Practical Issues > Health - Index > Planet

The Predicament of Tropical Rainforests:
 why they must be saved

Written in 1994. Permission given to reproduce freely.

Table Of Contents




    Species Diversity


    Rainforest Soil

    Deforestation Effects

    The Rates of Destruction

    International Development

    Rainforest Beef

    The Scourge of Subsistence Farming


    Rainforest Countries' Debt

    What we can do




    The destruction of the tropical rainforests and the inherent species extinction is one of the greatest threats to civilization. The genetic, pharmacological and industrial benefits of preserving the rainforests far exceed all current benefits of destroying it for cash. The rainforests of the world have existed for tens of millions of years, and this has allowed millions of species to evolve; unfortunately, many of the three-quarters of the world's species in the rainforest may perish before they are discovered. Action must be taken quickly: farming, ranching and logging are destroying or damaging the rainforests so fast there is very little time to save them -- most rainforest will be damaged or destroyed by 2025.



    The rainforest is composed of two layers: the floor and the canopy. Contrary to popular perception,[1] the floor of the rainforest is not covered with impenetrable bush -- it is easy walking, with only trees and the occasional vine growing up from the ground. It is quite shady, as only one-tenth of the sun's brilliance reaches the ground.[2] Most of the activity of the rainforest is centred in the canopy, or a continuous covering of tree-tops that starts over one hundred feet above the ground.

    Two-thirds of the way up the tree, the canopy starts.[3] Lianas, or vines grow up and down trees and across the canopy, each intertwined with several trees. When one tree falls, several are pulled down with it because of the linking vines.[4] The canopy contains almost all of the plant and animal life of the rainforest. The tree branches are covered with epiphytes, which are plants that do not harm the tree but simply live on it. Many animals live in the canopy, mainly insects and birds.

    On the forest floor, the trees are supported by buttresses, triangular plates of hard wood that serve as anchors during tropical storms.[5] Rainforest trees do not have deep roots, as the soil is very poor. The soil is very poor because of its age and the high number of soil organisms -- in one square metre of leaf litter, 800 ants belonging to fifty species were found.[6] As it is always summer in the rainforest, trees do not lose all their leaves at once, but instead are constantly growing new ones as they drop off old ones.[7] The leaf litter is very thin, and just barely enough to conceal the soil.[8]

    There is almost no wind in the rainforest. When a storm is raging above, the wind speed on the forest floor is only 1/100 the speed of the wind above the canopy.[9] This is why up to 94% of rain forest trees depend on fruit-eating mammals, such as bats, for dispersing their seeds.[10] These seeds are large, such as those in peaches and plums, because tree seedlings need lots of food to survive in the poor soil.



    There are two main types of rainforests: equatorial and tropical moist rainforests. Equatorial rainforest, of which two-thirds of the world's rainforest is composed,[11] is found bordering the equator in Brazil, Zaire and Southeast Asia. It doesn't have any seasons, as the temperature (an average of 27 degrees Celsius)[12] and the rainfall are the same year-round. The rainfall is so high in equatorial rainforest that living there is very uncomfortable, as the annual precipitation is several metres. Tropical moist forests are found north and south of equatorial rainforests, and have a noticeable dry and wet season.

    The rain of the rainforest comes from the rainforest itself: From morning to noon, the trees transpire hundreds of litres of water as the sun heats the forest. This water forms large cumulonimbus clouds that let loose a thunderstorm by three o'clock in the afternoon that lasts one to two hours. Approximately 1/2 to 3/4 of the rain that falls on the rainforest stays on the leaves of the tallest trees in the canopy, where it evaporates the next day to fall again as rain.[13] This is an example of a vertical water cycle: if the forest were to be removed, much less rain would fall and would become a desert. "If half the Amazon jungle was cleared, the existence of the remaining forest will be threatened by decreased rainfall."[14]


    Species Diversity

    In one typical hectare of Amazonia, there may be two hundred tree species, but as many as half of those trees may be different just one kilometre away.[15] As species are not spread uniformly throughout the rainforest, the survival of a species can be threatened very easily. There are many species of trees in the rainforest, but the individual species may have only one or two members per hectare. Other plants, such as orchids, were discovered and named decades ago and have not been discovered since.

