WHAT ARE RAINFORESTS?
Tropical rainforests are forests with tall trees, warm climates, and lots of rain. In some rainforests it rains more than one inch nearly every day of the year!
Rainforests are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America. The largest rainforest in the world is the Amazon rainforest in South America.
WHERE ARE RAINFORESTS LOCATED?
Rainforests are found in the tropics, the region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, just above and below the Equator. In this tropic zone the sun is very strong and shines about the same amount of time every day all year long, keeping the climate warm and relatively stable.
Many countries have tropical forests. The countries with the largest areas of tropical forest are (in order):
Other countries that have large areas of rainforest include Bolivia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ecuador, Gabon, Guyana, India, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Congo, Suriname, and Venezuela.
WHAT MAKES A RAINFOREST?
Each rainforest is unique, but there are certain features common to all tropical rainforests.
In the rainforest most plant and animal life is not found on the forest floor, but in the leafy world known as the canopy. The canopy, which may be over 100 feet (30 m) above the ground, is made up of the overlapping branches and leaves of rainforest trees. Scientists estimate that 60-90 percent of life in the rainforest is found in the trees, making this the richest habitat for plant and animal life. Many well-known animals including monkeys, frogs, lizards, birds, snakes, sloths, and small cats are found in the canopy.
The conditions of the canopy are very different from the conditions of the forest floor. During the day, the canopy is drier and hotter than other parts of the forest, and the plants and animals that live there are specially adapted for life in the trees. For example, because the amount of leaves in the canopy can make it difficult to see more than a few feet, many canopy animals rely on loud calls or lyrical songs for communication. Gaps between trees mean that some canopy animals fly, glide, or jump to move about in the treetops.
Scientists have long been interested in studying the canopy, but the height of trees made research difficult until recently. Today there special facilities with rope bridges, ladders, and towers to help scientists discover the secrets of the canopy. The canopy is just one of several vertical layers in the rainforest (the overstory, understory, shrub layer, and forest floor).
THE RAINFOREST FLOOR
The rainforest floor is often dark and humid due to constant shade from the canopy's leaves. Despite its constant shade, the rainforest floor is an important part of the forest ecosystem.
The forest floor is where decomposition takes place. Decomposition is the process by which fungi and microorganisms break down dead plants and animals and recycle essential materials and nutrients.
Also, many of the largest rainforest animals are found on the forest floor. Some of these are elephants (in Asia), the tapir (Southeast Asia and Central and South America), tigers (Asia), and the jaguar (Central and South America).
Tropical rainforests support the greatest diversity of living organisms on Earth. Although they cover less than 2 percent of Earth's surface, rainforests house more than 50 percent of the plants and animals on Earth.
Here are some examples of the richness of rainforests:
Tropical rainforests are home to tribal peoples who rely on their surroundings for food, shelter, and medicines. Today very few forest people live in traditional ways; most have been displaced by outside settlers or have been forced to give up their lifestyles by governments.
Of the remaining forest people, the Amazon supports the largest native, or indigenous populations, although these people, too, have been impacted by the modern world. While they still depend on the forest for traditional hunting and gathering, most Amerindians, as American indigenous people are called, grow crops (like bananas, manioc, and rice), use western goods (like metal pots, pans, and utensils), and make regular trips to towns and cities to bring foods and wares to market. Still, these forest people can teach us a lot about the rainforest. Their knowledge of medicinal plants used for treating illness is unmatched, and they have a great understanding of the ecology of the Amazon rainforest.
In Africa there are native forest dwellers sometimes known as pygmies. The tallest of these people, also called the Mbuti, rarely exceed 5 feet in height. Their small size enables them to move about the forest more efficiently than taller people.
Today most forest dwellers live in small settlements or practice nomadic hunting and gathering. In the past, tropical rainforests and surrounding areas supported great civilizations like the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs that developed complex societies and made important contributions to science.
These great civilizations faced some of the same environmental problems (excessive forest loss, soil erosion, overpopulation, lack of water supplies) that we face today. For the Maya, the damage they caused to the environment apparently was great enough to cause their downfall.
One of the most exciting areas of research in tropical forests is ethnobotany, which is the study of how people use plants to treat illness and disease. Forest people have an incredible knowledge of medicinal plants, with remedies for everything from snakebites to tumors.
To date, many of the prescription drugs used in the western world have been derived from plants. Seventy percent of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as having anti-cancer characteristics are found only in forests.
