Late in the 1980s & early 1990s, the destruction of tropical rainforests was a hot news topic. There was much concern over the rate of deforestation particularly in Amazonia and debate raged on the subsequent effects of this rainforest destruction. Extensive public awareness campaigns primarily by environmental organizations led to the development of mass support for prevention initiatives. In turn this support forced governments to address the situations of the depleting rainforests. Concessions were made and some measures were put into place to counteract or contain the loss of the rainforests.
After a while as with most news issues, something else stole the attention and the plight of the rainforest fell somewhat into the shadows except in the minds of concerned environmentalists. What are the latest findings on the rainforests of the world? What does the future hold?
Tropical rainforests cover approximately 6% of the earth's land surface yet support up to 50% of the world's life forms, equaling somewhere in the region of 30 million plant, animal and insect species.
Tropical Rainforests can be distinguished from other forests by the amount of precipitation that falls in the region (somewhere between 4 and 8 metres per year) and their location, that is, in the tropics.
The Amazon rainforest covers over a billion acres across Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Columbia & Venezuela, produces more than 20% of the worlds oxygen and contains over 1/5th of the world's fresh water in its basin.
The map below shows the location of the remaining rainforests of the world.
Besides the contribution of oxygen to the atmosphere, the uptake of carbon dioxide, and the storage capacity of fresh water, tropical rainforests are invaluable for the following reasons:
Medical Resources: Over 2000 plants only found in the tropical rainforest have been identified as having anti-cancer properties. To date, scientists have only tested 1 in 10 plants for these properties. The Rainforest organization highlights 3 ways in which plants endemic to the rainforest can help in modern medicine.
1. Extracts can be used directly as drugs. E.g. quinine from cinchona tree bark aids in the cure of malaria, rosy periwinkle with its anti-tumor properties
2. Chemical structures of organisms can serve as templates to synthesize drugs. E.g. willow trees and aspirin
3. Research purposes for understanding and testing of new medicine.
Animal Diversity: For example 90% of primates, 80% of insects, 1 in 5 of all birds in the world exist in tropical rainforest habitats
Plant Diversity: Out of 225,000 plant species known in the world, 155,000 reside in the rainforest. The UK occupies a land area of 94,247 square miles and contains up to 1500 different plant species. This number can be equaled in the Amazon in 100 hectares of rainforest
Indigenous people: The rainforest has been their home for thousands of years. They have rich cultures and traditions. Their knowledge and understanding of their environment far surpasses that of Western science.
Sheer aesthetic wonder
The latest results on rainforest loss or destruction are difficult to come by if in existence at all. According to the Rainforest Foundation UK there have been no global assessments of destruction since 1990. Why this is the case seems baffling but it may in part provide a explanation for the lack of consistent publicity for the rainforest cause.
The following figures show the disparity from sources but give an idea of general destruction rates:
Friends of the Earth
Global Rates of Destruction of Rainforest listed as 2.4 acres per second. (Equivalent of 2 US football fields). Or 31 million hectares per year. (Area larger than Poland)
Brazilian Ministry of Science & Technology
Between 1995 and 1996, 60,000km of the Amazon rainforest was reportedly cut down, burned and cleared (Equivalent to twice size of Belgium)
Source: BBC News
Brazilian Government's Annual Report
Showed destruction had remained steady and not increased despite changes in Government policy & initiative between 1998 and 1999. Measured using Satellite imagery, loss of rainforest for that year was reported as being 16,926 sq km. However Nature magazine estimates that these official estimates are too low and it is more like twice this figure.
Source: Tree 4 Life
From 1999 to 2000, deforestation increased by 15%. According to INPE, Brazilís National Institute for Space Research, who monitor deforestation via satellite, the total deforested area in that period equalled 19,836 square kilometres, the equivalent of four million soccer fields, compared to 17,259 from August 1998 to August 1999
Whatever the actual rate of deforestation, satellite images show that substantial areas of tropical rainforest are being destroyed. One of reasons for this destruction is the lack of protection for rainforests. Only 4% of the worlds total lies under legal protection. Alongside this lies the issues of indigenous land rights. In many instances these still lie unrecognized allowing governments, industry, international organizations and big business to exploit vast areas of rainforest which indigenous tribes have occupied for thousands of years. In Brazil in the 20th Century over 90 native tribes have actually been wiped out.
The attraction of the rainforest for commercial purposes spans a wide array of interest such as:
Timber - Logging for hardwood trees which are endemic to tropical rainforests
Farming - subsistence and commercial. The most influential cause of rainforest destruction
The destruction of the rainforests for purposes such as those listed above are not only problematic in terms of the loss of a rich diverse environment but many such activities are so counter-productive to the land that they destroy the delicate balance of the ecosystem beyond a state from which it can ever rejuvenate itself.
With respect to the future of tropical rainforests, once again there are many different interpretations to the speed and extent to which they will be destroyed. One recent hypothesis posted in the National Geographic by a Penn State professor, claims that if deforestation continues at its current rate of 1% per year, it will reach the 'point of no return' within 10 to 15 years. The mathematical model predicts Brazil could lose all its rainforest within 40 to 50 years. His theory highlights the interconnection between not just regional but localized climate and rainforests and proposes that the interdependence between the two has been underestimated in previous predictions. Source: National Geographic
It seems clear that without strong measures in the near future, the destruction of the tropical rainforest environment will be inevitable. Many environmental organizations are fighting now for their preservation. The list below provides an example of some of the websites to go to find out more information about how to help prevent the destruction of the rainforests and pledge support.