Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re so accustomed to being surrounded by nature that we take it for granted. We have neatly paved trails with swarms of trees on our right and left, we can drive for miles on end and be surrounded by luscious evergreens and shrubs on either side, or we can go for a hike and see a variety of wildlife before our eyes.
But that wasn’t always the case. Dating back to the middle 1800s, logging removed many old-growth forests in Washington state and surrounding areas. Trees were cut down to produce timber, with Douglas fir and red cedars being the most valuable in building and construction.
Deforestation is a daily reality in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, other parts of Africa, and Eastern Europe. An estimated 18 million acres of forests are cut down each year, roughly the size of the entire country of Panama. To put that in perspective that’s 48 football fields of trees lost every minute.
If this rate of deforestation continues, the world’s rainforests could completely vanish in the next 100 years, along with with most of the world’s species of plants and animals.
Deforestation is the second largest human contributor to global warming, accounting up to 17 percent of all green house gas emissions. Forests are important in reducing these pollutants. They “soak up” all the carbon dioxide that the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation produces. Trees act as safety nets, absorbing about 300 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere released from these greenhouse gases. But every time trees are cut down to produce paper, furniture, roads, homes, or make room for cattle ranching they release toxic pollutants into the air.
Huge oil and gas reserves are popping up in Amazon rainforests in Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Western Brazil. Decades of oil and gas drilling have contaminated ecosystems and exposed indigenous people to health effects from nearby polluted drilling and waste sites, and from eating plants and animals laced with heavy metal and petroleum compounds.
But just because deforestation is not happening in your own “backyard,” doesn’t mean you don’t feel the affects of it. No matter where you are in the world, the health of rainforests affects everyone.
For instance, tropical forests maintain global rainfall and regulate climate patterns worldwide. The Amazon alone produces 50 to 80 percent of its own rainfall through transpiration, a process through which plants trap moisture before releasing it into the atmosphere in the form of mist or clouds. Without rainforests recycling huge quantities of water into the air, rivers, lakes or oceans, droughts would become more widespread.
If more trees are cut down, global weather patterns could become more unstable and extreme. We’re already starting to see the affects of it. Clearing forests in the Amazon region of South America influences rainfall in Mexico, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study done by NASA. Similarly, deforestation in Central Africa affects precipitation patterns in the upper and lower U.S. Midwest region.
On top of that, rainforests also produce 25 percent of the plants used to make modern medicine. For instance, medicines used to treat leukemia and malaria are among many that come exclusively from plants in the rainforest. Also, some of the food we consume – whether it’s coffee, bananas, lemons, oranges, pineapples, or peanuts – come from tropical forests.
If we want to see the survival of our rainforests in the next 100 years, nations governments have to come together and collaborate. Fortunately, we’re already starting to see some of that. The Global Restoration Initiative is working with governments and international partners to restore our world’s degraded landscapes. For instance, there is a country-led effort to restore 20 million hectares of land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020. Similarly, 100 million hectares of land in Africa will be restored by 2030.
Rainforests matter. It’s about time we acknowledge the detrimental effects of deforestation.