Although rain forests are located in both tropical and temperate climate zones, most of the world’s rain forests lie in the equatorial regions of South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia, forming a lush green belt around the planet. The world’s largest rain forest is found in the Amazon River Basin in South America and is 5.2 square kilometers in size. Rain forests receive between 160 and 400 inches of rain annually and have an average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to this extreme moisture and warmth, the forests teem with life. Occupying only 6 to 7 percent of the planet’s land surface, they are home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species.
In recent years, a great deal of concern has arisen over the destruction of the forests. Environmentalists warn that over one-half of the earth’s original rain forests have been wiped out. According to the Rainforest Alliance, a forest conservation organization, the world’s tropical forests have shrunk from 7.1 billion acres in 1800 to 3.5 billion acres at present. “We’re losing 33.8 million acres of tropical forest per year,” the alliance reports, “more than the total area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware combined— 2.8 million acres lost per month . . . 93,000 acres/day . . . 3,800 acres/hour . . . 64 acres/minute.” The primary causes of forest destruction are commercial logging, mining operations, and slashing and burning by local farmers to clear land for growing crops and grazing livestock.
This destruction of the rain forests concerns environmentalists for several reasons. Tropical rain forests contain about 45 percent of the world’s plant species. According to some estimates, up to thirty thousand of these species have yet to be identified. Destroying the forests could cause the extinction of many plants—as well as the animals that depend on them—thus threatening the planet’s biodiversity. In addition, many of these plants may prove valuable as medicines. According to the National Cancer Institute, 70 percent of the plants that are useful for treating cancer come from the rain forests. Drugs used to treat other illnesses are found there as well. Scientists fear that destroying the rain forests threatens to wipe out entire species of plants before their value as medicine can be determined.
Rain forests also function as “carbon sinks” because they hold reserves of carbon in their vegetation. When the forests are destroyed, they release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas that contributes to global warming. The United Nations estimates that clearing of the rain forests is responsible for 20 percent of atmospheric CO2, making deforestation a major contributor to global warming.
A more direct consequence of tropical deforestation involves the displacement of indigenous peoples and entire communities. Encroachment by loggers, farmers, and miners has forced many indigenous inhabitants to abandon their homes and lands. Not only have millions of forest acres been denuded, but thousands of miles of roads have been constructed, increasing expansion into indigenous peoples’ unspoiled territory. According to the Rainforest Alliance, over ninety Amazonian tribes are believed to have disappeared in the twentieth century.
While environmentalists decry these developments, some scientists debate the extent of tropical deforestation. Critics contend that environmentalists vastly overestimate the amount of deforestation. For example, environmentalists produce conflicting estimates of the amount of forest being destroyed, with estimates ranging from the equivalent of two football fields being leveled every second to twenty football fields being denuded every minute. Some believe that this inconsistency makes the claims of environmentalists suspect. According to Patrick Moore, a founding member of the environmental organization Greenpeace, by some accounts, humanity “would have cleared 50 times the size of the Amazon already.” In actuality, Moore states, satellite data reviewed by the National Institute for Research in Amazonia reveals that 87.5 percent of the Amazonian rain forest remains standing. Furthermore, of the 12.5 percent that has been cleared, up to one-half is regrowing. Therefore, Moore insists, “The Amazon rainforest is more than 90 percent intact.”
Others debate the threat that deforestation poses to biodiversity, global climate, and indigenous people. Philip Stott, a professor of biogeography, is an especially strong critic of the environmentalist perspective on these issues. He insists that predictions of species extinction are based on computer models that have “no scientific basis.” Stott also dismisses the claim that the forests are “carbon sinks.” Due to the natural decomposition process, he argues, rain forests actually produce more CO2 than they absorb. Stott concludes that the public’s concern over rain forests has been encouraged by various myths designed
to persuade us that the rain forest is vital for maintaining the stability and balance of the Earth—for our very own survival on this planet. Are the forests not “the lungs of the Earth”? “The living sinks” that will help to buffer our human excesses of carbon dioxide emissions as we recklessly warm the atmosphere? The richest remaining “library” of genetic resources for us to store, read, and use? “The last refuge” of forest people living in harmony in an untainted Golden Age and Garden of Eden? . . . It is all nonsense.
Whether the threat of deforestation is nonsense is one of the issues debated in At Issue: Rain Forests. Contributors to this anthology examine the extent of deforestation, the forces that threaten the rain forests, and various conservation efforts. Throughout these selections, authors consider the fate of some of the most majestic natural environments on the planet. These issues are certain to provoke ongoing controversy as environmentalists continue to characterize the protection of the rain forests as essential to the survival of humanity. As stated by the Rainforest Alliance, “The future of over 50% of Earth’s plants and animals—and hundreds of human cultures—will be determined within the next few decades. Since our lives are so dependent on the forest’s bounty, our future is at stake as well.”