The shaman or "medicine man" of a village typically holds knowledge of medicinal plants. The shaman treats the sick, often during elaborate ceremonies and rituals using plants gathered from the surrounding forest.
Shamans have incredible healing powers, but their knowledge is rapidly disappearing as rainforests are cut down and tribes abandon their traditions. Shamans are going extinct faster than rare and endangered species.
Before the beginning of European colonization of the New World in the 15th century, an estimated seven to ten million Amerindians lived in American rainforests, half of them in Brazil. Great cities existed in the Andes, while the Amazon supported agricultural societies.
The arrival of Europeans brought about the end of the native civilizations in Central and South America. Europeans carried diseases that killed millions of Amerindians, and within 100 years of the arrival of these outsiders, the Amerindian population was reduced by 90 percent. Most of the surviving native people lived in the interior of the forest, either pushed there by the Europeans, or living traditionally in smaller groups.
Although they generally don't watch TV, use the Internet, or play video games, kids in the rainforest do many of the same things you probably do. They play with friends, help their families with chores, and go to school.
Since "rainforest kids" live closer to nature than the average American child, they learn things that are helpful in the environment around them. From an early age many children learn how to fish, hunt, and collect materials and food from the forest. Instead of going to a playground or a shopping mall for fun, children in places like the Amazon spend most of their time outdoors playing in the forest and in rivers and streams.
There are several reasons the lives of forest peoples are changing. Tribes in places like the Amazon and Malaysia are losing their traditional land to governments and developers. The forests they have used for countless generations are being cut down by loggers, torn up by miners, and hunted by poachers. The rivers they use for water and fishing are being dammed to produce electricity for far-off cities. When forest people resist these developments, they may be ridiculed, arrested, forcibly moved, or even killed.
Rainforest people themselves are choosing to change the way they live. For the indigenous, the lure of urban culture is strong. Cities seem to offer the promise of affluence and the conveniences of an easy life. But in leaving their forest homes indigenous peoples usually meet with a stark reality: the skills that serve them so well in the forest don't translate well to an urban setting. The odds are stacked against them; they arrive near the bottom of the social ladder, often not proficient in the language and customs of city dwellers. The lucky ones may find work in factories or as day laborers and security guards, but many eventually return to the countryside. Some re-integrate into their villages, others join the ranks of miners and loggers who trespass on indigenous lands, negotiating deals that pit members of the same tribe against each other in order to exploit the resources they steward. As tribes are fragmented and forests fall, indigenous culture—and its wealth of profound knowledge —is lost. The world is left a poorer place, culturally and biologically.
WHY ARE RAINFORESTS IMPORTANT?
Flying over the heart of the Amazon is like flying over an ocean of green: an expanse of trees broken only by rivers. Even more amazing than their size is the role the Amazon and other rainforests around the world play in our everyday lives.
While rainforests may seem like a distant concern, these ecosystems are critically important for our well-being.
Rainforests are often called the lungs of the planet for their role in absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and producing oxygen, upon which all animals depend for survival. Rainforests also stabilize climate, house incredible amounts of plants and wildlife, and produce nourishing rainfall all around the planet.
Rainforests help stabilize the world's climate by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists have shown that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activities is contributing to climate change. Therefore, living rainforests have an important role in mitigating climate change, but when rainforests are chopped down and burned, the carbon stored in their wood and leaves is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Rainforests also affect local weather conditions by creating rainfall and moderating temperatures.
Rainforests are home to a large number of the world's plant and animals species, including many endangered species. As forests are cut down, many species are doomed to extinction.
Most rainforest species can survive only in their natural habitat. As their habitat is destroyed, many well-known rainforest species are threatened with extinction, including orangutans, rhinos, tigers, gorillas, elephants, as well as many birds, monkeys, reptiles, and amphibians.
Zoos cannot save all animals.
The role of rainforests in the water cycle is to add water to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration (in which plants release water from their leaves during photosynthesis). This moisture contributes to the formation of rain clouds, which release the water back onto the rainforest. In the Amazon, 50-80 percent of moisture remains in the ecosystem's water cycle.
When forests are cut down, less moisture goes into the atmosphere and rainfall declines, sometimes leading to drought.
In recent years, the rainforests of Borneo and the Amazon have experienced very severe droughts. These have been made worse by deforestation.
