Rain Forests—Can They Be Saved?
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BOLIVIA
RAMIRO owns a valley that is blanketed with tropical cloud forest.* Situated in the foothills of South America’s Andes Mountains, this valley is one of the few in the region where ancient trees still stand. All around, the hills are denuded of forest. Scientists come from far and wide to study the wildlife in Ramiro’s cloud forest, and they have discovered several species never described before. Ramiro is intensely interested in preservation. He declares: “There will be no logging in my forest.”
On the other hand, Roberto manages 2,000 square miles [5,600 sq km] of tropical rain forest in the lowlands of the Amazon basin. He is a professional forester who harvests and sells tropical timber for the world market. But Roberto is also intensely interested in protecting tropical forests and their wildlife. “Tropical timber can be harvested without doing permanent damage to the diversity of life,” he insists.
Different though they are, Ramiro and Roberto share a profound concern for the fate of tropical forests. And they are far from being alone. In recent decades the reckless destruction of tropical rain forests has accelerated alarmingly.
Is such concern overblown? After all, people cleared much of the forests in temperate regions in centuries past, largely to make way for agriculture. So why worry if people in the Tropics now act similarly? There are key differences. For instance, tropical rain forests often grow on infertile land, where agriculture is a poor alternative. Also, the diversity of life in tropical forests is much greater; its loss affects all mankind.
The Cost of Deforestation
More than half the world’s species of living things are found in tropical forests. From spider monkeys and tigers to uncommon mosses and orchids, from snakes and frogs to rare butterflies and parrots—the number of species is just too great to be cataloged.
Various forms of life thrive in many types of tropical forest. There are slow-growing mountain cloud forests, dark rain forests with dense canopies, tropical dry forests, and open woodlands. Most people, though, have never visited a tropical forest. Perhaps you have not. Why, then, should you care about such places?
The preservation of tropical rain forests is vital to you because so many of the domestic and commercial plants that you rely on depend, in a way, on their wilder ancestors that still thrive in such forests. These wild strains are used at times to breed newer strains that are more resistant to diseases and pests. The genetic diversity found in wild varieties is therefore essential.
Also, researchers are constantly deriving useful products from tropical forests. A large proportion of the medicines now in use, for example, were developed from tropical plants. Thus, the diversity of life in tropical rain forests is often likened to a living library, but it is one in which most of the “books” have yet to be opened.
A Fragile Web of Life
The humid tropical-forest environment is fragile and extremely complex. The myriad life-forms depend on one another. For example, most plants depend on particular birds, insects, or animals for pollination and seed dispersal. In an intricate cycle of life, the forest efficiently recycles all the living material it contains, including the plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms. Remarkably, this whole complex ecosystem usually stands on poor-quality soil. Once destroyed, it may be difficult or impossible for such a forest to recuperate.
Many people earn their living from tropical forests. Besides providing a field for scientific research and for tourism, tropical forests are commercially important for such products as timber, nuts, honey, palm hearts, rubber, and resin. But tropical rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. The figures are disputed, but one fact is clear: The forests are shrinking fast.
What makes this environmental loss especially sad is that tropical rain forests are often destroyed for little permanent benefit. Many of these woodlands have been converted to grazing land for cattle. Often, though, the land soon fails to sustain the needed pasturage and is abandoned. In Brazilian Amazonia, 63,000 square miles [165,000 sq km] of land has reportedly been abandoned in this way.
What hope is there for the rain forests and their teeming wildlife? Ramiro, Roberto, and many others like them are struggling to defend tropical rain forests against the forces of international commerce, overpopulation, trappers for the pet trade, and illegal hunters and loggers. But what are the real, underlying causes of deforestation? Is there any way to use the vast resources of rain forests without destroying them?
A cloud forest, or montane rain forest, is a rain forest growing at elevations above 3,000 feet [1,000 m].
[Blurb on page 3]
The majority of the world’s animal species are found in tropical forests, together with an immense variety of plants
[Pictures on page 4, 5]
Loggers and the roads they build can destroy the rain forest