Tropical Forests in Our Daily Lives

Do you think of tropical forests as faraway places that have nothing to do with your daily life? Think again. You rely on forests more than you know.

If you live in the industrialized global North—spending your days at an office desk, perhaps, or running around suburbs or cities, your trusty iPhone never more than a few inches away—you could be forgiven for thinking tropical forests have little do with your daily life (other than providing fodder for vacation daydreams, of course). After all, tropical forests are home to howler monkeys, armadillos, and sloths. What could they possibly have to do with you?

Plenty, as a matter of fact. For starters, they provide vital services, like stabilizing climate and absorbing carbon dioxide. But they also offer a vast array of products that many of us use on a daily basis.

In short, we rely on tropical forests to live, and that’s just one reason the Rainforest Alliance works so hard to protect them. While our organization has branched out (pun intended) since its founding 30 years ago to protect temperate forests (such as those in the Appalachian mountains), and tropical forests in Africa and Asia, our first efforts were focused on the rainforests of Latin America, working with farmers and foresters there to improve their lives and livelihoods so they wouldn’t have to clear trees to plant crops or sell timber. We pioneered the use of market forces to create sustainable forest economies to lift people out of poverty, because we understood that those who depend on the forest are the most invested in protecting it.

Consumer choices directly affect the farmers and foresters who are working sustainably on our behalf—so it’s important to know which products and services come from forests so you can shop responsibly. Although some of us, sadly, may never step foot in one of the dreamy, mist-enshrouded forests like Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve or Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, we are inextricably connected to the forests and the people who live there.

Not convinced? See our list below.

Food

Man carrying bananas

Farmer Jonathan Vega carries a banana bunch in from the field.

Photo credit: Yessenia Soto

The world’s most popular fruit, the banana, comes from the rainforest. Once notorious for worker and environmental abuses, the banana industry has changed its ways, thanks in large part to the Rainforest Alliance’s pioneering work in Central America. Other staples that come from rainforests include citrus, cassava, and avocado, as well as cashews, Brazil nuts, and ubiquitous spices like vanilla and sugar. Then there are a few foods that many of us consider life-giving—coffee, tea, and cocoa—and yes, they come from tropical forests, too.

If we are not careful, however, our appetites for these products could destroy the source from which they come. Agriculture is responsible for more than 70 percent of deforestation in the tropics, but there are ways to farm that don’t destroy forests, and the Rainforest Alliance shares these Earth-friendly and climate-smart methods with farmers and foresters around the globe.

Medicine

Many of the Western medicines that we use today are derived from plants found in tropical forests. Medications to treat or cure inflammation, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, surgical complications, malaria, heart conditions, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma, and hundreds of other maladies, come from forest plants.

Shelter

Tropical forests yield some of the most beautiful and valuable woods in the world, such as teak, mahogany, rosewood, balsa, sandalwood, and countless lesser-known species. These woods surround us at home and in offices in the form of furniture, cabinets, paneling, and more. But only recently has the industrialized world realized the limits to timber extraction. Just like agriculture, logging can either nurture or destroy an ecosystem. It is up to us to support environmentally responsible logging and promote smarter wood production and consumption around the world.

Other forest products show up in your home and office, too. Tropical forest fibers are found in rugs, mattresses, ropes, strings, and fabrics.

Cleaning, cosmetics, and more

Tropical forest oils, gums, and resins are used in insecticides, rubber products, fuel, paint, varnish, and wood finishing products. And tropical oils are key ingredients in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, disinfectants and detergents.

Climate Control

Hurricane from space

Hurricane viewed from space

Photo credit: iStock

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts forests bestow upon us is their capacity for absorbing the monstrous amount of greenhouse gas emissions we humans generate. They are one of the world's primary carbon reservoirs, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, storing it, and generating oxygen. Forests are vital to the hydrologic cycle (rain and water systems), and they maintain some of the world's most fragile soils.  Rainforests also act as the world's thermostat, regulating temperatures and weather patterns.

As we always say: forests are our best defense against climate change. That’s why the Rainforest Alliance has spent more than 30 years working to conserve forests and to improve the lives of those who depend upon them. The loss of our forests, together with the way that this cleared land is used after the forest is cleared, contributes to between 9-11 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions each year—almost as much as all the world's trains, planes, and automobiles combined. But by stopping the destruction of mature (old-growth) forests, we prevent a huge amount of carbon from going into the atmosphere, and by promoting Earth-friendly planting and management of young forests, we absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon.

The Future

A whopping 30 percent of the world’s forests has been destroyed, while another 20 percent has been degraded (and most of the rest has been fragmented, leaving only about 15 percent intact). Our world is facing the greatest extinction crisis since the fall of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The future of many of Earth's plants and animals—and hundreds of human cultures—will be determined within the next few decades. Because we are so dependent on the forest's great bounty, we need to act responsibly, be good stewards of the Earth's tropical forests, and do all we can to ensure that forests—and their many gifts—are around for future generations.

Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Forests are falling at an alarming rate.

Each minute, 85 acres are destroyed.

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