Moisture generated by rainforests travels around the world. Scientists have discovered that rainfall in America's Midwest is affected by forests in the Congo. Meanwhile, moisture created in the Amazon ends up falling as rain as far away as Texas, and forests in Southeast Asia influence rain patterns in southeastern Europe and China. Distant rainforests are therefore important to farmers everywhere.
The roots of rainforest trees and vegetation help anchor the soil. When trees are cut down there is no longer anything to protect the ground, and soils are quickly washed away with rain. The process of washing away of soil is known as erosion.
As soil is washed down into rivers it causes problems for fish and people. Fish suffer because water becomes clouded and spawning grounds fill with silt, while people have trouble navigating waterways that are shallower because of the increased amount of dirt in the water. Meanwhile, farmers lose topsoil that is needed for growing crops, and dams generate less electricity as water is lost to runoff.
On steep hillsides, loss of forest can trigger landslides. For example, thousands of people were killed in Central America during Hurricane Mitch of 1998 when deforested hillsides collapsed. Had forests been maintained, the death toll would have been lower.
Forests also play an important role in reducing damage from flooding by reducing the rate of water runoff.
During the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, areas where mangrove forests had been cut down suffered more devastation than areas where healthy mangrove forests remained as a buffer. Mangroves also help protect against coastal erosion.
People have long used forests as a source of food, wood, medicine, and recreation. When forests are lost, they can no longer provide these resources. Instead people must find other places to get these goods and services. They also must find ways to pay for the things they once got for free from the forest.
As a frequent visitor to rainforests, I can attest that they provide much more than life-saving medicines and nourishing fruit. Rainforests are found in a variety of landscapes: some are situated on scenic mountain ranges, others hug giant lowland rivers, while more still are found near beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Rainforests offer opportunities for cultural exchange, photography, adventure, fishing, hiking, relaxation, birding and wildlife spotting.
WHY ARE RAINFORESTS BEING DESTROYED?
Every year an area of rainforest the size of New Jersey is cut down and destroyed. The plants and animals that used to live in these forests either die or must find a new forest to call their home. Why are rainforests being destroyed?
Humans are the main cause of rainforest destruction. We are cutting down rainforests for many reasons, including:
In 2005 and 2010 the Amazon experienced the worst droughts ever recorded. Rivers dried up, isolating communities, and millions of acres burned. The smoke caused widespread health problems, interfered with transportation, and blocked the formation of rain clouds, while the burning contributed huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, worsening the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, Indonesia has experienced several severe droughts in recent decades. The worst occurred in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 when millions of acres of forest burned.
One of the leading causes of rainforest destruction is logging. Many types of wood used for furniture, flooring, and construction are harvested from tropical forests in Africa, Asia, and South America. By buying certain wood products, people in places like the United States and Europe are directly contributing to the destruction of rainforests.
While logging can be carried out in a manner that reduces damage to the environment, most logging in the rainforest is very destructive. Large trees are cut down and dragged through the forest, while access roads open up remote forest areas to agriculture by poor farmers. In Africa logging workers often rely on "bushmeat" for protein. They hunt wildlife like gorillas, deer, and chimpanzees for food.
Research has found that the number of species found in logged rainforest is much lower than the number found in untouched or "primary" rainforest. Many rainforest animals cannot survive in the changed environment.
Local people often rely on harvesting wood from rainforests for firewood and building materials. In the past such practices were not particularly damaging to the ecosystem because there were relatively few people. Today, however, in areas with large human populations the sheer number of people collecting wood from a rainforest can be extremely damaging. In the 1990s, for example, the forests around the refugee camps in Central Africa (Rwanda and Congo) were virtually stripped of all trees in some areas.
Every year thousands of miles of rainforest are destroyed for agricultural use. The two groups chiefly responsible for converting rainforest into farmland are poor farmers and corporations.
Poor farmers in many parts of the world rely on clearing rainforest to feed their families. Without access to better agricultural lands, these people use slash-and-burn to clear patches of forest for short-term use. Typically, they farm the cleared land for a couple of years before the soil is exhausted of nutrients, and they must move on to clear a new patch of forest.
Agricultural companies are clearing more rainforest than ever before, especially in the Amazon where large tracts of rainforest are being converted into soybean farms. Some experts believe that South America will someday have an area of farmland that rivals that of the American Midwest. But much of this farmland will come at the expense of the Amazon rainforest.
In Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, large areas of rainforest are being cleared for oil palm plantations to produce palm oil, which is used widely in processed food, cosmetics, and soap. Today palm oil is found in some 50 percent of packaged snack foods, a proportion that is growing because palm oil is the cheapest type of vegetable oil. Unfortunately, the forests that are being destroyed for palm oil production are home to many endangered species, including orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, and Javan and Sumatran rhinos.
CATTLE IN THE RAINFOREST
Clearing for cattle pasture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon, with Brazil now producing more beef than ever before. Besides raising cattle for food, many landowners use cattle to expand their land holdings. By simply placing cattle on an area of forest land, landowners can gain ownership rights to that land.
Most of the beef produced by Brazil is consumed by Brazilians, but cattle products like leather is primarily exported to overseas markets.
Road and highway construction in the rainforest opens up large areas to deforestation. In Brazil, the Trans-Amazonian highway resulted in the destruction of huge areas of forest by colonists, loggers, and land speculators. In Africa, logging roads give access to poachers who hunt endangered wildlife as "bushmeat" or meat sold to city dwellers. Some of the poached wildlife—especially rhinos, pangolin, and tigers—goes to Asia where it is used for traditional Chinese medicine.
Therefore it is very important that when new roads are built in rainforest areas, they are carefully planned to minimize the environmental impacts. One way to reduce deforestation from road construction is to create protected areas on either side of the road.
The production of pulp for the paper industry has been one of the biggest causes of deforestation in parts of Indonesia over the past 20 years. Vast areas of rainforest in Sumatra have been logged and converted into fast-growing plantations consisting of only a single species. These plantations are used to produce fiber for wood-pulp and paper, which is turned into cardboard packaging, fast-food wrappers, printer paper, and junk mail. Just think about how much paper we use on a daily basis: paper, in one form or another, comes with almost every product we buy. In some cases that paper is produced directly through the destruction of rainforests.
Consequently, pulp and paper production is now one of the biggest threats to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.
Gold, copper, diamonds, and other precious metals and gemstones are important resources that are found in rainforests around the world. Extracting these natural resources is frequently a destructive activity that damages the rainforest ecosystem and causes problems for people living nearby and downstream from mining operations, especially from toxic runoff into river systems. There have been cases of mining companies--sometimes working with local police or authorities--forcibly displacing forest people from their lands in order to exploit mineral riches. Examples are gold mining in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, rare earth mining in the Congo, and gold and copper mining in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Some of the world's most promising oil and gas deposits lie deep in tropical rainforests. Unfortunately oil and gas development often takes a heavy toll on the environment and local people. Oil and gas development in rainforest areas causes displacement of local people, air and water pollution, deforestation, and construction of roads that open previously inaccessible areas to deforestation. High energy prices in recent years have spurred increased exploration of rainforests for oil and gas. The western Amazon--including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil--has seen a lot of activity. More than 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon--including indigenous territories and conservation areas--is now under concession for oil and gas.
Dams are also a big threat to rainforests, particularly in the Amazon, the Mekong (Laos and Burma or Myanmar), and Malaysia. Dams disrupt river systems, flood rainforest, displace forest people, and support activities that cause more deforestation. In Sarawak, which is part of Malaysian Borneo, more than a dozen dams are being planned. These will force thousands of forest-dependent people to move and will inundate important rainforest areas. The power generated by the dams will be used for large-scale mining activities, causing further destruction. Similarly, in Brazil, Belo Monte dam will block the Xingu river, a tributary of the Amazon, flooding more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and displacing more than 15,000 people. Electricity from the project will power mining activities and industrial agriculture that will destroy yet more rainforest. Indigenous people, scientists, and environmentalists strongly oppose the project.
Poverty plays a major role in deforestation. The world's rainforests are found in the poorest areas on the planet. The people who live in and around rainforests rely on these ecosystems for their survival. They collect fruit and wood, hunt wildlife to put meat on the table, and are paid by companies that extract resources from forest lands.
Most rural poor never have the options that we in Western countries take for granted. These people almost never have a choice to go to college or become a doctor, factory worker, or secretary. They must live off the land that surrounds them and make use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty costs the entire world through the loss of tropical rainforests and wildlife. Without providing for these people, rainforests cannot be saved.
