Rainforests are invaluable.
The National Geographic reports that rainforests take up only six percent of the total land area of the world. And yet, it produces 40 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. It is the home of more than half of the world’s plant and animal life. It is the source of most of our food. It is the habitat of the plants used for medicines. It maintains the world’s climate and helps fight global warming and droughts.
To be clear, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provides an official definition of a forest. It is defined as “land with a tree canopy of more than 10 percent and an area of more than half a hectare.”
The Missouri Botanical Garden breaks down the locations of the world’s rainforests. About 57 percent are in Latin America, a third is in Brazil, a fourth of the total can be found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands while less than a fifth or 18 percent is in West Africa.
Despite the benefits of rainforests, they are still being destroyed at alarming rates.
In a study by Matt Hansen of the University of Maryland, it was found that at least eight million hectares of rainforests are being destroyed every year. This is equivalent to 31,000 square miles or a total of five billion trees.
Given that, can you imagine the number of plants that are being cut down and the animal life that are being displaced? With the loss of habitat, it’s little wonder that all living things that reside in rainforests are in danger.
But it’s not only that; with deforestation and degradation comes a host of problems such as drought and the effects of climate change which threaten the Earth’s sustainability.
Thus, it is incumbent for all of us to take action, particularly when the scientific journal Nature believes rainforests can “meet half the 2050 target for reducing carbon emissions”.
But in order to do that, we need to understand the causes of deforestation so that we know what to do.
What is deforestation and degradation?
Deforestation is defined by the FAO as “the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of the tree canopy cover below the minimum 10 percent threshold.”
Anything more than the 10 percent threshold is termed by the FAO as forest degradation.
Given these definitions, it must be noted that there are certain activities that fall under deforestation while others are classified as degradation.
For this purpose, I am listing here the top drivers of both deforestation and degradation, with the belief that these activities result in the same thing – the loss of forest cover and the deaths of rainforests:
1. Agriculture and Ranching
The need to provide for people’s demands for food and commodities drive deforestation. In order to supply these demands, forests are turned into plantations. And this is done at an alarming rate. In fact, One Green Planet noted that the Guinness World Records named Indonesia as the Fastest Forest Destroyer in 2008, with the country’s expansion of its palm oil plantations.
Another major cause of deforestation is livestock ranching. Vast tracts of forest land are cleared and used for raising cattle. In fact, reports indicate that Brazil has lost a forest area that is as large as the state of Texas since 1990 due to the massive global demand for beef.
It must be noted that this phenomenon is not limited to Brazil. Mongabay reports that rainforests in Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador were cleared during the 1970s and 1980s to give way to cattle ranching.
“…we’re seeing accelerating clearing associated with commodities such as rubber, beef, and soy, along with palm oil. To slow this forest loss, we need improved forest governance to prevent illegal clearing, more balanced land use planning, and greater demand from major importers and trading countries for sustainable commodity production.” – Nigel Sizer, head of the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch.
2. Infrastructure and road expansion for industrial ‘progress’
The need for infrastructure and roads cause a negative impact on our rainforests. The Interoceanic Highway, for example, that connects Peru and Brazil passes through the Amazon rainforest. Biologist William Laurance of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science of James Cook University in Australia told Nature.com: “Put a road into a frontier area and it opens a Pandora’s box.”
Indeed, Laurance’s observation was proven correct. Reports note that it has opened up the Amazon to gold mining, illegal logging, farming, land speculators, among others. What’s more, the gold mining activities have even poisoned part of the Amazon.
“Commercial logging is considered by many to be the single biggest agent of tropical deforestation,” according to the Rainforest Information Center Educational Supplement. While commercial companies are supposed to cut down only “mature” trees, the reality may not necessarily be true at all times. The entry of equipment to cut down the selected trees causes extensive damage in the rainforest. Also, it takes a long time to regenerate the area that was occupied by the selected tree.
Illegal logging is also prevalent, especially in developing countries. In Indonesia alone, about 80 percent of its timber are exported illegally. This is hard to control as it provides livelihood to those in developing countries who earn less than a dollar a day.
What can we really do about deforestation and forest degradation?
I honestly believe that the ultimate reason for all of the above mentioned activities and the death of rainforests is overpopulation. With overpopulation comes an increased demand for more resources and more food. As such, it is taxing the environment and putting a toll on sustainability. It is thus important for governments around the world to address this issue.
At the same time, it is vital for all of us to come together to address the different drivers of deforestation. As the ultimate consumers, it is incumbent upon us to take a stand against food or commodities that originate from non-ethical sources. If governments, regulators, companies and consumers are now starting to look into the supply chains of the fashion industry, perhaps a similar initiative can also be launched to understand the origins of food. This has already started in some developed countries such the UK, the European Union, among others. It is but vital for this initiative to be applied in other countries as well.
In addition, we need to examine what effective actions people are taking in our countries and around the world to solve the problems leading to the deaths of our rainforests. We can:
- campaign against infrastructure projects that will have detrimental effects on the environment
- say no to, and boycott companies that use unsustainable palm oil in their products
- buy furniture, wooden products or paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council
- purchase only sustainably-produced meat and produce
- create buzz about this topic and get more people to care
With more of us bonding together, we can even help push environmental policies that will have a positive impact on our rainforests and the environment.
Rainforests nurture our lives. Isn’t it time that we do the same for them?
In what other ways can we contribute to saving the world’s rainforests? Feel free to share your ideas because sharing is caring!