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WHAT ARE RAINFORESTS?


Generally, rainforests are forests with high rainfall and a large number of different kinds of plants and animals  (see also *). There are many different types of rainforest. The three main ones are:

    
   Temperate, Sub-tropical and Tropical.

Most of the surviving rainforests in the world are tropical rainforests. Tropical rainforests cover less than 6% of the earth, yet they contain over half the world’s species.

Temperate and sub-tropical rainforests also contain a large number of species although they are not as diverse as tropical forests. Tropical rainforests are found in hot countries near the equator. Most of what is written here is about tropical rainforests.

 


W
HY ARE RAINFORESTS IMPORTANT?


* Human beings depend on rainforests in many ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that they should be saved just because they are useful to humans. They also have a right to exist simply because they are part of life on Earth, just like us.

* There are millions of different kinds of plants and animals on Earth. They are called species. Rainforests have been called the womb of life because they are home to more than half of the species on Earth.

* Millions of forest-dwelling people around the world live in or depend on rainforests. They have learned how to live in ways that don’t harm the forests.

* Many of the world’s important food crops, medicines and domestic animals have been developed from rainforest species.

*The Earth’s climate is affected by rainforests. When trees are cut down and burnt or left to decompose, they release carbon dioxide into the air. Carbon dioxide is the main gas that causes global warming.

* Cutting down rainforests also changes the amount of rain that falls in an area. When rain falls on forests, the water is slowed down by the trees and other plants. When they are taken away, the water flows quickly over the ground. This can cause floods and erosion.

 

 

 



WHY ARE THE RAINFORESTS
BEING DESTROYED?


Over half the world’s rainforests have been destroyed already and what remains is being cut down very quickly. Much of the damage is being done by poor farmers, but they are not to blame. They have to clear rainforest land to grow food for their families. Governments and companies have forced them into this situation.

Development -   If one had to choose which was the biggest cause of rainforest destruction, one would have to say it was development. This means the way our civilisation exploits the Earth in order to produce things such as cars, timber, paper, electricity and many other things we have become used to in our daily lives. It may be possible to have development without rainforest destruction, but if it continues in the way it has happened so far, development will mean more oil drilling, logging, large dams and clearing of rainforest for agriculture and plantations. Development, as it has happened so far, takes the control of rainforest areas out of the hands of the people who depend on them. Instead, the forests are controlled by governments and developers who are mainly interested in using the forests to make a profit.

Third World Debt - Much of the world’s remaining tropical forest is found in poor countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and Zaire. Many of them owe large amounts of money to the world’s rich countries. In order to make money to repay their debts, they have to damage or destroy their forests. Many people believe these debts are not fair, and are campaigning to have them cancelled.

Rich Countries like Australia and the United States are a big part of the problem because we buy rainforest timbers and other goods which contibute to rainforest destruction. Some of the products grown on cleared rainforest land are: beef, coffee, palm oil, and soybeans. Oil companies like Shell, Mobil and Exxon also damage or destroy rainforest in order to supply oil to rich countries. Also, aid from rich countries has often been given in such a way that it encourages rainforest destuction.

Logging is also an important cause of rainforest destruction, not only because of the trees that logging companies cut down but also because the roads that the loggers build are used by poor famers to get into the forest and cut it down.

Firewood - Most of the people in countries with rainforests use firewood to cook their food. Often, they cut rainforest trees. This is another important cause of rainforest destruction.

Overpopulation is an important problem. Because there are more and more people in the world (more than 6 billion now!), more and more forests are being cleared to grow food for them. Unless this problem is solved, it will be very difficult for tropical rainforests to survive. But unfortunately, many governments say overpopulation is just about the only reason that rainforests are disappearing. They use this as an excuse for not dealing with the other things that are causing rainforest destruction.

 

 

 



HOW CAN RAINFORESTS BE SAVED?


* The things that need to be done can be divided into two groups: Campaigns and Structural Change.

Campaigns

In countries where rainforests are being destroyed or damaged, campaigns (see also *.)  are being waged to save particular areas of forest. Unless these campaigns succeed, rainforests will die out. Therefore, supporting these campaigns is very important. Organisations in western countries, like the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Rainforest Movement and the World Wide Fund for Nature are involved in these campaigns. In many cases, they are supporting campaigns which were started by local groups in tropical countries. By supporting these groups, members of the public in rich countries can play a role.


Structural Changes

Campaigns to save particular areas of forest are essential, but unless the underlying forces which cause rainforest destruction are dealt with as well, rainforests will continue to be threatened. Structural change is much more difficult to achieve because it requires basic changes in the way we and other people live.


Land Reform 

In tropical countries, rich and powerful people often own most of the land. So poor farmers often have to look for more land to clear. If the already-cleared land was shared more equally, then they wouldn’t have to do this.

Indigenous people (See also *.) have lived in rainforests for thousands of years, hunting, gathering food and farming in small plots. Governments and corporations often act as if indigenous people do not own their forests. The rights of indigenous people need to be recognised. Often, indigenous people can look after the forest better than anybody else because they undestand them so well.

One of the reasons that rich landowners force poor farmers off the land is so that they can make a lot of money by growing things like soybeans, cattle and palm oil. Often these things are sold to rich countries. So rich countries can help by buying less of these cash crops.


Logging

The logging industry also contributes to the problem of land clearance. The roads made by logging companies are used by poor farmers to enter the forests. It is not necessary for tropical timber to be used in rich countries. By using other things instead, people in rich countries can help reduce logging in tropical forests.

An organisation called the Forest Stewardship Council has begun a scheme which may make logging in tropical forests less destructive. They give a certificate to logging companies which do as little damage possible to the forests. This means that people who buy the timber can then decide to buy from that company instead of the ones which do more damage.


Development

Aid organisations like the World Bank have given money for large-scale mining, irrigation and hydro-electric projects. Every time these projects have been started, local people have opposed them. The right of local people to decide how their land is used should be supported. Organisations like the World Bank need to be changed so that they respect the wishes of local people. They should become involved in smaller projects which offer solutions that do not harm the environment and which help the inhabitants of the forests. Examples of organizations that do this kind of rainforest protection are the Rainforest Information Centre and Rainforest Concern.

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