Why Rainforest Destruction Matters

Nicholas T
Photo taken by Nicholas Tippins (on file)

The world's rainforests are home to rare indigenous cultures, medicinal plants, and magnificent creatures. Every hour, 6000 acres of rainforest is destroyed, and along with it, cultures and life forms that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But the destruction of the rainforests has far-reaching consequences beyond their geographical barriers, too -- it affects everyone.

Environmental Costs of Rainforest Destruction

Rainforest destruction has severe consequences that extend across the globe.

Global Warming

Each year, deforestation releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the automobiles in the world. Ordinarily, a healthy rainforest acts as a "carbon sink," in which trees and plant life absorb and store carbon, thereby stopping it from contributing to global warming. The Amazon rainforest has traditionally held upwards of 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In recent years, however, this number has been decreasing. Deforestation releases the stored carbon into the atmosphere, making it a significant contribution to global warming.

Loss of Biodiversity

According to NASA, rainforests are the home of half of all species of life on earth. The destruction of rainforests is causing the extinction of about 50,000 species per year. Apart from the tragedy of losing each unique species, biodiversity loss can have dire consequences for those that remain, including humans.

The World Health Organization notes the importance of biodiversity to humans, saying, "Human health ultimately depends upon ecosystem products and services (such as availability of fresh water, food and fuel sources) which are requisite for good human health and productive livelihoods." In addition to losing these essential needs, loss of biodiversity makes the environment as a whole less sustainable and adaptable and more vulnerable to disease and disaster.

Destruction of the Human Habitat

The rainforests are an integral part of the global ecosystem, and when they are threatened, everyone stands to lose something valuable. In fact, the destruction of rainforests aids in the destruction of human habitats, putting at risk the things people need to survive.

Soil Quality and Erosion

Clearing of trees leads to erosion and decreased nutrient quality in the soil. Erosion can have devastating consequences like the pollution of water supplies and the destruction of farmland. And, as evidenced by a recent disaster in Washington, erosion can cause landslides dangerous to people.

Nutrient quality is an ever-increasing concern as the world's population continues to grow and farmers are required to produce more nourishment with less available land. When trees and vegetation are removed from an area, the soil becomes vulnerable to the depletion of direct sunlight, wind, and water, and the nutrients are not regenerated naturally through decaying vegetation.

Drinkable Water Supply

Rainforests play an important role in the water supply. All vegetated areas collect water and release it into the atmosphere which in turn produces rain. Rainforests, aptly named, are masters of this process. However, when rainforests are damaged, there is less rainfall as a result. The Brazilian drought which studies have shown was caused by the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Social Costs of Rainforest Destruction

The destruction of rainforests has direct social consequences as well, ranging from economics to human rights and global health.

Economics

If environmentalism isn't your thing, how about economics? Hundreds of products used every day in the U.S. come in some way from rainforests. These include gums and resins like rubber latex, chicle (chewing gum), paints and wood finishers; fibers for bags, furniture, insulation, and ropes; woods like teak, balsa, and mahogany; oils for perfumes; and of course lumber. It's interesting to note that the U.S. imports 1.7 million cubic meters of tropical lumber each year without taking the necessary steps to ensure it is legally harvested. Did you get that? If rainforests are completely destroyed, people won't have any more chewing gum.

Conditions for Disease

An article in Scientific American detailed how the destruction of the rainforest in Tanzania actually created the conditions for the spread of disease; in this case, the plague. While people have mostly forgotten about the plague in the Western world, it's a serious problem in countries like Tanzania because of heavy rainforest destruction. The destruction of the natural ecosystem in Tanzania created an environment in which rodents carrying the disease-ridden fleas were able to thrive and spread the disease to humans. The article explains that this isn't an isolated phenomenon, saying that "Changing land use... could also have wide-reaching impact across the globe because an estimated 60 percent of known diseases and three-quarters of emerging diseases originate from animals." Diseases can spread internationally, so even countries without rainforests to destroy may be at risk for diseases that are a product of their destruction.

Poverty and Violence

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 300 million people worldwide live in forests, and an additional 1.6 billion depend on forests directly for their livelihood. When rainforests are destroyed, people's livelihoods are destroyed along with them. This creates poverty, which leads to an increase in violence. Greenpeace says, "Deforestation without the consent of local forest communities exacerbates social conflict and violence. Often, deforestation occurs in remote lawless areas and is accompanied by human rights violations."

Loss of Traditional Cultures

Rainforests are home to some of the last cultures on earth that are untouched by modern civilization. A study published years ago in Peace Review found that "deforestation gravely affects indigenous peoples: it promotes death, disease, poverty, and acculturation." A Miami University article explains how, when indigenous people lose their rainforest homes, they also lose their culture, causing the extinction of an entire way of life.

It is poignant to note that by destroying the rainforests, people are also destroying cultures that they would do well to learn from. The indigenous people's ability to live in harmony with nature, their satisfaction with a way of life that does not require massive destruction, and their knowledge of the ecosystem in which they live are all immensely valuable to learn from right now, if not necessary.

Destruction Affects Everyone

The destruction of rainforests affects everyone, and will affect children for generations to come. If you feel called to live in a way that reduces rainforest destruction, try following suggested actions from Greenpeace.

Why Rainforest Destruction Matters