Contribution of rain forests to mankind
The rainforest offers countless gifts to the world, yet many humans continue to mistreat it.
Thursday, December 31, 2009 - 12:18
Clean air cycle
The Amazon rain forest has been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon rain forest and 40 percent of the earth's oxygen is produced in tropical rain forests. Since rain forests are home to hundreds of thousands of trees and plant life, their dark depths help to absorb heat from the sun. Without the forest cover, these regions would reflect more heat into the atmosphere, warming the rest of the world. Losing the rain forests may also have a profound effect on global wind and rainfall patterns, potentially causing droughts throughout the United States and other areas. The act of deforestation itself affects the environment as a whole. Roughly 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the air (a leading cause of global warming) comes from burning the rain forests.
Rain forest residents: Animals
It is estimated that more than half of all the world's plant and animal species live in tropical rain forests. There may be 40 to 100 different species in 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of a tropical rain forest. Millions of insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals identify the rain forest biome as their home. Insects are the most numerous animals present, including brightly colored butterflies, mosquitoes, camouflaged stick insects and huge colonies of ants.
Tropical rainforests have a greater diversity of plants and animals than temperate rain forests or any other biome. In temperate rain forests, most of the animals are ground dwellers and there are fewer animals living in the forest canopy. Common characteristics found among mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians include adaptations to a life in the trees, such as certain species of monkeys having a tail with the ability to grasp. Other characteristics are bright colors and sharp patterns, loud vocalizations and diets heavy in fruit. The Amazon River Basin rain forest contains a wider variety of plant and animal life than any other biome in the world. The second largest population of plant and animal life can be found in scattered locations and islands of Southeast Asia. The lowest variety can be found in Africa. Many species of rainforest animals are endangered and many other have gone extinct as the number of acres of rain forests on Earth decreases.
At least 80 percent of the developed world's diet originated in the tropical rain forest. Its bountiful gifts to the world include fruits like avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes; vegetables including corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices like black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, turmeric, coffee and vanilla and nuts including Brazil nuts and cashews. At least 3,000 fruits are found in the rain forests, of which only 200 are now in use in the Western world.
Cure to "incurable"
Currently, 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. And while 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest ingredients, less than one percent of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells. Seventy percent of these plants are found in the rain forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today's cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain forest. Vincristine, extracted from the rain forest plant, periwinkle, is one of the world's most powerful anticancer drugs. It has dramatically increased the survival rate for acute childhood leukemia since its discovery. Experts agree that by leaving the rain forests intact and harvesting its many nuts, fruits, oil-producing plants, and medicinal plants, the rain forest has more economic value than if they were cut down to make grazing land for cattle or for timber.
Destruction of our rain forests is not only causing the extinction of plant and animal species, it is also wiping out indigenous peoples who live in the rain forest. Obviously, rain forests are a functioning, inhabited land. Indigenous peoples have developed technologies and resource use systems that have allowed them to live on the land, farm, hunt, and gather in a complex sustainable relationship with the forest without destroying it. Many rain forest tribes, such as the Yanomami and Caboclos who live in the Amazon, gather their food from small garden plots, which are shifted every few years. This method is less productive than Western agriculture, but is also much less harmful to the rain forest environment.
As they cannot produce food in large quantities, most tribes are forced to limit their numbers so their gardens and the products of hunting expeditions are able to feed them, and all tribes have great respect for their forest and for the animals and plants they share it with. For them, conservation is literally a way of life. But when rainforests die, so do the indigenous peoples with all their knowledge. Shamans play a crucial role in helping scientists discover the potentials of plants. As one scientist has said, "Each time a medicine man dies; it is as if a library has been burned down." Just a few of the compounds found in rainforest plants are active ingredients to treat malaria, heart disease, bronchitis, hypertension, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, arthritis, glaucoma, dysentery and tuberculosis, among other health problems. And many commercially available anesthetics, enzymes, hormones, laxatives, cough mixtures, antibiotics and antiseptics are also derived from rain forest plants and herbs.
There is much to be learned from shamans, yet their individual and cultural survival is seriously threatened as loggers, miners, multinational corporations and landless farmers invade and decimate the forest. If rain forest destruction doesn't destroy their habitat, it will be that tribes are becoming more civilized and choosing to move to cities to pursue an evolved way of life. At this point, it is safe to say that indigenous tribes of the rain forest are an endangered species.
Rain forest commodities: Food
Food is something that we humans cannot live without and much of the food that we consume in our daily life originated from the rain forest. Although the foods we have tasted in our lives are nothing but a small fraction of the potential foods that the rain forest offers, they have a profound influence on our diet. An astounding number of fruits (bananas, citrus), vegetables (peppers, okra), nuts (cashews, peanuts), drinks (coffee, tea, cola), oils (palm, coconut), flavorings (cocoa, vanilla, sugar, spices) and other foods (beans, grains, fish) originated in and around the rain forest.
The tropical tree known as para rubber tree is the most important commercial source of natural rubber. Natural rubber has many properties that make it better under certain conditions than the synthetic version. It is used in engineering, footwear and adhesives including surgical gloves, balloons, bandages, sporting goods, tennis shoes and chewing gum. Among plants, the rubber tree is unique in its capacity to produce voluminous latex upon tapping and to replenish this supply rapidly in readiness for the next tapping. There can be as many as 600 wild rubber trees in one thousand acres of rain forest because when these trees are widely scattered in the forest, they are more resistant to disease.
Either the demand for the high-value species drives logging and is mostly exported (as is the case with mahogany in Brazil, okoume in west Africa, ramin in Indonesia and others) or the demand for the best grade of wood can drive extreme levels of production (as in the case of ipe in Brazil and others). In the latter case, a small faction of the production is exported, but it is sold for its highest value. What remains is often used in the country of origin. Forests can be managed effectively without endangering rare species of plants and animals and without risking global environmental damage. Companies that harvest timber should not be allowed to "clear cut" large areas of forest and should be required to plant new trees after they cut old trees down, which a large amount of logging companies already do. Cutting large sections of rain forest may be a good source of lumber right now, but in the long run it actually diminishes the world's lumber supply. Experts say that we should preserve most of the rain forests and harvest them only on a small scale. This way, we maintain a self-replenishing supply of lumber for the future.
The world's rain forests are an extremely valuable natural resource, but not just for their source of lumber or land. They are a main component of life on Earth, and they hold millions of unique life forms that we have yet to discover, along with supplying 80 percent of the world original food intake and 25 percent of the world's medicines. If only given time, it is promising that there would be many more cures to come, since only 1 percent of rain forest flora has been examined for medical properties. Destroying the rain forests is comparable to destroying an unknown planet. Some of us have no idea what we're losing, which is why we are careless with our actions that affect the rain forest.
1. Ms. Resh/Flickr
3. Samson CJ/Flickr
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