Gone in One Second!
YOU are wandering through a realm of green twilight, among the buttressed columns of trees that soar up to 15 stories overhead. Above you is a vast tangle of life, the densest, richest ecosphere on earth. The trees are festooned with vines hundreds or even thousands of feet [sometimes hundreds of meters] long and are wreathed with plants that anchor themselves all over the trunks and branches. Lush tropical blossoms scent the still hothouse air.
This is the tropical rain forest. But it is more than a beauty spot, more than vaulted corridors of misty forest shot through with shafts of light. It is a mechanism of incredible complexity whose parts work together with humming precision.
Life is profuse here, a variety unequaled elsewhere on the land surface of our planet. The rain forests take up only 6 percent of the earth’s land area but have as much as half of all the plant and animal species. They produce about a third of all living material on the land. Far above you, the forest canopy is home to exotic insects and birds, to monkeys and other mammals. Most never come down to the ground at all. The trees feed and house them, and they in turn pollinate the trees or eat their fruits, scattering the seeds in their droppings.
Rains pour down daily, drenching the forests and fueling their elaborate cycle of life. Rain washes leaves and wastes down the trunks in a nutrient-rich soup that nourishes the plants called epiphytes that grow on the trees. The epiphytes in turn help the tree pull its main food, nitrogen, from the air. Many epiphytes have leafy “tanks” that hold gallons of water, creating little ponds high in the air that are habitats for tree frogs, salamanders, and birds.
Whatever nourishment reaches the forest floor is quickly devoured. Mammals, hordes of insects, and bacteria all work together to reduce nuts, animal carcasses, and foliage to the level of waste material. Then the floor itself eagerly receives it. If you were to brush away the debris at your feet, you would find a thick, spongy mat of white fibers, a network of roots and fungi. These fungi help the roots to absorb the nutrients rapidly, before the rains wash them away.
But now suppose your wandering through the rain forest was limited to a small section, an area about the size of an American football field. Suddenly, that whole section of forest vanishes. It is completely destroyed—in a single second! And as you watch in horror, the section next to yours, of the same size, is wiped out in the following second, and another in the next, and on and on. Finally, you stand alone on an empty plain, on earth baked hard under the glaring tropical sun.
According to some estimates, that is how fast the tropical rain forests of the world are being destroyed. Some put the rate even higher. According to Newsweek magazine, an area half the size of California is razed each year. Scientific American magazine of September 1989 calls it an area the size of Switzerland and the Netherlands combined.
But whatever the extent, the damage is appalling. Deforestation has raised a global furor, and it is focused largely on a single country.
Case in Point: Brazil
In 1987 satellite photographs of the Amazon basin showed that deforestation rates in this one area were higher than some estimates had been for deforestation of the whole planet! As people burned the forest to clear it, fires by the thousands lighted the nights. The smoke cloud was the size of India and so dense that some airports had to close. By one estimate, the Amazon basin every year loses an area of rain forest the size of Belgium.
Brazilian environmentalist José Lutzenberger called it “the biggest holocaust in the history of life.” The world over, environmentalists are up in arms. They put the plight of the rain forests into the public spotlight. Even T-shirts and rock concerts proclaimed, “Save the rain forest.” Then came financial pressure.
Brazil owes over a hundred thousand million dollars in foreign debt and must spend about 40 percent of its export earnings just to pay the interest. It is heavily dependent on foreign aid and loans. So international banks began to hold back loans that might be used to damage the forests. Developed nations offered to swap some of Brazil’s debt for improved protection of their environment. U.S. president Bush even asked Japan not to lend Brazil funds to build a highway through virgin rain forests.
A Global Dilemma
To many Brazilians, all this pressure reeks of hypocrisy. The developed countries had long since decimated their own forests and would scarcely have allowed any foreign power to prevent them from doing so. The United States is currently wiping out the last of its own rain forests. They are not tropical, to be sure; they are the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. Species will vanish there too.
So deforestation is a global problem, not just a Brazilian one. Tropical rain forest losses are most critical right now. Over half of those losses occur outside Brazil. Central Africa and Southeast Asia are the other two of the world’s great rain forest regions, and there too the forests are vanishing fast.
Deforestation has effects that are equally global. It means hunger, thirst, and death among millions. It is a problem that reaches right into your life. It touches the food you eat, the medicines you use, the weather where you live—perhaps even the future of mankind.
But you may well wonder: ‘How can these rain forests have such far-reaching effects? What if they do vanish in a few decades, as some experts say they will? Will it really be that great a tragedy?’
Before we can answer those questions, another must come first: What causes the destruction of rain forests to begin with?
[Diagram/Map on page 5]
Vanishing Rain Forests (For fully formatted text, see publication)
The year 2000 at today’s deforestation rate