The Importance of Tropical Rainforest Conservation in the Modern Day world

By Dusty Brett


Since the beginning of civilization, the tropical rainforests have been used to sustain the survival of people and facilitate trade between different groups.  Some of its natural resources are limited in supply.  Living resources, such as trees, replenish themselves if the rates at which they are consumed are not too high.  The threat of running out of tropical rainforests in future generations is a problem worthy of attention, and calls for solutions.  Rainforests are major actors on the global environment and climate.  Carbon, a major greenhouse gas, is taken out of the atmosphere by plants alone.  Solutions to mass deforestation need to consider all people who will be affected in any way by it.  The best way for coming up with the solutions is to gather input from everyone that has knowledge of the subject at hand.  One successful rainforest conservation strategy is the recent debt-for-nature swaps.  This method kills two birds with one stone in that it eliminates some of a poor nation's debt to the World Bank while protecting endangered areas.  In the future, tropical rainforest conservation needs to be taken much more seriously if there is any hope of preventing a global disaster.  Economic profits in the short-run may have to be sacrificed.

Many different reasons account for clearing so much tropical forest area.  The rainforests contain many useful products that can be found nowhere else in such great abundance.  Some products simply do not exist in any other parts of the world.  The demand for these goods is high, and must be met by nations with access to them if they want to earn some income.  Some of the valued resources found in the tropical rainforests are special types of wood and paper products, oil and gas, land for the agriculture industry, room for building roads in very secluded areas, naturally-occurring minerals and precious metals, open land for raising cattle, and others (Goldsmith and Warren 87).  The sheer open space and amount of resources found in the tropics is an uncommon occurrence in this day and age, and make the uninhabited land of tropical rainforests just as hot of a commodity as the rare resources themselves.  The untouched frontiers are not as prevalent as they were even a few decades ago.  The production of pharmaceuticals is dependent on the rainforests as well.  Twenty-five percent of all prescription medications are made using some type of compound from living organisms (Goldsmith and Warren 162).  Seventy percent of plants utilized in the treatment of cancer live in the rainforests on Earth.  As new medical discoveries are being made all the time, there are likely many more types of vegetation in the rainforests useful in healing illnesses than we currently know of.  Obviously, the rainforests have many materials and resources we find very useful in our modern way of life.

Tropical rainforests are invaluable to Earth and its inhabitants far beyond the material products they yield.  They help support all types of life forms, adding tremendously to the world's biodiversity.  To lose the tropical rainforest@ would be a blow from which we could not likely recover.

The rainforests of the world supply us with the most important gas for survival: oxygen.  Through photosynthesis, which is the life-sustaining process carried out by plants of all types, carbon dioxide is used with sunlight to produce food, while oxygen is released as one of the plant's waste products.  This extremely important conversion of our waste product into a gas useful to us again is not something that can be tampered with, especially when there are so few mechanisms available for completing this conversion (Meffe and Carroll 108).  The tropical rainforests make up the majority of the untouched vegetation in existence today, and therefore are the main source of carbon extraction from the atmosphere.

Rainforests also keep global temperatures within a certain range, which is crucial for the survival of Earth's species.  Every living thing has evolved based on the environmental conditions of this planet.  Changing any aspect of these conditions, such as temperature, would have huge effects on the world ecosystems (Masters 485).  This is a good possibility, unfortunately, if the tropical rainforests continue to be cut down at the current rate.  We know that the forests maintain the ratio of gases in the atmosphere by taking carbon out of it and putting oxygen into it.  This ratio of gases is what regulates the temperatures we experience.  Carbon dioxide is a main greenhouse gas that helps insulate the world, but also has the capacity for raising the global temperatures if allowed to accumulate in the atmosphere too long.  Two thirds of total carbon release into the atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline and oil.  The burning and rotting of cut trees and other vegetation releases carbon as well.  Anywhere from twenty to thirty-five percent of atmospheric carbon, however, comes from the lack of its extraction from the air due to deforestation (February 17 lecture).  Climate researchers from Scotland predict that an area in the Amazon ten times the size of the United Kingdom will become grasslands before it is all over (February 17 lecture).  This, in turn, will release an additional two billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year.  Thus, the result of having no trees left in great abundance is not only a lack of oxygen for us to breathe, but also extra carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere.  This could feasibly alter the global climatic norms and pose a serious problem to Earth's plant and animal species (Masters 472).  Large-scale climate changes could bring about the worst, such as melting the polar icecaps and changing ocean currents, both which are large actors on the climate.

