Do you think of tropical forests as faraway places that have no impact on you? Think again—these forests affect you every day, and are critical to the survival of every living thing on Earth.
Tropical forests encompass not only mist enshrouded rainforests but also remote cloud forests, endangered dry forests and pine savannas. Tropical forests are not a single ecosystem, but millions of unique ecosystems that are home to over half of the world's plant and animal species.
Exotic orchids, stealthy jaguars, giant armadillos, colorful songbirds, noisy monkeys and reclusive snakes are but some of the creatures that inhabit tropical forests—along with millions of human beings who have relied on forest fruits, fibers, grains, medicines, cloths, resins and pigments for millennia.
While most of the industrialized world senses little connection with the tropical forest, living in large, busy cities far away from these fertile ecological powerhouses, we continue to rely on them for many of our most basic needs.
The forest regularly saves our global food supply by offering new, disease-resistant crops. Although we have sampled only a tiny fraction of the potential foods that tropical forests offer, they already have a profound influence on our diet. An astounding number of fruits and vegetables (bananas, citrus, cassava, avocado), nuts (cashews, brazil nuts), drinks (coffee, tea), oils (palm, coconut), flavorings (cocoa, vanilla, sugar, spices) and other foods originated in and around the rainforest.
If we are not careful though, our appetites for these products could destroy the source from which they came as unsustainable farming methods continue to be a major cause of rainforest destruction and pollution worldwide. We can enjoy the rainforest food basket if we support Earth-friendly farming—a balanced agricultural approach that may draw on both local farming traditions and cutting-edge science.
Many of the Western medicines that we use today are derived from plants, and many more may have pharmaceutical properties. Tropical forests have given us chemicals to treat or cure inflammation, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, surgical complications, malaria, heart conditions, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma and hundreds of other maladies.
Homes and Offices
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, in shopping malls and in offices. Many are vital to our industries. 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.
After all, a healthy forest can provide a lot more than wood. Tropical forest fibers are found in rugs, mattresses, ropes and strings, fabrics, industrial processes 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.
Tropical forests do not only provide goods, but invaluable services, as well. They are vital to the hydrologic cycle (rain and water systems), and they maintain some of the world's most fragile soils. They are also one of the world's primary carbon reservoirs. By absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon and giving us oxygen, tropical forests act as the world's thermostat, regulating temperatures and weather patterns. The loss of our forests contributes to between 12 and 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions each year—roughly the same percentage as all the world's trains, planes and automobiles combined. In some tropical countries (i.e. Brazil and Indonesia) emissions from deforestation can be as high as 50 to 70 percent—higher than from all other sources.
Responsible forestry helps us to turn down the global thermostat. By stopping the destruction of mature (old-growth) forests, we keep a huge amount of carbon from being released into the atmosphere, and by promoting Earth-friendly planting and management of young forests, we absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon.
Nearly half of the Earth's original forest cover has already been lost, and each year an additional 32 million acres (13 million hectares) are destroyed (a land area the size of Nicaragua or the State of Louisiana). 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 our lives are so intertwined with the forest's great bounty, our fate—as well as the fate of millions of plants and animal species—is at stake. It is up to all of us to act responsibly and to be good stewards by contributing to the sustainable production of all the goods and services that the Earth's tropical forests provide.