Tropical rainforests are a world like none other; and their importance to the global ecosystem and human existence is unequivocal. Unparalleled in terms of their untold biological diversity, tropical rainforests are a natural reservoir of genetic diversity which offers a rich source of medicinal plants, high yield foods, and a myriad of other useful forest products. They are the world’s richest and most productive ecosystems, containing half of all living species on the planet and a multitude of unique indigenous cultures. Tropical rainforests play an elemental role in regulating global weather in addition to maintaining regular rainfall, while buffering against floods, droughts, and erosion. They store vast quantities of carbon, while producing a significant amount of the world's oxygen.
Despite their monumental role, tropical forests are restricted to the small land area between the latitudes 22.5° North and 22.5° South of the equator, or in other words, between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. Since the majority of Earth's land is located north of the tropics, rainforests are naturally limited to a relatively small area.
Tropical rainforests, like so many other natural places, are a scarce resource. The vast swathes of forest, swamp, desert, and savanna that carpeted Earth's land surface a mere five generations ago have been reduced to scattered fragments; today, more than two-thirds of the world's tropical rainforests exist as fragmented remnants. Just a few thousand years ago, tropical rainforests covered as much as 12% of the land surface on earth, or about 15.5 million square km, but today less than 5.3% of Earth's land is covered with these forests (about 6.7 million square km).
The largest unbroken stretch of rainforest is found in the
Amazon river basin of South America. Over half of this forest lies in Brazil,
which holds about one-third of the world's remaining tropical rainforests.
Another 20% of the world's remaining rainforest exists in Indonesia and Congo
Basin, while the balance of the world's rainforests are scattered around the
globe in tropical regions.
(Adapted for educational purposes from www.mongabay.com)
The Disappearing Rainforests
We are losing 33,8 million acres of tropical forest per year, that’s 500,000 trees every hour, or an area the size of a football field every second!
The Amazon covers over a billion acres, encompassing areas in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia and the Eastern Andean region of Ecuador and Peru. It is the most diverse ecosystem in the world, supporting around 60,000 plant species, 1000 bird species and more than 300 mammal species. The rainforest is also home to 20 million people.
Over the past 30 years 15% of the Brazilian Amazon has been completed destroyed - that's an area the size of France. In 2002 an area the size of Belgium was destroyed, the second highest figure on record.
There were an estimated ten million Indians living in the Amazonian Rainforest five centuries ago. Today there are less than 200,000. In Brazil alone, European colonists have destroyed more than 90 indigenous tribes since the 1900's.
Why do tropical forests disappear?
Logging is one of the principal causes of destruction in the Amazon. By building roads in pristine forest, the logging industry opens the door to further devastation such as clearing forest for cattle ranches and soya plantations. When the demand in the world for meat increases, more rainforest lands are being destroyed and turned into farmland for animals.
Tropical forests yield some of the most beautiful and valuable woods in the world, such as teak, mahogany, rosewood, balsa, sandalwood, and countless lesser-known species.
Most of the rainforest timber on the international market is exported to rich countries. There, it is sold for hundreds of the times of the price that is paid to the indigenous peoples whose forest has been plundered. The timber is used in the construction of doors, window frames, crates, coffins (we consume even in death!), furniture, plywood sheets, chopsticks, household utensils and other items.
The Wealth of the Rainforests
· More than half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests.
· One-fifth of the world's fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.
· 30% of all bird species and 90% of all invertebrates are found in the tropical forest.
· A single pond in Brazil can contain more kinds of fish than are found in all of Europe's rivers.
· One tree in Peru had forty-three different species of ants, which is the estimated to be equal to the number of ant species in the British Isles.
· At least 80% of the developed world's diet originated in the tropical rainforest. Fruits like avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefuit, bananas, guavas, pinapples, mangos and tomatoes; vegetables including corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, tumeric, coffee and vanilla and nuts including Brazil nuts and cashews.
· At least 3000 fruits are found in the rainforests. Of these only 200 are now in use in the Western World. The Indians of the rainforest use over 2,000.
· Nearly half of the world's species of plants, animals and microoganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to Rainforest deforestation.
· Experts estimate that we are losing 50,000 plant,
animal and insect species a year. As the rainforest species disappear, so
do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.
· Tropical forests have given us chemicals to treat or cure inflammation, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, surgical complications, malaria, heart conditions, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma, and hundreds of other maladies. Forests offer stimulants, tranquillisers and contraceptives.
· 25% of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rainforest. Vincristine, extracted from the rainforest plant Periwinkle, is one of the world's most powerful anticancer drugs. It has dramatically increased the survival rate for acute childhood leukaemia since its discovery.
· Nobody knows what effect the disappearance of the
rainforest will have on our planet but there is general scientific agreement
that it will impact everything from climate to the air we breathe, it is a
vital part of our global balance.