Forests cover more than 30 percent of the land area on our planet. They help people thrive by purifying the air we breath and the water we drink, and they provide a home to 80 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity, providing habitat for a vast array of trees, plants, animals, and insects. Forests also play a critical role in preventing climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that would otherwise be left free to contribute to the greenhouse effect, resulting in climate change.
Unfortunately, the forests of the world, and especially the tropical rainforests, are under threat. Deforestation is what occurs when large strands of forest are burned or cut down so that the wood can be used as construction materials, or to make room for industries, crops, or for animals to graze. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that an area approximately the size of Switzerland is lost to deforestation each and every year.
Terrestrial biodiversity is usually greater in the warmer climate near the equator. And for this reason, the tropical rainforests are a notable hotspot for biodiversity. While tropical forest ecosystems cover less than 10 percent of earth’s surface, they are estimated to contain an astonishing 60 to 90 percent of the world’s species. Since there are so many species of plants and animals that haven’t even been discovered yet, no one really knows for sure!
Estimates are that more than half of all plant and land animal species in the world live in tropical forests. This biodiversity makes the rainforests a ecological treasure. Unfortunately, with deforestation occurring at such a high rate all over the world, it includes losing the biodiversity of the tropical rainforests. Three of the most important factors responsible for tropical deforestation include the production of palm oil, the production of soybeans, and cattle ranching, just to name a few.
“Large strands of forest are burned or cut down to be used as construction materials, or to make room for crops or animals to graze.“
Palm oil is a commonly produced vegetable oil and is found in a staggering amount (approximately half) of all supermarket products. It is cheap to produce, versatile, and it can be added to a number of both food and personal products like lipsticks and shampoo. Its popularity and usefulness in a wide array of products has spurred people to clear tropical rainforests just to grow palm trees.
Cultivation of soy is another major driver of deforestation, especially in the Amazon basin. Seeds from the soybean plant provide animal feed for livestock. Some of it is used to make oil, and some of it is eaten directly by humans.
More importantly, however, is that some 80 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon can be attributed directly to cattle ranching. In particular, Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world, spurring rampant deforestation in the Amazon region for cattle grazing. The result of this deforestation is soil erosion, loss of habitat, and a tragic loss of biodiversity.
Making matters worse, deforestation has been described as a major contributing factor to global warming. How does this occur? It is because trees absorb carbon dioxide, mitigating and partially offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the human activity of burning fossil fuels. Scientists refer to this process as carbon sequestration. It is defined as the capture and storage of excess carbon dioxide. Trees play an important role in carbon sequestration. Our forests are considered “carbon sinks” that remove and store harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
During the course of doing research to write this article, I discovered that there are significant number of scientists who believe that tropical trees alone are a very important part of the climate mitigation that’s needed to offset climate change. But rampant deforestation not only removes the vegetation we need for removing this carbon dioxide, but the act of clearing the forests actually does the opposite. This is because sometimes instead of being clear-cut, forest land is sometimes cleared by controlled burning. During this process, the act of burning them down actually has the opposite effect of storing carbon,- by releasing stored carbon. That’s right,- the smoke from burning trees contains all of the carbon that has been stored inside the trees for all of the years that they’ve been growing. As a combination of all of these reasons, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that deforestation is the overall second-leading cause of climate change.
“Worldwide demand for palm and soy are among the most significant agricultural drivers of deforestation threatening tropical rainforests.”
References and Resources:
The State of the World’s Forests, from the Food and Agriculture Organization. The Food and Agriculture Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security.
Forest, especially tropical forest, store enormous amounts of carbon. When forests are destroyed, that carbon is released to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit science advocacy organization based in the United States.
Information and research about Ontario’s remaining old-growth forest ecosystems, including where to see them and how to help conserve them.
U.S. Forest Service. Find out about the economics of forests in the Southern U.S. and beyond, including measuring the sustainability of forestry, valuing nonmarket benefits, estimating the response of landowners to policy and incentive programs, projecting future timber supplies, modeling land use changes and forest fragmentation, and the understanding the potentials of ecotourism and agroforestry.
Fosters research and public education. Features list of projects, information on workshops, funding opportunities and contacts.
IUFRO Vienna Office site. IUFRO is a non-profit, non-governmental international network of forest scientists. Its objectives are to promote international cooperation in forestry and forest products research.
Iracambi is a community of people around the world whose vision is to see the beautiful Brazilian Atlantic Forest restored, with prosperous communities living in a flourishing landscape. Research in sustainable management, ecology and conservation of the Atlantic Brazilian Rainforest.
Project to restore a tropical rainforest in Sri Lanka in a scientific manner, through the active support and involvement of local communities. Provides information on the project, programs, biodiversity and eco-tourism.
Resource database of rainforest plants including medicinal properties, preservation options, articles, and clinical trial data.
Tropical forest research for nature conservation and sustainable use of rain forests in Cameroon, Colombia, Guyana, Ghana, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Vietnam.
An international consortium of governments, private foundations, and development banks created to develop a network of harvest centers in the developing world. Purpose of group is to help restore soil fertility, create commercial cultivation, use trees to enhance the environment and support research in this area. Page gives news and list of projects.
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