However, people in the wealthier world, such as the U.S. and Europe, also play a large role in the destruction of rainforests, even if the forests are very far away.
The underlying cause of most environmental problems is human population and over-consumption: both the population in the temperate region that relies on resources derived from tropical rainforests, and the expanding population of developing tropical nations, who exploit the rainforest for survival.
While it may seem hard to believe, people in rich countries like the United States have a disproportionate impact on the environment through our consumption patterns. We use far more resources than poor farmers in tropical countries. For example, the food we buy in grocery stores may be produced through deforestation for soy in the Amazon or palm oil in Indonesia. The materials and energy to build and power our mobile phones and laptops may come from the destruction of rainforests in the Congo and Colombia. The paper we use for printing, packaging, hygiene products and the books we read may be produced from the logging of rainforests in Indonesia. Only by reducing our environmental footprint at home can we ever hope to save rainforests and other wilderness areas.
Overpopulation is a major concern. As more people are added to the planet, there are fewer resources to share. Crowded conditions and scarcity of resources often lead to conflict or other problems. Animals lose habitat to cities and expanding farm lands.
HOW CAN WE SAVE RAINFORESTS?
Rainforests are disappearing very quickly. The good news is there are a lot of people who want to save rainforests. The bad news is that saving rainforests is not going to be easy. It will take the efforts of many people working together in order to ensure that rainforests and their wildlife will survive for your children to appreciate, enjoy, and benefit from.
Some steps for saving rainforests and, on a broader scale, ecosystems around the world can be abbreviated as TREES:
Education is a critical part of saving the world's rainforests. People must see the beauty and understand the importance of these forests so they will want to protect them. Environmental education should occur both in western countries like the United States and in countries like Bolivia and Madagascar that have rainforests.
In the United States, people need to understand their role in the loss of rainforests. For example, buying certain products like mahogany contributes to the cutting down of rainforests in other countries. If we make an effort to learn about the environment, we can understand what we're losing as rainforest disappears. We can also make decisions to buy products and support companies and organizations that help the rainforest.
In rainforest countries, local people sometimes do not know why forests are important. Through educational programs these people can learn that forests provide key services (like clean water) and are home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Few children in Madagascar know that lemurs are not found in America. They are proud and happy when they learn that lemurs only live in Madagascar.
In other cases, however, people already know that forests are important. Where they need help is in fighting companies that are taking their land and destroying rainforests. In some tropical countries, governments may not fully recognize the rights of forest people. Instead, governments may sell forest lands to companies that chop down trees for timber or industrial agriculture. Local people therefore need help learning about legal processes so they can defend forest lands against destructive companies.
The Internet, mobile phones, and satellite monitoring have created new opportunities for communities to mobilize against forest destruction. Tools like Facebook and Twitter can help people organize campaigns and protests when their rights are being ignored or violated. Google Earth is helping scientists, environmentalists, and even indigenous people see where forests are threatened by logging and mining.
Finally, education is important for improving people's quality of life. One of the most effective ways to reduce population growth and alleviate poverty is through education, especially education of girls and young women.
In trying to protect rainforests, we also need to look at how damaged forests can be brought back to health. While it is impossible to replant a rainforest, some rainforests can recover after they have been cut down -- especially if natural forests remain nearby or they have some help through the planting of trees. In some cases it is also possible to use deforested lands for improved forms of agriculture to provide food for people living nearby. When these people have enough food, they will not need to cut down more forest to plant crops.
One promising area of research looks at ancient societies that lived in the Amazon rainforest before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Apparently these populations were able to enrich the rainforest soil, which is usually quite poor, using charcoal and animal bones. By improving soil quality, large areas of the Amazon that have already been deforested could be used to support agriculture. This could reduce pressure on rainforest areas for agricultural land. Further, the "terra preta" soil as it's called, could help fight climate change since it absorbs carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas.
A key part of saving rainforests and the environment is encouraging all people to live in ways that do less harm to the world around them. Driving less, using fuel efficient cars and public transport, conserving water, recycling, and turning off lights when you don't need them are all ways that you and your family can reduce your impact on the environment.
What can I do to help the environment?
In rainforest countries many scientists and organizations are working to help local people live in ways that cause less damage to the environment. Some people call this idea "sustainable development." Sustainable development has a goal of improving the lives of people while at the same time protecting the environment. Without improving the livelihoods of people living in and around rainforests, it is very difficult to protect parks and wildlife. Conservation must be in the interest of local people to make parks work.
