THE VANISHING rain forest

About half of the world’s rain forests are gone forever—either destroyed or severely damaged—and still the destruction goes on. If the devastation continues at its present rate, some scientists predict that all the world’s rain forests will be gone by 2020. These rain forests—both tropical and temperate—not only provide a home for more species than any other biome habitat, but also play a leading role in the complex global ecosystem.

This region in the Amazon River Basin was destroyed to build a new road.

The destruction of rain forests began in the 1800’s in the United States, and progressed around the world through the 1900’s with the growth of agribusiness, industrial forestry, and colonization. The 1960’s brought a general awareness of the potential problems caused by clearing rain forests but, nevertheless, the rate of deforestation has accelerated rapidly since the 1970’s.

The greatest damage is due to clear-cutting for industrialization processes, such as logging, cattle ranching, highway construction, oil drilling, dam building, and mining. But, whatever its purpose, widespread rain forest destruction is potentially disastrous to the entire planet. Although rain forests cover less than 7 percent of the earth’s surface, the events that unfold in a rain forest affect life everywhere on earth. Rain forests affect all three of the pathways that make up the world’s biogeochemical cycle—the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and the carbon-oxygen cycle. The sudden removal of its plants disrupts the rain forest’s ecosystem and, consequently, the global ecosystem. Carbon dioxide levels rise, which increases the ability of the atmosphere to trap heat by admitting solar energy and preventing some surface heat from escaping out of the atmosphere. This in turn causes the global warming commonly known as the greenhouse effect. Due to the increase in the earth’s carbon dioxide levels since the late 1800’s, speculation and controversy persist about the long-term consequences of global warming. And increased carbon dioxide emissions are not the only effects of rain forest deforestation. Habitats are lost, species become extinct, rainfall increases, flooding and erosion occur, climates change, and crops fail. In addition, many rain forest species of plants and animals—still undiscovered and unstudied—are lost to us forever. Some scientists have attributed the emergence of deadly viruses such as Ebola to the destruction of their presumed habitat in the rain forests.

The unknown long-term interaction of all these effects makes the final outcome of rain forest destruction difficult to predict and potentially dreadful.

Economy and ecology in harmony

Efforts to save our rain forests have taken many forms. Nations throughout the world have held conferences, signed treaties, and enacted legislation to guarantee the protection of rain forests on regional and global levels. Environmental organizations work to create awareness through public education and media attention, as well as through boycotts and demonstrations.

The most promising pro grams are those in which the interests of industry, environmentalists, and the people who live in rain forest regions have found a common ground. Local inhabitants of these regions, beset by both poverty and high population growth, traditionally nave borne the economic burden of rain forest preservation. In the past, the pressing tinancial needs of daily life generally—and not unreasonably—won out over the efforts of environmentalists to preserve the forest. This situation has been a major factor in the massive rain forest destruction of the last three decades. Recently, however, environmental groups have worked to develop innovative and commercially successful ways to use rain forest products. Such efforts provide the local people with economic incentives to preserve the forests.

These new endeavors link manufacturers with local harvesters and develop markets based on the preservation of the forests rather than on their destruction. These rain forest products bring money into the local economy, give manufacturers a profit, and, through profit sharing, channel funds into future preservation efforts.

This type of cooperative effort is exemplified by the drug-discovery programs involving the pharmaceutical industries. Because rain forests are the habitat of many medicinal plants and of animals actively used in medicine, preservation of rain forest plants and animals has become a vital issue to drug manufacturers as well as environmentalists. These rain forest resources include the Pacific yew, which produces taxol, a drug used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer; and the rosy periwinkle, the source of vinblastine and vincristine, drugs used in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and childhood leukemia. Vinblastine and vincristine are presently the most effective treatment for Hodgkin’s disease and childhood leukemia, increasing survival rates from 2 to 58 percent and from 20 percent to 80 percent respectively.

Another cooperative effort centers around the tagua nut found in South American rain forests. Tagua nuts are now used by many manufacturers to make buttons, jewelry, and other items. The expanding line of rain forest products ranges from the Brazil nuts of the rain forest “crunch” products (similar to peanut brittle) to chocolate from cocoa beans to oils and waxes for cosmetic products. The emergence of these win-win strategies signals a new alliance between former adversaries and brings genuine hope for the future of the world’s rain forests.

In the Amazon River Basin in Ecuador, scientists and a native expert locate and record plants used in making medicines.

Seeing the forest through the trees

The long-term effects of rain forest destruction that has already occurred are the subject of many gloomy predictions, but the ultimate consequences remain unknown, and questions still outnumber answers.

The challenge lies in finding the path to successful coexistence for all species in order to maintain a balance between the immediate and the long-term needs of society and the planet on which we live, and in working together as a global community of environmentally aware consumers and corporations.

The journey has already proved to be hazardous, but it has begun and we are all on it.

Clear-cutting damage can be intensified when high winds blow down adjacent trees left unprotected, as in this section of the Olympic National Park in Washington.