Tropical rainforests are arguably the most precious natural resource on our Earth and constitute the world's most diverse biological eco-system. They are the home to 70% of the world's plants and animals, containing more than 13 million species (Roper, 1999-"Importance of ... "); provide high quality wood for a number of every-day and industrial uses such as for furniture, shipbuilding, and paper; are a repository of almost one-fourth of the existing medicinal drugs, and a potential source for numerous as yet undiscovered life-saving drugs. More importantly, rainforests constitute a critical life-support system for the Earth. They cycle essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, regulate temperature and precipitation, act as large reservoirs of water, protect watersheds from soil erosion, and harbor pollinators for agricultural crops. Unfortunately, rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming and unsustainable rate and may even disappear completely if the present rate of their depletion continues. In this paper I shall discuss the extent of rainforest depletion, the causes of their destruction, and some possible solutions for preventing their rapid destruction.
The Extent of Rainforest Depletion
It is believed that eight thousand years ago forests covered almost 40% of the world's land area, equivalent to 6,000 million hectares. As greater sections of the human population turned to agriculture, they started to clear large areas of the forests for growing crops leading to depletion of the forest areas. However, in the beginning, the rate of forest depletion was relatively gradual until the mid-twentieth century when it accelerated to alarming proportions.
The depletion of tropical rainforests has been the greatest over the last three decades when about 5 million sq km -- or 20% of the world's tropical forests -- were destroyed. Although accurate figures about the rate of forest depletion are hard to come by, satellite imaging has revealed that rainforests depleted most rapidly during the 1980s (16 million acres annually). The rate slowed down during the early 1990s (14 million hectares per year) mainly due to decline of deforestation in the Amazon River basin but is believed to have picked up once again since the late 1990s. (Losos 2002) According to FAO figures, the total world forest area has now shrunk to less than 3,500 million hectares as a result of human exploitation. (Roper, 1999, Section on "Deforestation...") Some estimates alarmingly indicate that if the present rate of destruction continues, we will manage to consume the remaining rainforests in the next 40 years. (Rainforest Facts, n.d.)
Causes Behind Tropical Rainforest Depletion
There are numerous direct causes for the rapid deforestation, which continues at an unabated pace. The most insidious underlying causes are the increasing population of the world (particularly in the underdeveloped countries), rural poverty, inappropriate government policies, and greed.
The direct causes of tropical rainforest depletion are most visible and include:
1. Slash-and-Burn Farming -- This is by far the most important cause of deforestation and it has been estimated that slash-and-burn farming is responsible for nearly two-thirds of all deforestation globally (Rowe, quoted by Roper, 1999-"Causes of ... "). Slash-and-burn farmers are among the poorest and most marginalized sections of the population. They clear the forestlands to grow crops for their survival. Population pressures in recent decades have led to intensive farming with little or no crop rotation. The soil of the tropical rainforests, which is already unsuited for farming, deteriorates rapidly, and the farmers move on to clear new forest areas, causing further destruction.
2. Commercial Logging:
Commercial logging is another major contributor to forest depletion, especially of the tropical rainforests. According to FAO almost six million hectares are logged annually in the tropics and that the rate of logging has doubled in the last 30 years. The greatest increase in logging activity has occurred in the tropical rainforests of Latin America and Asia. (Quoted by Roper, 1999-"Deforestation ... ") Unprofessional management, short-term "cut and get out" tactics employed by the logging companies, combined with inappropriate government policies and regulations about logging combine to result in massive degradation of tropical forests besides affecting the forest ecosystem such as displacement of animal life. The roads built by the loggers make the forests accessible to other land users such as farmers, ranchers, and fuelwood collectors who further exploit the forests and contribute in the destruction.
3. Commercial Agriculture: Commercial Agriculture is different from slash-and-burn farming and refers to large-scale farming of crops such as sugar, palm oil, natural rubber, coffee, cacao, and tropical fruits by business corporations. Such large-scale farming contributes to deforestation in a number of ways. For example, palm-oil plantations in the South East Asian countries have replaced vast tracts of tropical rainforests, especially Indonesia in the recent past. Widespread use of agrochemicals by these agribusiness companies result in contamination of crops, soils, and ground water and the occupation of choicest land by influential corporations force the subsistence farmers further out into the forests leading to indirect deforestation.
4. Cattle Ranching and Livestock Grazing: Cattle ranching is another major cause of deforestation, particularly in Central and South America. Previously, ranches were mostly based in the soil-rich valleys but with expanding markets for meat in the second half of the twentieth century, it became profitable for South American ranchers to expand their operations into the Amazonian forests through brutal 'slash and burn' tactics. Statistics reveal that the area of land under permanent pasture in Central America more than tripled between 1955 and 1995 (i.e., from 3.9 million hectares to 13.4 million hectares) mostly at the expense of virgin tropical rainforest.
5. Mining and Petroleum Exploration:
Many tropical forest areas also contain other natural resources such as oil. Hence, mining and oil exploration operations have contributed greatly to tropical rainforest depletion. Such operations have a two-fold effect on forests. First, vast quantities of indigenous woodlands are consumed to supply fuel for the smelting operations employed in the mines. Second, the clearing of forests for oil exploration purposes directly destroys the forests besides opening it up for other destructive by people who follow the oil exploration crews.
6. Fuel Wood: As noted earlier in this essay, fuel-wood is the most important source of energy in poor developing countries, especially in the rural areas. Although fuel-wood collection may not completely destroy the forest in the short-term, it severely degrades them -- affecting the wildlife and lead to the ultimate destruction of the forest itself in the long-term.
7. Indirect Causes: A number of indirect factors also have a significant impact on tropical rainforest depletion. These include inappropriate government policies such as subsidized credit for agricultural and livestock expansion; infrastructure and energy development projects that do not account for the value of forest capital lost; structural adjustment and macroeconomic reform programs that have resulted in unequal distribution of wealth and promoted poverty; overemphasis on exports; widespread corruption that lead to government functionaries collusion in illegal felling of forest trees; and most of all undervaluation of forest resources due to little understanding of the value of the goods and services provided by tropical forests.
A sustained and integrated effort is required if the current trend of tropical rainforest depletion is to be arrested or reversed. Most of these forests are located in developing and underdeveloped countries and these countries do not have the resources to tackle the problem by themselves. Hence, a massive international effort is required to save the rainforests. A number of international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Bank are already involved in rainforest conservation efforts but more effort is needed to overcome the problem.
There can be two possible approaches to prevent forest destruction -- prevention and sustainable development. Prevention is done through the development of national parks and preserves. This approach has its limitations, as some communities are dependant…