FAQ: What is a tropical forest?

"Tropical forests" encompass the idyllic rainforest, the remote cloud forest, and the lesser-known but equally endangered dry forest, pine savanna and much, much more.

They are not one ecosystem, but millions of unique ecosystems. Tropical forests are both the fearsome Jungle of our fantasy and the fertile Eden of our myth. They are the central nervous system of our planet—a hotbed of evolution, life and diversity.

Tropical rainforests are home to over half the world's species, all squeezed into a narrow strip of equatorial land. They are also home to millions of human beings that have been a part of forest ecosystem for thousands of years. Together, tropical forests form a gallery of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places and creatures on Earth.

Red-eyed tree frog

A Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) sitting along a vine with green plants in the background

Photo credit: iStock

Since the beginning of history, humans have relied on tropical forests. The "jungle" provided our ancient ancestors with a steady supply of wood, plants and animals, and it gave us many of our first fruits, fibers, grains, medicines, cloths, resins, pigments and other materials. As the millennia passed and many human communities moved farther and farther away from the Tropics, our ties to the forest did not weaken. Major trade routes, and even empires, developed to control the flow of the tropical forest's treasures.

Today, most of the industrialized world senses little connection to the tropical forest, living in large, busy cities far away from these fertile ecological powerhouses. We forget that the forest regularly saves our global food supply by offering new, disease-resistant crops. We forget about the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of trade in tropical timber, non-timber forest products and forest-derived drugs. We forget about things that are ultimately beyond value: the livelihoods of millions of forest peoples, a stable and livable climate for us all, the existence of most of our fellow species, and simple things we take for granted, like regular rain and clean air.

In tropical nations, many developing and debt-ridden, the forest is cleared in the hope of securing an economic future. Huge industrial interests, including timber, agriculture and mining, see an "endless," profitable supply of cheap resources just waiting to be taken. Meanwhile, family farmers and loggers feel they have no option but to deforest in order to feed their families. However, innumerable studies and recent history show that little security can be found in tropical deforestation.

Forest in Madre de Dios, Peru

Forest in Madre de Dios, Peru

Photo credit: Raquel Orejas

Thus far, our human family has erased half of our original endowment of tropical forests. Our world is now facing the greatest extinction crisis since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The future of over 50 percent of Earth's plants and animals—and hundreds of human cultures—will be determined within the next few decades. Since our lives are so dependent on the forest's bounty, our future is at stake as well.


Forests FAQ
Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Forests are falling at an alarming rate.

Each minute, 85 acres are destroyed.