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Rainforests are forest ecosystems characterized by high levels of rainfall, an enclosed canopy and high species diversity. They provide the air we breathe and the water we drink. They absorb our carbon dioxide, stabilize climate patterns, and are home to half the world’s plant and animal species. Most importantly, rainforests are a crucial defense against global warming. You cannot chop or burn them down without running large climatic risks.
Yet every minute, we lose forty football fields of rainforests. Deforestation alone produces one-fifth 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, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the eviction and decimation of indigenous tribes, and the extinction of plants and animals. Fewer rainforests means less rain, less oxygen for us to breathe, and an increased threat from global warming. 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
The Amazon Rainforest has been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest. It is estimated that more than half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals, and insects live in tropical rainforests. One-fifth of the world's freshwater is in the Amazon Basin. A lesser-known fact is that many of the drugs used to treat malaria, glaucoma, leukemia, and other diseases are derived from plants found in the Amazon Rainforest.
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. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 100,000 acres every day, or 39 million acres every year — and the destruction is now accelerating. In 2017, an area of forest the size of Bangladesh was destroyed. Roughly 20 percent of the Amazon Rainforest is already gone, and if nothing is done to curb this trend, the entire Amazon could well be gone within fifty years. We need to put a stop to this needless destruction.
Why Are We Losing Rainforest?
The factors driving deforestation are economic — at both the global and local level.
Illegal logging, mining, unsustainable agriculture, cattle ranching, forest fires, oil drilling, dams, poaching, and urban development are all wiping out rainforests and the life within them. Additionally, a lack of recognized land tenure for indigenous territory, economic opportunities, and enforcement of environmental regulations have made it difficult for rainforest communities to protect their forest.
People who live in rainforest communities need a basic income–particularly for education and health care. Many communities 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 agricultural and natural 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
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, nonprofits like Rainforest Partnership 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 oxygen, 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 governments around the world, we can breathe new life into our rainforests. If we protect our environment we will reap the benefits for years to come.