ESTABLISH PARKS THAT PROTECT RAINFORESTS AND WILDLIFE
Creating protected areas like national parks is a great way to save rainforests and other ecosystems. Protected areas are locations preserved because of their environmental or cultural value. Generally, protected areas are managed by governments and use park rangers and guards to enforce the rules of the park and protect against illegal activities like hunting, mining, and the cutting down of trees.
Today, parks protect many of the world's most endangered species. Animals like Pandas are found only in protected areas.
Parks are most successful when they have the support of local people living in and around the protected area. If local people have an interest in the park they may form a "community watch" to protect the park from illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
An effective way to protect rainforests is to involve indigenous people in park management. Indigenous people know more about the forest than anyone and have an interest in safeguarding it as a productive ecosystem that provides them food, shelter, and clean water. Research has found that in some cases, "indigenous reserves" may actually protect rainforest than "national parks" in the Amazon.
Parks can also help the economy in rainforest countries by attracting foreign tourists who pay entrance fees, hire local wilderness guides, and buy local handicrafts like baskets, T-shirts, and beaded bracelets.
SUPPORT COMPANIES THAT DON'T HURT THE ENVIRONMENT
Today, some companies are concerned about the environment. These companies look for ways to reduce their impact on the world around them through recycling, using less energy, and supporting conservation efforts in other countries. If consumers like you and your parents support these companies by buying their products and services, the environment will be better off.
One way to learn what companies have responsible practices is to ask a local environmental group or do research online. Beware that some companies try to mislead people about their environmental record. It's best to seek independent opinions on the environmental practices of a company rather than relying solely on what a company states on its own web site.
Another way to learn which companies are making efforts to reduce their environmental impact is to check whether their products have been eco-certified, which means that an independent group has evaluated the environmental impact of its products. Examples of eco-certification initiatives are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood products, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for palm oil, and the Rainforest Alliance Marketplace for other products. None of these systems are perfect, but they are often better than the alternative: non-certified products. Be sure to do a little research about eco-certification, because sometimes companies use fake certification systems.
Some companies have established policies that exclude products produced by cutting down rainforests. For example, Nestle, Mars, and Kellogg's have promised that the palm oil they use will be free of deforestation.
Companies that support forest conservation directly
One way to determine the "eco-credentials" of a company is to learn whether it has has policies that minimize or "offset" the pollution it produces. In the near future, companies will be able to support rainforest conservation and "offset" emissions by sponsoring forest protection in tropical countries. The idea is called "avoided deforestation" or REDD (which stands for "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation") and could become an important source of funds for global rainforest conservation.
Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel to enjoy and appreciate nature and cultural experiences. Ecotourism should have low impact on the environment and should contribute to the well-being of local people.
WHAT YOU DO CAN AT HOME TO HELP THE ENVIRONMENT
There are several things you can do at home to help reduce your impact on the environment.
If you would like to learn more about rainforests, please visit mongabay.com's main rainforest site.
Now it's time to see what you have learned about tropical rainforests.
BONUS SECTION: INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
Why are biofuels bad for rainforests?
Recently there has been a lot of interest in using plants as fuels to replace fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel that contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, warming the planet.
These plant-based fuels, called biofuels, are typically produced from agricultural crops. The are two main types of biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is typically made from corn and sugar cane, while biodiesel is made from the fruit of palm trees, soybeans, and canola (also called rapeseed).
While biofuels produced from agricultural crops can generate less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fossil fuels, in practice, scientists are finding that some are causing environmental problems. Biofuels may also be hurting the poor. The reason is largely economic.
Now that traditional food crops are being used for the production of energy, there is increased demand for such crops, translating to higher prices. While higher prices may be good for some farmers who receive more money for the crops they grow, consumers have to pay more for food. In poor countries, where people have very little money, it means that many go hungry. In 2007 and 2008 several countries saw protests and riots by people who could not afford to pay higher prices for food.
Higher prices for crops is also causing other problems. To take advantage of higher prices, farmers all over the world are converting land for crop production. With most of the land in North America and Europe already used for farming, agriculture is expanding in tropical places, especially in Brazil and Indonesia, where there are still large areas suitable for new agricultural land. The trouble is that some of this land is currently covered by tropical rainforests. When farmers cut down rainforests for farms and ranches, the dead trees release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (just like when fossil fuels are burned). Further the destruction of rainforests displaces indigenous people and kills wildlife. Therefore biofuels are having a significant impact on the environment.
