Earth Talk - the future of rain forests

Tropical deforestation rates this decade are higher than during the 1990s, resulting in 135 plant, animal, and insect species being lost every day.

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Q:     Do you have current facts and figures about how much rain forest is being destroyed each day around the world, and for what purpose(s)?
Teri, via e-mail

A:    Pinning down exact numbers is nearly impossible, but most experts agree that we are losing more than 80,000 acres of tropical rain forest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day.

In addition, we are losing some 135 plant, animal, and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year – as the forests fall.

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Tropical rain forests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a key role in the basic functioning of the planet, says researcher and writer Rhett Butler, who runs the website Mongabay.com and has written or co-written several articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Rain forests help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall, and provide many other important ecological functions. They are also home to about 50 percent of the world’s species, Mr. Butler reports, “making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources.”

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, overall tropical deforestation rates this decade are 8.5 percent higher than during the 1990s. While this figure pertains to all forests in the world’s tropics, researchers believe the loss of primary tropical rain forest – the wildest and most diverse swaths – has increased by as much as 25 percent since the 1990s.

Despite increased public awareness of the importance of tropical rain forests, deforestation rates are actually on the rise – mostly because of activities such as commercial logging, agriculture, cattle ranching, dam building, and mining – but also due to subsistence agriculture and collection of fuel wood by local people.

Indeed, as long as commercial interests are allowed access to these economically depressed areas of the world, and as long as populations of poor rural people continue to expand, tropical rain forests will continue to fall, experts say.

But some scientists see light at the end of the tunnel. Joseph Wright of the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute says that the tropics now have more protected land than in recent history. He believes that large areas of tropical forest will remain intact through 2030 and beyond.

“We believe that the area covered by tropical forest will never fall to the exceedingly low levels that are often predicted,” he says, “and that extinction will threaten a smaller proportion of tropical forest species than previously predicted.”

Only time will tell whether Dr. Wright’s optimistic predictions will play out.

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

Recommended: Five hotbeds of biodiversity
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