climate change conservation environment science

Biodiversity: Canopy and below

What is all the fuss about the rainforest? What will happen if we lose our most productive ecosystem?

The rainforest that once covered 14% of the planet’s surface, now covers a mere 6%. It is estimated that within 40 years our children will be reading about rainforests in recent history books and outdated geography journals. Something we’ve always taken for granted is balancing on the edge of extinction.

Why? what will we lose? How can we stop it?

“Most rainforests are cleared by chainsaws, bulldozers and fires for its timber value and then are followed by farming and ranching operations, even by world giants like Mitsubishi Corporation, Georgia Pacific, Texaco and Unocal.Raintree

Plant and animal species: medicinal plants – Currently, 121 drugs sold worldwide are plant based products. Less than 1% of rain forest plants are being used to produce 25% of the West’s pharmaceuticals. Looking at the forest from this point of view, this leaves another 99% of the forest to be explored and tested for potential medicinal value. The processes necessary for testing plants for medicinal value is extremely time consuming. Unfortunately time is not on our side. With every acre cleared (the current loss rate is one and a half acres a second, worldwide) we could be losing dozens of life saving drugs. an example, the Madagascar periwinkle, or Catharantus Roseus, has been used in traditional medecine for centuries, and once researchers finally began investigating the plant they found no fewer than 70 different alklaloids useful to medecine. Two different compounds could be useful in treating cancer. Another is a natural substitute to insulin. One is used extensively in treating Hodgkin’s disease. A periwinkle alkaloid called vincristine is used in curing childhood leukemia, and survival rates have jumped from 20% to 80% since its introduction. All this from one plant that used to grow in our garden when we were little.

1.4 million species have been named and categorized. It is estimated (although scientists don’t really know) that there could be any number of unknown species ranging from 2 million to 100 million. The comfortable medium science works off is that there are 10 million species yet to be discovered. Considering the tropics’ track record, many botanists and scientists assume a large majority of these live in or around tropical rainforest. The manner in which we are destroying the forest could be compared to bulldozing a hotel before checking to see if anyone is inside.

A famous study in Panama collected “nearly 1,200 species [of beetles alone] were collected. Of those, 80 percent were not known to science.”

Climate: A well known fact is that forests are carbon sinks. Without these forests, climates would be significantly different. Rainforests regulate the planet’s temperature and climate. It is argued that the reason for the excess amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is because of the industrial revolution. This era witnessed abnormal levels of CO2 emissions and is being blamed and associated with global warming. This is however a debated issue as people still suggest that the CO2 has had no effect on climate change. I’m unaware of any research which might suggest that climate change is caused by a lack of forest cover. If a 50% loss in forest carbon sinks resulted in an increase of CO2, one can only speculate as to what would happen should we lose the other half.

Erosion: Trees are renowned for their ability to hold the soil together. They are one of the best methods of coastal, river, and cliff management. In felling and removing trees the soil becomes loose and at the mercy of the weather. When the rain comes, it washes everything away; soil, nutrients, and even more vegetation. This leaves barren farmland and silted water courses. The rivers silt up, blocking ship movements, fishing, and drinking water.

Airplane view of erosion in western Madagascar(Flight from Tana West)

Flying over Madagascar, you can look down on barren hillsides where the trees have been cut down. Sometimes this is from slash and burn practices – burning off the land to stimulate fresh grass growth for cattle. Sometimes it’s for rice paddies. Either way, you can see the results in this picture. The soil washes away, leaving great scars and rifts in the hillsides, and turning the rivers red with dust. (see picture of the Betsiboka river here)

Rainforests are extremely important, and this entry hasn’t even scratched the surface of all the threats, and what we are losing. Making people aware is only the first bite. Biodiversity loss is happening all over the globe, outside of rainforests. Biodiversity stretches through all the biomes of the world from the peaks to the oceans, from the poles to the tropics.

Here is a brief look into what you can do for the forests

Interesting sites to read. Simple but fairly well fleshed out. Have a look – here and here.


  1. Some impressive photos on this entry. It is scary to see whole regions of Madagascar being washed away into the rivers. Sometimes it looks from the air as if the life-blood of the country is being leched away into the sea.
    I once had a conversation with some farming people in the Ambatondrazaka area, where the soil erosion through lavakas is very severe. They told me that much of the top-soil settles in the valleys, and provides an excellent environment for growing rice. It requires a lot of management since it silts up the paddies very quickly, and it gives rise to squabbles over the land since the soil is so productive. That area is an essential rice bowl for meeting the food needs of the whole plateau area. In this case erosion is actually useful – at least in the short-term – since the good quality top-soil is more useful in the valleys where it can be cultivated than it is on the steep hillsides.

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