Some biofuels are less bad than others. When crops are grown on abandoned agriculture lands and in areas that are not covered by natural ecosystems, they can have a low impact on the environment provided that fertilizers and pesticides are not over-used. In the future, new types of biofuels will produce even less greenhouse gas emissions and may actually help the environment. For example, the use of native grasses for biofuel production in the United States could offer higher biofuel yields and generate less pollution than corn-based ethanol. At the same time, these grasses can enhance soil fertility and do not drain the water table.
Why is palm oil bad for orangutans?
Certain types of palm trees produce large red fruit which are rich with oil. After refining, this oil, known as palm oil, can be used to produce all sorts of products, including oils used in foods like chocolates and cookies, cosmetics like makeup, and even biodiesel, a fuel that can be used in cars instead of diesel (gasoline).
Oil palms, as these trees are called, have very high oil yields -- some of the highest of any crop used for biofuel (plant-based fuel) production. A single hectare (2.5 acres) can produce up to 7 tons of oil, many times what would be produced from the same area of corn, soy, or canola.
Given its high yield and the many uses for its oil, it may seem that oil palm is a great solution to dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and concerns about global warming (the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere). However, there are problems is some places where palm oil is being produced, specifically the tropical rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia.
About 88 percent of global palm oil production was in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2007. Although much of this production took place on land long ago established for agriculture, some of it occurred in areas that were newly cleared specifically for oil palm cultivation.
The most threatened ecosystems by expansion of oil palm plantations are rainforests and peatlands. Peatlands are swampy areas where the soils are made of peat — decomposed vegetation. Peat acts as a sponge, soaking up water and helping prevent floods. It also stores large amounts of carbon.
When peatlands are drained, the stored carbon reacts with air to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas. The dry peat then becomes highly flammable, increasing the risk of large-scale fires when plantation developers use fire to clear land and burn agricultural waste.
Greenhouse gas emissions also result when rainforest is cleared for oil palm plantations. Worse, oil palm plantations support very low levels of biodiversity, meaning most of the plants and animals once found in the rainforest must either move or perish. Oil palm plantations are not good for wildlife and endangered species like the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the pygmy elephant of Borneo, and the Sumatran tiger are all threatened by development for oil palm.
What can I do?
The first thing you can do is be aware of palm oil and its impact on the environment. Look at the labels of household products and packaged foods to see if they contain palm oil (however palm oil is often not labeled as an ingredient). You may soon see that palm oil is all around us.
Palm oil isn't going to go away, but consumer pressure on the industry will help force the industry to reduce its impact on the environment. Already some industry leaders are working to develop "sustainable palm oil" that meets certain criteria to ensure that its production did not result in deforestation or hurt wildlife. Consumers can now choose products made from more environmentally-friendly palm oil, which is certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO. These products should be supported to encourage the entire industry to shift towards "greener" palm oil.
Another way you can help is to support organizations working to protect orangutans and other wildlife in their native habitat. For example, Orangutan Foundation International [article] and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation are two such groups.
Remember it is important to note that not all palm oil is bad for rainforests, so be sure to check whether palm oil in the products you buy is RSPO-certified or not.
Why is soy bad for the Amazon rainforest?
Soy production in Brazil is contributing to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, both directly through forest clearing for new soy farms (usually giant in size) and by displacing small farmers who then move into forest areas for subsistence agriculture. Further pressure comes from the development of infrastructure (like roads and ports) to support soy expansion. This infrastructure attracts other developers (like loggers, ranchers, and colonists who have been displaced from elsewhere) who cut down the forest.
Why is soy expanding in the Amazon?
Soybean cultivation is expanding in the Amazon due to economics, including high prices for grains. These high prices are driven by increasing demand for meat in countries with a large and fast-growing middle class (especially India, Brazil, and China) and U.S. government subsidies for corn-based ethanol production. Such subsidies (essentially payments to farmers for growing certain crops) mean that American farmers are planting corn instead of soy. Less soy production in the United States, means that more production is needed in places like Brazil, which has large tracts of lands suitable for agriculture.
Since 1990 the area of land planted with soybeans in Amazonian states has expanded at the rate of 14.1 percent per year and now covers more than eight million hectares.
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