Save the Rainforests

The destruction of the rainforests is one of the most crucial environmental issues of our time. It is also one of the most misunderstood and neglected. There has been so much propaganda and publicity attached to this crisis that “Save the Rainforests” is becoming almost as cliché as “Save the Whales.” Why don’t we take this problem more seriously? Is it because we, as Americans, simply don’t understand the devastating, long-terms consequences that continued deforestation of the rainforests would have? Is it because our own government is involved in the deforestation, either directly or by financing its development? Or is it because we live in a society of excessive consumption, oblivious to the problems that don’t directly affect us in some tangible way? The facts are out there, and the results of continued deforestation of tropical rainforests are very real and becoming more evident everyday. It is a tremendous global concern, one that we can only resolve by popping our protective bubble of ignorance and taking action.
Rainforests are the Earth’s oldest living ecosystems. They cover only about 6% of the Earth’s land mass, yet they are home to more than half the plant and animal species in the world (de Blig, Muller, 228). A typical four square patch of rainforest contains as many as 1500 species of flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 125 mammal species, 400 species of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians, and 150 different types of butterflies (National Academy of Sciences, 1997). In the Amazon Basin, 18,000 square miles of rainforest is lost per year due to logging, mining, oil drilling, and clearing large tracts of land for cattle ranches and highways. There are dozens of beneficial reasons for protecting this land from deforestation, but I will touch on a two that I feel are particularly critical.
Medicine – The abundant botanical resources of tropical rainforests have already provided considerable medical advances, yet only one percent of the known plant and animal species have been examined and researched for the medicinal potentials. Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest. (Jackson, 1989). The alkaloid d-turbocuarine found in the poisonous bark of curare lianas in the Amazon forest is used to treat such diseases as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other muscular disorders. Chemical structures of forest organisms can also serve as templates from which scientists and researchers can chemically synthesize drug compounds. Because certain plant compounds enable scientists to understand how cancer cells grow, rainforests can also assist in research (WRI, 1999).
But we are hardly the first to discover the medicinal benefits of the rainforest. For thousands of years, indigenous groups and their shaman have made extensive use of the rainforest plants for their health needs. The World Health Organization has estimated that 80 percent of the population in developing countries still rely on traditional medicine for their health care needs (WRI, 1999). Shamans have also helped modern scientists to discover the potentials of tropical plants. The cultural survival of these indigenous groups is seriously threatened as loggers, miners, and landless farmers invade the forest.
Tropical plants serve as a vital resource for the eradication of disease, but we could easily lose these plants if these ecosystems and their indigenous cultures are not preserved. One step towards saving them is to increase public knowledge of the importance of rainforest medicine. Why not share this information with the thousands of people who rely on these medicines to treat their cancers and other life-threatening diseases? Their support of the preservation of the rainforests would be immense and the word would inevitably spread.
Global Warming – In 1988, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the risk of global warming due to human activities. In 1990, the IPCC predicted that if present rates of emissions of carbon dioxide continue, the Earth will experience a 1.8 degree warming by 2030. The anticipated impacts of global warming include widespread extinction of plant and animal species, the rise of sea level and coastal flooding, an increase in severe storms, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, an adverse impact on agriculture, and salt water intrusion into fresh water.
Clearing and burning rainforests