    This means that most tropical rainforest species are rare, and can be wiped out locally when an area is exploited.[16] Animals usually cannot move on when their habitat is removed -- the fig genus, the most widespread in the tropics, is composed of more than 900 species, each of which is pollinated by its own species of wasp.[17] If a fig tree is cut down, and there are no fig trees of the wasp's species nearby, the wasps will die.

    Much of the earth was covered with rainforest 45 million years ago, so the survival techniques of all the plants in the rainforest have been developing for a long time.[18] We are one species of about perhaps thirty million, of which 15 to 24 million species live in the rainforest.[19] This number covers a wide range because not very many rainforest species have been identified. This number is based on the number of new species found every time a survey of rainforest species is taken.

    When communities of plants become cut off from another during ice ages or other natural events, they tend to evolve into new species. Borneo is more mountainous than Amazonia, so it has more species per unit area.[20] If a species exists only in one region, it is said to be endemic to that region. The moist forests of Sri Lanka has the highest level of endemism in Asia, with over 800 flowering plant species discovered there and nowhere else.[21] The highest level of endemism in Amazonia is where it borders upon the foothills of the Andes. These areas have one of the highest rainfalls and some of the most fertile soils, which promote the abundance of species. Unfortunately, the rich soils also attract shifted cultivators, who quickly destroy the rainforest.[22]

    As equatorial rainforest grows at the same rate year-round, no growth rings form in the wood. This means that the life cycle of rainforest trees is almost impossible to determine, and it is not known how long it takes rainforest to regenerate. However, 600 years ago most of the rainforest around Angkor Wat, an ancient city in Cambodia, was cleared. The secondary rainforest that grew up around it is still different from the primary rainforest that surrounds it.[23]



    The huge diversity of insects in the rainforest means that rainforest plants have to defend themselves with different chemicals that act as natural insecticides. These chemicals work just as well as synthetic insecticides, and are less toxic to humans and animals. These natural insecticides can be manufactured and used on domestic crops.

    When a major disease strikes a major food crop, such as tomatoes, it results in an economic disaster. The best way to prevent such a disaster is to return to the original rainforest plants, which maintain their resistance to disease, as the new, improved varieties lose their original protective compounds. Every five to fifteen years, crop breeders must re-breed the wild plants with the domesticated crops to strengthen the crops. In the last fifty years, genes from wild rainforest plants have been used to save a number of important crops, including coffee, sugar-cane, cacao, manioc, and bananas.[24]

    The rainforest contains over 2000 different fruits, but only a dozen are well- known.[25]  

    The Supermarket of the Rainforest:



    Coffee first came from the beans of a plant from the understory of the Ethiopian rainforest.

    Tea is made from the leaves of a southeast Asian plant.

    Chocolate comes from the beans of the Amazonian cacao plant.

    Oranges, bananas, papayas, mangoes, grapefruit, and pineapples were originally found growing wild in the rainforest.

    Ginger, black pepper, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika are spices originally found growing wild in the rainforest.

    Corn, peanuts, sugar-cane, rice, eggplant, tomatoes, and manioc, the source of tapioca.[26]
    Approximately 1/4 of all prescription drugs come from rainforest plants.[27] This fraction could be significantly increased if wide surveys were to be undertaken of rainforest plants for medicinal properties. An easy way to find medicinal plants is to talk to rainforest tribes, as they have accumulated knowledge about their surroundings for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, these tribes are being rapidly converted to Western culture and lose their knowledge in the process.

    There are many sustainable industrial uses of the rainforests, including rattans, essential oils, and latex. Rattan furniture is made from lianas, and is one of the few sustainable exports of the rainforest -- they are Southeast Asia's second most valuable export after timber.[28] Essential oils are extracted from almost any part of a plant and are found in perfumes, shaving cream, shampoos, and cosmetics in general.[29] Latexes originated in the rainforest; they include chicle gum, which is found in chewing gum, and rubber. Natural rubber is superior and cheaper than synthetic rubber, which is made from fossil fuels.

