Earth Talk: The cost of losing tropical rainforests
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: Do you have current facts and figures about how much rainforest is being destroyed each day around the world, and for what purpose(s)?
—Teri, via e-mail
Pinning down exact numbers is nearly impossible, but most experts agree that we are losing upward of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day—or some 50,000 species a year—as the forests fall.
According to researcher and writer Rhett Butler, who runs the critically-acclaimed Web site, Mongabay.com, tropical rainforests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a key role in the basic functioning of the planet. They help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall, and provide many other important ecological functions.
Rainforests are also home to some 50 percent of the world’s species, Butler reports, “making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources.” Environmentalists also point out that a quarter of our modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, but less than 1 percent of the trees and plants in the tropics have been tested for curative properties. Sadly, then, we don’t really know the true value of what we’re losing as we slash, burn and plant over what was once a treasure trove of biodiversity.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), overall tropical deforestation rates this decade are 8.5 percent higher than during the 1990s. While this figure pertains to all forests in the world’s tropics, researchers believe the loss of primary tropical rainforest—the wildest and most diverse swaths—has increased by as much as 25 percent since the 1990s.
Despite increased public awareness of the importance of tropical rainforests, deforestation rates are actually on the rise, mostly the result of activities such as commercial logging, agriculture, cattle ranching, dam-building and mining, but also the result of subsistence agriculture and collection of fuel wood. Indeed, as long as commercial interests are allowed access to these economically-depressed areas of the world, and as long as populations of poor, rural people continue to expand, tropical rainforests will continue to fall.
Some scientists see light at the end of the tunnel. Joseph Wright of the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute says the tropics now have more protected land than in recent history, and believes large areas of tropical forest will remain intact through 2030 and beyond: “We believe that the area covered by tropical forest will never fall to the exceedingly low levels that are often predicted and that extinction will threaten a smaller proportion of tropical forest species than previously predicted.”
Only time will tell whether Wright’s optimistic predictions ring true, or whether a more doomsday scenario will play out. To stay informed and be part of the solution, stay tuned to the Web sites of Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, the Rainforest Site and, of course, Mongabay.com.
CONTACTS: Mongabay, www.mongabay.com; Rainforest Alliance, www.rainforestalliance.org; Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org; Rainforest Site, www.rainforestsite.com; FAO, www.fao.org.
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; firstname.lastname@example.org. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk is now a book! Details and ordering information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.
From the December 2-8, 2009 issue
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