Can the Rainforests Be Replaced?
Rainforests are very fragile ecosystems. They are not good at recovering from disturbance. A mature or primary forest takes hundreds or even thousands of years to be formed and is built up of a set of layers, each with its own combination of plant and tree species;
Ground Layer - only fungi and a few ferns survive in the gloom.
Understorey/Shrub Layer - young trees, shrubs, creepers and tall herbs struggle to grow in the dimness.
Canopy - a tangled mass of branches, leaves, buds, flowers and fruit, home to many animals.
Emergents - here and there, the tallest trees poke above the canopy.
Where primary forest has been cleared, secondary forest with dense, tangled undergrowth can be formed. Once primary forest has been disturbed it is unlikely to recover. The main reasons for the fragility of the rainforests are:
- The trees, animals and soil have had millions of years to adapt to a set of very special conditions, and each species has a special "niche" in the overall structure.
- The soil is almost infertile. It can be over 100 million years old, so all of the mineral nutrients have been washed away. The plants are adapted to collecting minerals from the air and from rain. If the trees are removed, the soil is quickly washed away.
- There may be only one tree of a certain species in two acres of forest. Seeds do not germinate easily and do not survive long on the forest floor.
What can be done
Conserving rainforests is, and will probably continue to be, an extremely difficult challenge. The countries with rainforests are trying to cope with their immediate problems, brought about by population increase and enormous debts to the World Bank, so they have little time to think about the long-term effects of removing the forests. A shortage of money prevents these countries from carrying out suitable conservation programmes.
Only with financial assistance from developed countries, or by writing off all or at least part of the debts, can the rainforests be saved. This will not happen overnight. There is too much money at stake, and only strong public feeling in developed countries will lead to pressure being brought against those in control of Third World debt to help rainforest countries. Until this happens, the economic situation will force countries with rainforests to carry on cutting them down.
It is estimated that every minute, 80 football pitches of rainforest are destroyed! Each day, at least one species of animal or plant becomes extinct! There is little hope of preserving all the remaining rainforests exactly as they are today. Parts of them should be protected absolutely, but others can be used to benefit man as well as other species. There is no reason why development cannot harmonise with the forest. In this way we will be able to ensure that the unique rainforests, with their great diversity and importance for the environment, continue to survive.
The destruction of the rainforest cannot be allowed to continue at the present rate. Governments must plan carefully and control strongly. All tree felling cannot be stopped immediately, but any further destruction of rainforests must take place in a more planned way, with greater restrictions on logging companies. Conservation strategies could include:
- Protected Reserves - No deforestation should be allowed in protected areas. Forests with the greatest variety of species or with rare species should be strictly conserved. Originally, about 14% of the world's land was covered in forest - today it is about 3%. Only about 8% of this forest was under protection in 1996. 12% of the world's forests were designated as protected in 2010. It is thought beleive at least 20% of all remaining rainforest needs protection.
- Careful Wood Production - It is possible to cut down prime trees for timber without causing too much damage to the surrounding forest. If there are only three or four suitable trees in a given hectare, it ought to be possible to remove them using a large helicopter. This method is already used in the needle-leaf forests of the United States. Any trees which are removed should be replaced by seedlings.
- Agroforestry - A combination of forestry and agriculture. It has been used successfully by tribal peoples for centuries, and involves planting trees, shrubs and ground crops in a gallery structure, imitating a natural forest.
- Species Preservation - Plants and animals can be taken from the rainforests and bred in zoos, botanical gardens and laboratories. Captive stock can be reintroduced to areas where they have become scarce. Golden lions tamarins have been successfully released in a reserve in Brazil.
- Efficient Land Use - More food can be grown on existing farmland if better farming methods are used. Land in Europe could be used to grow animal feed instead of importing it from abroad. This would not produce enough for all the intensively farmed animals but would be a solution if people ate less, but better quality meat from animals reared more naturally.
What Can You Do?
- Recycle paper and buy recycled paper products where possible, including toilet paper!
- Look for the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) logo on wood and paper products which shows they have been sustainably sourced.
- Buy fairly traded products - producers must provided assurances that they are looking after their local environment and are educated to do so.
- Buy an acre of rainforest or sponsor a rainforest animal such as an orangutan.
- Buy British beef. If its free range and organically produced, its less likely to have been fed soya, especially from rainforested areas which can also be genetically modified.
- Eat less meat and dairy! 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy production (which often involves the destruction of rainforests) - that’s more than all the world’d transport out together!
- Eat less meat ! The demand for meat is growing with an increasing global population and an increase in those who can afford meat. In the UK the World Health Organisation estimates that on average people eat 3.5 times more meat than is good for them. Less meat would mean less intensively farmed animals and less need for soya!
- If you use soya products such as milk, check with the manufacturer where they got their soya from and if it was sustainably produced.
- Campaign! Write to your MP about where our animal feeds come from, ask supermarkets and food manufacturers where they source their soya and palm oil from. Other environmental campaigning organisations can advise on what to write and who to write to.