    When fossil fuels run out in thirty years, plants will already have taken over production of gasoline and other fuels, if large plantations are created. There are two ways to convert plants into fuel: through processing by composting or heating organic matter to produce alcohols, or to tap the sap of trees directly. Plants store energy in their tissues either as carbohydrates like sugar or hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel.

    A tree in central Amazonia can be directly tapped for its hydrocarbon fluid. This sap has a chemical composition so close to diesel fuel that it can be used directly as diesel fuel. "One hectare of 250 mature trees might produce 60 barrels of fuel per year."[30] Another tree, the petroleum nut tree, produces nuts that contain a very volatile oil that the Japanese used in World War II as tank fuel. These sources of fuel could remove the need of Third World countries to import fossil fuels, which is the largest import.

    The mentioned sustainable pharmacological and industrial uses of the rainforest only hint at the potential uses of the rainforest; there are many more to be discovered.


    Rainforest Soil

    In temperate forests, such as those of BC, a thick layer of debris forms and turns into soil over thousands of years, while in a rainforest, recycling is so fast, the leaf litter is never more than a few inches thick.[31] In temperate forests, 95% of the forest's nutrients are contained in the soil,[32] while 75-90% of the nutrients of an area of tropical rain forest are in the vegetation.[33]

    Only one twenty-fifth of the land in Amazonia has good agricultural soil, and three-quarters of Amazonia's land is so poor that a farmer is lucky to get one monoculture crop out of the land before it is completely exhausted.[34] Settlers tend to cut the largest trees, thinking that the soil is the most fertile there, but the rainforest natives know that the places where the trees have thin trunks often have the best soil.[35]

    This infertile soil has caused the trees to develop a highly efficient system of capturing nutrients. Tree roots extend up to 100 metres along the ground from the tree trunk and form a root mat 30 centimetres thick. This mat can capture over 99% of the nutrients that fall on it within weeks.[36]

    Rainforest soil is permanently damaged by erosion by water, the baking of the soil by sunlight, and the loss of mycorrhizal fungi through the dehydration of the soil.[37] The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with trees, and every ranforest tree species may have its own fungus. They enable the tree to absorb more minerals from the soil, in exchange for energy. These fungi are the same ones as those connected to the mushrooms seen in temperate forests - the bulk of the mushroom is in tiny filaments that surround the tree's roots. Until the fungi come back, the trees cannot grow there, and the fungi will not grow in the warmer and drier soil. The degraded soil is taken over by coarse grasses and other hardy species.[38]


    Deforestation Effects

    People generally don't worry about the environmental effects of their actions on others. In Nepal, deforestation in the foothills of the Himalayas has led to drastic flooding In Bangladesh:


    Because the rainforest is a giant sponge that absorbs vast amounts of rain, it prevents floods. When the rainforests have been destroyed, great amounts of water are lost in floods. Because the water washes away so quickly, the soil cannot absorb it. In addition, flooding water carries away huge quantities of topsoil and deposits it as silt in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Worst of all, in some deforested areas, floods kill many people every year. .... When rainforests covered the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains to the north, the flooding of the Ganges was predictable and restricted.... But now these rainforests are largely gone, and during the rainy season, raging floods go out of control and kill hundreds of people every year.[39]
    When large hydro dams are built in the rainforest, little thought is given to the effects of sedimentation. Invariably, when a large hydro dam is built, shifted cultivators move in on the roads to the dam and deforest the watershed around the dam. This leads to erosion and the dam fills up much quicker than expected, decreasing its useful life-span and causing it to be uneconomical. The trees in the area to be flooded are usually not cut. This not only wastes money, but the trees rot slowly, emitting poisonous gases and causing the water to become acidic, harming crops and aquatic life downstream form the dam.