                The process through which carbon dioxide alters the Earth's climate is a fairly simple one.  It is an important concept to understand, however, so that one may realize why cutting down tropical rainforests is as harmful to us as the experts say it is.  Adding more carbon to the atmosphere gases causes an effect similar to a greenhouse.  This is why they call carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas.  Heat enters the Earth's atmosphere and heats its ground.  As all objects react to being heated, the Earth's surface releases energy back up into the atmosphere.  The increase in greenhouse gases traps this radiated energy in, not allowing it to escape back into space as it normally would (Masters 455).  These gases reflect the energy back down to the Earth's surface again, heating the surface even more while direct heat from the sun enters the atmosphere as well.  Tropical rainforests are impacted by the increase in air temperature in that it decreases their relative humidity by drying them out.  This increases the chance they will catch fire.  The normal level of humidity in a tropical rainforest is ninety percent, but once this drops below sixty-five percent, the chance of igniting greatly increases (February 17 lecture).  This was demonstrated in the uncommon abundance of tropical forest fires in 1997 and 1998.  Another byproduct of deforestation is a lack of thick groundcover, which raises the general temperature.  Once the many broad-leafed trees are gone, the ground has no protection from the intense sunlight and heats up more readily, radiating more energy back to the atmosphere (Counsell and Rice 122).  This, in turn, leads to more deforestation via the reduction of humidity (because of increased evaporation of moisture).  A self-reinforcing cycle of climatic changes and deforestation is created.  Each causes the other to occur.

Another reason why the tropical rainforests are so vital to our planet is that they contain over half of the world's plant and animal species, while only occupying seven percent of the total land area.  The largest tropical rainforest area is found in the Amazon River Basin, in Brazil.  The second largest is located in Indonesia.  Others are scattered throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and other tropical areas.  In addition to plants and animals, the rainforests are home to many indigenous populations who depend entirely upon them.  Unfortunately, only five percent of the world's tropical rainforests are protected by parks or other conservation areas.  If current rates of deforestation are not slowed, researchers project, 25 percent of the world's living species will be extinct by the middle of the 21st Century and tropical rain forests will cease to exist by the year 2174 ( Currently, there are 3.4 million acres left.  When 214,000 acres arc- cut daily and an area the size of New England is harvested annually, it will not take long to deplete the resource.

Conservationists use a few different terms when describing the condition a tropical rain forest is in.  A "hotspot" is an area that has less than twenty-five percent of its original vegetation left.  A "wilderness" area, however, is one that has at least seventy-five percent of its natural vegetation left, untouched, and has a population density of less than five people per square kilometer ( Understandably, hotspots are the main focus of conservation efforts today.  The imbalance and threat of extinction of ecosystems found in the hotspots warrants great efforts to avoid disaster.

Determining the best course of action to take in saving the tropical forests is not so easy.  There are many different factors that must be taken into consideration.  There is the overwhelmingly urgent need to preserve the forests in order to maintain the health of planet Earth, which supports so many fragile life forms.  At the same time, there are indigenous populations whose traditional lives are being destroyed by the mass harvest of their wilderness homelands.  On the other side of the issue, many groups who are working their way up in the world need to develop and utilize the natural resources available to them.  By slowing the harvest of tropical rainforests, individuals' livelihoods are taken away, and entire businesses are shut down.  The pros and cons need to be weighed out, the short and long-term ramifications of large-scale conservation efforts need to be considered (Jim Sweeney, January 27 lecture).  Who is responsible for carrying out this enormous task?  How should an organization go about initiating a mass effort to conserve the rainforests?  Should the effort be a collective one or is there a specific group to blame for the problem, which now needs to remedy it? One of the most important requirements of such all-encompassing issues is good communication.  The mass media and international conferences such as the Kyoto Protocol have increased many people's knowledge of the topic at hand.

