Once upon a time, rainforests wrapped around the earth’s equator like an unbroken green girdle – and that time was not long ago, though now rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate. These very special biological treasure houses contain a huge diversity of plants and animals. They are also home to many different indigenous peoples who have resisted the destructive march of modern civilization. While many tribes remain, representing unique primitive cultures, others have simply been swept away along with their forest homelands.
Quite apart from the catastrophic reduction of rich biological ecosystems containing all sorts of undiscovered pharmaceutical resources, the destruction of rainforests has other major ecological implications. Yet wholesale clearances happened throughout the 20th century and the pace of destruction has continued to speed up in the 21st century, despite widespread awareness of the negative consequences for the future of all life on earth, including the future of the human race.
The world has an insatiable appetite for timber, and illegal logging with the tacit support of corrupt governments is a major cause of rainforest loss. So, too, is acute need for cash crops in poor countries blessed by huge expanses of rainforest. Coupled with rising demand for food and green fuel, this ensures that crude slash and bum is used to clear forest land where beef cattle can be raised or crops like palm oil or soya grown.
Rainforests are too valuable to lose, for they help regulate climate by absorbing one fifth of the harmful greenhouses gases emitted by human activity, thus slowing the potentially deadly process of global warming and climate change. However, forest burning that contributes significantly to global warming continues apace, while those capable of preventing this unfolding ecological disaster of epic proportions are often complicit in accelerating rainforest destruction.
When: 20th and 21st centuries
Toll: Continuing damage to an ecosystem vital to the future of every species on earth.
You should know: Rainforests once covered 14 per cent of the world’s land surface, an area now more than halved, and if destruction continues at the same rate there will be no rainforest left inside 40 years. Over 100 distinct plant, animal and insect species are lost to deforestation every day – a huge negative when over 25 per cent of pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients and less than one per cent of its trees and plants have been tested. The population of Amazonian Rainforest Indians has fallen from around ten million to 200,000, and 90 indigenous tribes were lost in the 20th century alone.