Thursday, 19 March 2009

More on Rainforest Services

It goes without saying that the two services we’ve described above are of crucial importance. 
But let’s take a closer look at the uses of tropical rain forests.

A. Rain Forests As Habitats 

For thousands of years, rain forests had been home for all the life forms residing in them, including animals and humans (forest (indigenous) people). 
Animals had been utilizing their natural habitats as their needs guided them (by “taking” whatever they needed from their environment (such as food) and “giving back” in some other way (for example, by becoming “food” for some larger predators). 

Forest people, on their part, had been historically using rain forest resources in very sustainable ways (6) – the knowledge they had been gathering over centuries from their ancestors and transferring to their offspring. 

In most recent times (the last several decades) rain forests have also become home to many new peasant settlers / migrants who moved to their new habitats as a result of their governments’ resettlement programmes, in search of new land for agricultural purposes. (7)

B. Rain Forests As Resource Bases 

Following on from the discussion of biodiversity above, it is no surprise that the tropical rain forests are sometimes referred to as an "inexhaustible treasure trove" of nature. (8) 

We can distinguish three major groups of goods that come from the rain forests: 
- food 
- medicines/drugs 
- commercial/industrial goods 

Since the middle ages, tropical rain forests attracted the attention of many European travellers. 

The large-scale exploitation of rain forest resources must have started as one of by-products of the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18 th – 19 th centuries. 

Rubber was one of the rain forest’s most prominent products, which indeed found many uses in newly born industrial societies. And perhaps, one of its most famous applications was for rubber tyres which were originally used in bicycles, and consequently in motor cars. (9) 

As for the foodstuffs, you wouldn’t believe how much food that we consume every day originated from the rain forests. 
Vanilla and cacao beans (used to make chocolate), for example, were discovered during the very early voyages of the conquistadors to the Americas. (10) 
It is hard to overestimate the importance of rain forest food products in modern times. 
Chris Park mentions that about 12 crops provide 90% of the world’s food and half of them come from tropical rain forests including rice and maize. (11) 
Even the domestic chicken was apparently bred from the red jungle fowl of Indian forests. (12) 
Products like coffee, bananas, tea, sugar, pineapples, avocados and a lot more are widely used both for local consumption in the rain forest home countries and for exports. 
Currently, a vast number of rain forest plants are also widely used in medicines. (13)

The “most lucrative” rain forest resources

There is virtually no doubt that, historically, logging had been the most lucrative business activity in the tropical rain forests. This activity allows an accumulation of short-term profits without substantial long-term investments from logging companies. 
In the most recent years, relative political and economic stability of rain forest countries allowed for the development of other extractive industries, such as mining and oil & gas. (14) 
All these activities have inevitably caused, and are still causing, serious environmental damage. 
Specifically, this leads to deforestation of pristine ancient rain forest ecosystems and an irreversible loss of valuable forest biodiversity.

C. Rain Forests As Unique Guarantors Of Local Environmental/Climatic Stability

Apart from helping to regulate the global climatic conditions, rain forests also guarantee local environmental stability in several ways. 
What happens if rain forests are removed?

1. Soil Erosion 
Rain forest soils are quite poor in nutrients, as virtually all of them are contained within the forest vegetation and animal biomass (thanks to the very efficient nutrient cycling within the forests). 
So if a forest is cleared, the soil is fully exposed to heavy rainfalls that can easily wash away the topsoil and degrade the soil quality. 
Once the topsoil is away, it leaves the deeper soil layers exposed to the air. The air hardens the deeper soil and degrades it even further. 
Thus, such degraded soil can hardly be used for any productive activity.

2. Downstream silting 
As the rainfalls wash away the rain forest soil, they can push such sediments to rivers, water reservoirs and irrigation systems and leave them silted. 
This can cause contamination of drinkable water as well as interruption of operations of hydroelectric installations. 
Higher river silt levels can also expose river-neighbouring areas to floods. 

3. Downstream flooding 
As a result of deforestation a larger proportion of rainfall, that would have otherwise been absorbed by the vegetation, is now directly transferred into river systems and may cause serious flooding in river-neighbouring areas. 

4. Droughts 
Rain forest vegetation stores a lot of moisture that evaporates and comes back as rainfall. 
If this natural storage of moisture is destroyed, less rainfall is recycled and droughts ensue. 
As an example, experts blame such rain forest clearance for recent droughts in Australia. (16) 

5. Rain Forests Help Reduce the Amount of Solar Radiation Reflected Back Into the Atmosphere 
When solar radiation reaches the surface of the Earth, some of this radiation is absorbed by the planet and some of it is reflected back into space. 
Some of this radiation reflected back will actually escape into space, and some of it will get trapped in the atmosphere. 
A certain proportion of the radiation trapped in the atmosphere will then be re-reflected down to the planet and thus force the temperature to rise. 
This is called a greenhouse effect, and it causes global warming. 
So the importance of the rain forest vegetation from this point of view is that it helps reduce the amount of solar radiation reflected back into the atmosphere and therefore helps keep the temperatures stable.

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