One type of approach to tropical rainforest conservation embraces another common problem in many of the poor nations where these forests are found: foreign debt.  In a debt-for-nature swap, a conservation group takes on part of a nation's foreign debt, at less than face value, and receives a certain amount of tropical rainforest in that nation to conserve.  For example, a conservation group will pay a sum like ten million dollars for a one hundred million-dollar debt to the World Bank.  The bank knows it is not likely that it will be paid in full for its loans to the nation simply because it does not have the means for paying it back.  Therefore, it accepts the reduced amount from the conservationists.  This debt is then removed from the shoulders of the impoverished nation, which consequently must give up a certain amount of untouched rainforest that was meant to be cut for all its uses.  The nation giving up the land to the conservation group must provide personnel, to fill the infrastructure, and support for the program for it to work.

The first debt-for-nature swap was made in 1987 between a group called Conservation International (CI) and the nation of Bolivia.  Since then, many more successful swaps have taken place.  In this type of conservation method, the focus is placed on the larger picture, such as the interests of the world and its human population as a whole.  Land that is ready to harvest is taken away from businesses that profit from such activity in order to help relieve threats to the global climate and ecosystems.  Biological diversity is put first, and the long-term results of such conservation efforts are valued highly by groups in charge of the swaps.

The conservation group financing the swap needs to provide economic incentives for the people depending on the income of the forest harvest.  Another way to convince locals to participate and support the program is to help them see the long-term benefits of conservation instead of the short-term benefits of deforestation.  If they do not see any positives in the conservation program, they will not likely want to participate, even though it reduces their nation's foreign debt.  Conservation International successfully convinced the people of Brazil that leaving the trees of Southern Bahia alone was the best choice for every reason, including economic.  Southern Bahia is the richest and most diverse part of the Brazil's Atlantic Forest, containing an astounding 456 different species of trees (Goldsmith and Warren 197).  Unfortunately, very little of this Atlantic Forest has gone untouched as Brazil has developed over the years.  It was found in a cost benefit analysis that deforestation is not as economically beneficial as it may seem.  The analysis by C1 revealed that clearing land to create cattle pasture leads to about a fifty-dollar loss per year for each hectare ( A crucial crop to the region is cocoa, which grows in the shade of the taller trees.  Cutting down forests would eliminate this important source of income.  Tourism is another area of the economy that would benefit from conservation, but be harmed by over-harvesting.  It is estimated that the value of a vacation to the Atlantic Forest region would be halved if forests were eliminated, but would increase by $52 per visitor, and a sum of $15 million annually, if forest attractions were added (Cl homepage).  Once a nation is made aware of the long-term benefits of conservation, its acceptance of a program increases.

It is crucial that everyone involved in a conservation effort be informed about the program in order that all available human resources are utilized and support received.  The most effective way to do this is to make sure each individual who comes into contact with the media feels personal responsibility for doing what they can to help in the conservation.  Each individual must feel a threat of negative ramifications if they do not participate in the little tasks that will add to the large-scale conservation effort (Dasmann 76).  Their actions may be as small and simple as avoiding the excessive use of products that come from species in the tropical rainforests or donating small sums to a particular conservation organization.  But only when a collective effort is put forth toward slowing the destruction of the rainforest ecosystems will it actually happen.  We only have one Earth and need to treat it with respect and care.





Counsell, Simon and Tim Rice, editors.  The Rainforest Harvest: Sustainable Strategies for Saving the Tropical Rainforests.  London: Friends of Earth Trust, Ltd., 1992.


Dasmann, Raymond F. Planet in Peril: Man and the Biosphere Today.

New York: World Publishing, 1972.


Goldsmith, F.B. and A. Warren, editors.  Conservation in Progress.  New York:

John Wiley and Sons, 1993.


Lusigi, Walter J. Managing Protected Areas in Africa.  Paris: UNESCO - World

Heritage Fund, 1992.


Masters, Gilbert M. Introduction to Environmental Engineerina and Science.

New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998.


Meffe, Gary K. and C. Ronald Carroll.  Principles of Conservation Biology.

Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 1994.


USSR Academy of Sciences.  Man and Biosphere.  Nauka Publishers, 1984.


Anthropology 161 Course Reader: Surviving the Cut: Natural Forest Management in the Humid Tropics.  Winter 1999.


EDGE Lectures: January 27 (Jim Sweeny), February 4 (Steve Schneider), and February 17 (Graduate Student).


Internet resources: http:Hwww.conservation.orr (Conservation International homepage.)