Why Are the Rainforests Important?
Well, what is a rainforest? A rainforest is a forest of tall trees in the region around the equator. Most rainforests on average get 68-80+ inches of rain annually, and that’s around 6 ½ feet of rain each year at most. Some may acquire 250 inches a year (around 11 ft annually). On as many as 200 days out of the year, there is a possibility for a thundershower. In part because of the climate, the rainforest is home to the richest biodiversity on our planet!
The rainforest has four levels: the canopy (top), the subcanopy (layer just under the canopy), the understory (shady lower area), and the floor (ground). The crowns, or tops of the trees in the canopy, make a cover over the rainforest. 70% of the animals in rainforests live in the canopy and sub-canopy, and 45% of the world’s plant species occur in the rainforest. That’s a lot of plants. If the rainforest were lost the amount of species lost would uncountable. In all, the rainforests are believed to contain more than half the world’s species of plants, animals, and microbes. That's a lot of biodiversity!
The rainforests help the environment in many ways. The trees help regulate rainfall by catching water in their leaves so flooding, drought, and soil erosion aren’t as bad. The water in the leaves evaporates (turns into gas) and reenters the atmosphere then condenses into water and turns into rain. The vast amount of trees takes in a lot of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming. The plants in the rainforest create more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.
People have a lot of uses for the rainforest, like recreation for example. The beauty and wildlife have increased tourism and have helped to raise awareness of what’s happening in the rainforest. The number of tourists going to the rainforests is increasing and more than 436,000 people visit the Daintree Rainforest (Australia) each year.
The rainforests also have economic values. It is because of these economic values that the rainforests are being destroyed. One product from the rainforests is wood. The worth of international trade of tropical wood averages billions of dollars a year and 80% of the wood is burned and the other 20% is used as building wood. Other products include oils, fibers, fruits, medicines, and resins as well as lots of other products.
One reason it's so important to preserve the biodiversity of the rainforests is because we get many medicines from them. The rainforests have been called “the pharmacy of the world." For example, there are about 3,000 plants that are active against cancer and 70% of the plants come from the rainforest. 25% of the ingredients in cancer fighting medicine comes from life only found in the rainforest. One of the most powerful anti-cancer medicines is vincristine, which comes from the rainforest plant periwinkle. This drug has increased dramatically the survival rate of children with leukemia.
What’s Happening to the Rainforest?
The rainforest is facing mass extinction just like other parts of the world, and for similar reasons too. The main cause is habitat destruction. Did you know every year an area the size of New Jersey, USA gets cut down in the rainforest? The forest is being leveled faster than it can grow back. As such, many species don’t even have a chance to repopulate. The destruction of the rainforest is happening at an alarming rate. At one time the rainforest covered 14% of our earth but now it covers 6%, and most scientists believe that the remaining 6% could be consumed in the next 40 years.
There are many reasons for cutting down the rainforest. Two large ones are timber and room for cattle ranching. If the companies just make a cattle ranch the land is worth $60 an acre, but if the companies make a ranch and harvest the wood the land is worth $400 per acre. If they harvest renewable and sustainable resources the land is worth $2400 per acre which is 40 times the original worth. Therefore, it would be the much wiser choice for land use. If maintained and harvested correctly, we could get all the things we need from the rainforest without destroying it.
The loggers build paths and roads, which give hunters and poachers, who take or kill endangered animals, the ability to get access to those animals. The rainforests are located in poor parts of the world, so the companies (loggers, ranchers, etc.) have the native people gather the resources for them. The gatherers are inexpensive labor because they will accept low pay.
Where is it Happening?
Almost all rainforests today are threatened. One major thing threatening them all is deforestation, but there are different reasons depending on the place. In the Amazon, there are many reasons for deforestation. The obvious reason is for timber and land for ranching and for factories. The Amazon rainforest is most affected. Do you know why Brazil is the leading exporter of beef to the United States? Because the part of the Amazon rainforest that is in Brazil was destroyed by cattle ranchers to meet the demand for beef in the United States.
In the Indonesian rainforest, the paper industry is king. Entire parks get leveled for paper and the number of trees cut down is not regulated very well. This is especially true for Borneo's rainforests where plantations are taking the place of rainforests to make palm oil for bio-fuels. Some environmentalists agree that the rainforests in Borneo could be wiped out.
The African Congo rainforest is one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Since 1980’s it has had the highest deforestation rate in the world. Logging, agriculture, war, and the expansion of the bush meat trade have all taken their toll on the Congo rainforest.
How Can You Help?
There is only really one thing everyone can do and it’s extremely simple and easy. Just buy rainforest friendly (i.e. renewable) products that don’t harm the rainforest when being made. If you do this, it will help make a market of eco-friendly products and help save the rainforest.