Tropical rainforests are being degraded at rapid, alarming rates. Logging, agriculture, oil extraction, and mining are some of the main drivers of deforestation in places like the Amazon. The destruction of tropical rainforests doesn’t just affect the animals or people living in them. It affects all of us.
Here are five facts to help you understand what’s at stake.
1) Deforestation is driven by extraction and industrial agriculture
In the past, tropical rainforests covered 14% of the Earth. But over time, humans have destroyed over half of that enormous area of vibrant, diverse forest. In just 40 years, the world’s tropical rainforests could be entirely lost if current rates of degradation continue. Because of rampant extraction of natural resources, global demand for fossil fuels and cash crops like soy or beef, and because indigenous peoples’ rights are so often denied and stolen by governments and industries, tropical rainforest are disappearing faster than they can regenerate. Between 2002 and 2020, 60 million hectares of primary tropical forest was destroyed, an area larger than the areas of Missouri and California combined.
2) Biodiversity loss threatens the whole forest and the whole world
Deforestation accounts for the loss of 137 plant, animal, and insect species each day, or 50,000 species per year. Ecosystems are intricate webs of interactions between species– from fungus to insects to tropical birds to jaguars. Each species plays an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem, and species depend on each other to survive. When the web is disrupted, and a species is lost, it can result in a chain reaction that causes some species to explode in population and others to suffer.
Therefore, the loss of one species can make an entire ecosystem unbalanced, spiraling towards a “tipping point” at which the ecosystem cannot fully recover. Reaching a tipping point would mean that huge areas of tropical forest would become savannah.
Biodiversity loss is a threat to human lives and lifestyles, and many people, especially in 2020, are exploring global strategies for addressing the biodiversity crisis. Preventing deforestation must be a key part of this effort. Habitat fragmentation also increases the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans, like COVID-19.
3) Pharmaceuticals often originate in tropical rainforests
A quarter Western pharmaceuticals is made from ingredients found in tropical rainforests. Medications used to treat various physical and physiological ailments require the use of plants that are found exclusively in the tropical rainforest. Almost 90% of all known diseases have treatments that originate in plants and animals, many of which are from rainforests.
Three quarters of drugs used to treat cancer come from nature. More than 2000 plant species found in the tropical rainforest contain cancer-fighting elements. We have yet to identify all of the medicinal benefits that the plants of the tropical rainforest have to offer. If we lose the rainforest, we eliminate the possibility of discovering new types of cancer treatments.
For example, the Madagascar periwinkle flower is used to treat acute lymphocytic leukemia, a previously fatal pediatric cancer. Fifty years ago, almost all of the children diagnosed with this cancer would die. Today, however, the Madagascar periwinkle enables over 80% of patients to be cured entirely.
The story of bioprospecting, extraction of plants and animals for western pharmaceutical purposes, is fraught with exploitation. But when indigenous knowledge is respected, compensated, and recognized as science, working at the intersections of traditional knowledge and western science practices can create effective treatments that save many lives.
4) Rainforests regulate global climate
Climate change is an existential threat to life around the world, to ecosystems, biodiversity, and human societies. But what role do rainforests play?
Rainforests influence local and regional weather patterns and regulates climate around the world. Despite covering less than 3% of Earth’s surface, rainforests play a key role in absorbing atmospheric CO2. But the role of rainforests as an important carbon sink is complex. As large areas of rainforest are deforested through logging and burning, they can also act as sources of carbon emissions.
An estimated 55% of the emissions released by burning fossil fuels between 1960 and 2015 were absorbed by oceans and forests. This ability to significantly affect the overall level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere makes rainforests key in shaping the climate of the entire planet.
Rainforests also play a role in the water cycle, regulating local and global rain patterns. By releasing water vapor into the atmosphere, trees “recycle” the water they use into an accessible form: rain. Rainforests also lower local temperatures, creating humid conditions that increase rainfall and cloud formation.
When plants grow they sequester atmospheric carbon in their tissues via the process of photosynthesis. Because rainforests are full of large trees and other plants, they store massive amounts of carbon. But when they are burned or chopped down, much of that carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide, methane, and other nitrogen oxides). The clearing and burning of tropical forests and peatlands accounts for about ten percent of greenhouse gases from human activities.
Therefore rainforest protection and restoration are critical to slowing climate change. By one estimate, published in 2015 in the scientific journal Nature, rainforests could meet half the 2050 target for reducing carbon emissions.
5) You are connected to the world’s rainforests
Whether you live tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles from the nearest rainforest, you affect rainforests and they affect you. Your choices and actions can help or hurt these vital and vibrant forests around the world.
Governments and financial institutions are starting to value ecosystem services, biodiversity, and unexploited natural spaces through economic mechanisms that incentivize conservation and ecological care. Although there is a long way to go, and large scale, serious policy and structural change is needed, these policies are crucial.
We can all, in our day to day lives, make choices to support the world’s rainforests, by buying from companies and using banks that don’t contribute to deforestation and destruction of tropical forests. You can boycott products that drive deforestation, write to political and corporate leaders to demand action to protect, not destroy, rainforests. We by working alongside and in support of indigenous peoples in rainforests, we can best uplift their stewardship and defense of these critical spaces. Securing legal rights, land titles, protection, and strengthening economic independence and political power of indigenous peoples is key to protecting rainforests around the world, from the Philippines to the Amazon.
This is Rainforest Partnership’s work. We use partner with indigenous and local communities to conserve and restore tropical forests, empower and equip communities, and generate economic stability to improve their daily lives and their ability to protect their lands and rights. We empower and partner with people around the world, of any age, background, and strength, to build vibrant networks protecting tropical forests. If you are moved by this work, join us. We’d love to have you.