forests besides short-term profit.
A Growing Understanding
Fortunately, the world's growing understanding of the value of our rainforests is coming at the same time as the discovery of ways to build economies that rely on healthy forests for success. Sustainable agriculture methods like agroforestry allow cattle and crops to grow while simultaneously preserving the surrounding forest. Using techniques like this, products such as coffee and cacao are transforming from deforestation culprits into sustainable products. Services like ecotourism and traditional medicine provide an income to communities without harming the forest.
These examples show the forest as a sustainable resource rather than being a single-use mine for timber, oil, minerals, or unsustainable agriculture.
Rainforests also have an enormous amount of potential for medicine, and only 1% of rainforest plant species have been tested for medicinal benefits. Unfortunately, many of these indigenous communities with knowledge of medicinal plants have historically been exploited, and are reluctant to pass on their knowledge if they feel they might be taken advantage of again. Building a trusting relationship with these communities will be vital toward long-term conservation goals.
We also now know that investing in indigenous peoples is one of the most cost effective solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. According to WRI, “Research shows that indigenous and community lands store about 25 percent of the world’s aboveground carbon, making these lands critically important in the global fight to curb climate change.” Indigenous peoples constitute less than five percent of the world’s population, but they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. We have to invest in them to protect our environment.
A Chance for Regrowth
Rainforest ecosystems are resilient, and if we give them a chance they will thrive. Forests need to be managed effectively without endangering rare species of plants and animals and without risking global environmental damage. Companies that harvest timber should not be allowed to "clear cut" large areas of forest and should be required to plant new trees after they cut old trees down. Governments also need to create reserves where hunting and harmful resource extraction are not allowed.
Governments are partnering with indigenous peoples in reserve management and with NGOs that provide legal assistance to help them secure their land. Additionally, NGOs are working with indigenous communities to create sustainable economies that rely on thriving forests. Indigenous people know more about the forest than anyone and have an interest in safeguarding it as a productive ecosystem that provides them with food, shelter, and clean water.
One way we can contribute to conservation efforts in our own lives is by cutting out products made by companies that contribute to the destruction of the rainforest. Instead, we can support companies and programs that make a commitment to a zero-deforestation supply chain.
A key strategy in conserving rainforests is aiding indigenous peoples and local communities in gaining formal title to their land. According to the World Resources Institute, “...deforestation is significantly lower within formally recognized indigenous-held lands. A recent WRI report found that in Bolivia, deforestation rates are 2.8 times lower within “tenure-secure” indigenous lands… than outside them.”
In places where it is difficult to gain ownership rights to land and where land is relatively open and abundant, there is little incentive to maintain or improve holdings. Once local people have a stake in the land they are farming, they will have an interest in using it efficiently instead of moving on to a new area of forest once soils are exhausted.
Ecotourism can also raise awareness and funds for conservation efforts. Areas in and around protected areas can charge a daily fee to visitors which goes toward supporting the forest.
Building research facilities for training local scientists and guides can boost intellectual capital and introduce a new dynamic to an economy once based on resource extraction. Unlocking the value of forests provides a great opportunity for a country to capitalize on its natural assets. Through this, we can establish programs that promote sustainable use which are key to elevating the standard of living for people living around protected areas.
We need to universally implement these methods to protect our planet’s greatest resource.
A Future for the Rainforest
As a major source of freshwater, biodiversity, carbon removal, and medicinal ingredients, it is of paramount importance that we protect this vital resource. With the combined efforts of conservation NGOs, sustainable businesses, indigenous peoples and local communities, and governments around the world, and global citizens, we can breathe new life into our rainforests. If we protect our environment we will reap the benefits for years to come.