    The rainforests are often referred to as "the lungs of the earth." This is an incorrect metaphor, and gives the false impression that the rainforests absorb carbon dioxide. Rainforests are already at a climax vegetation, where no more carbon can be stored, even though they are one of the main stocks of the earth's carbon.[40] If the rainforests were destroyed, the excess carbon would contribute significantly to the Greenhouse Effect, as they contain an amount of carbon equal to almost half of the carbon in the atmosphere.[41]


    The Rates of Destruction

    Tropical rainforests cover about seven percent of the world's inhabitable land.[42] There are two ways to calculate the remainder of rainforest: by the total amount of forest, and by the total amount of undisturbed, or primary forests. The following chart contains the total area of forest in 1992, which is much less today:
    Area of forest Share of Name of area Main Countries
    (million km2) forest
    3.7 1/2 [43] Amazon Basin Brazil, Peru, Bolivia,Venezuela
    1.5 1/5 [44] Southeast Asia Indonesia, Malaysia,Philippines
    1.2 1/6 [45] Congo River basin Zaire and the Congo
    1.0 1/7 Miscellaneous Mexico, Guatemala,Nicaragua
    7.4 [46] (now 7.0) Total Brazil

    Before the industrial age, there were 13 million square kilometres of rainforest. Including two million square kilometres of secondary forest,[47] there are 7.0 million square kilometres of rainforest still standing today.[48] To put this in perspective, BC contains roughly one million square kilometres.

    1.8 million square kilometres of rainforest are preserved in parks and reserves.[49] There are two problems with the one-quarter of rainforests in preserves. Parks staff are underpaid and outnumbered by intruders, and can't prevent timber poachers and shifted cultivators from entering. The other problem is that the preserved areas were not selected for high levels of biodiversity -- they were selected for dramatic scenery or location.


    At these rates, which may accelerate, all primary rainforest will be destroyed or degraded in less than 30 years, at 3% per year, or by the year 2025.

        Two acres per second


    43 hectares per minute

    620 square kilometres per day

    0.226 million square kilometres per year.[50]
    Satellite photos reveal that Brazil is ablaze with as many as 7,000 fires at once. In 1975, only one percent of all forest in Amazonia had been destroyed. Today well over ten percent is gone.[51] This degradation is caused mainly by slash and burn agriculture, which accounts for somewhere between 60-70% of worldwide rainforest destruction every year.[52] Logging accounts for 15% [53] and cattle ranching for around 5% of rainforest destruction worldwide. The number for cattle ranching is deceptive: Cattle raising is the main reason for the destruction of Latin America's tropical forests,[54] as over 72% of cleared forest in Latin America is used for cattle ranching.[55]


    The scale of destruction of Brazil's forests is illustrated by the state of Rondonia at the upper reaches of the Amazon. Between 1975 and 1986, Rondonia's population exploded from 111,000 to over one million. (Try to imagine the disruptive consequences of a tenfold increase in people in a city or province in only ten years.) In 1975, almost 1,250 square kilometres of the state's forest were cleared. By 1982, this had grown to more that 10,000 and by late 1985 to about 17,000 square kilometres. That's over ten percent of the state's forests, and the rate of deforestation continues to climb.[56]

    International Development

    The Brazilian constitution guarantees native people the land they occupy the exclusive use of all its natural resources, but guarantees are only good if they are respected. "Over half of the tribes haven't even had their territory recognized or delineated, yet development and occupation are already taking place in their lands."[57]

    All of the offences against North American Indians by Europeans are practiced against the native tribes of the rainforest. The same ugly pattern of offering trinkets, introducing diseases, cultural genocide and ignoring land claims continues to this day in the Amazon as new tribes are discovered in the rainforest. The laws of Brazil and other rainforest countries give these tribes special rights and protection, but there are no systems in place to assure rainforest tribes of those rights.

    One third of the world's population depends on firewood as a main source of energy. One-half of all wood cut worldwide is used as fuel, and more than four- fifths of this amount is cut in the developing world. At least 1.5 billion people in the Third World have difficulty finding enough fuelwood and can only get what they need by overcutting the remaining forests.[58] A lack of fuelwood results in undercooked food, which may contain parasites. This problem can be reduced by improving the efficiency of stoves. A typical Third World stove can deliver only ten percent of the wood's energy to the food, while simple design changes costing a few dollars can cut the heat loss by two-fifths.[59]

    There is hope in the form of a small bush which grows very rapidly, producing lots of fuelwood. The callandria bush binds the soil with an extensive root system, preventing erosion, and as it is a legume it revitalizes exhausted soils. Callandria is also good livestock fodder.[60] This plant, and many other fast-growing species like it could be spread around the tropics of the world, relieving the stress on original forests of all types.


    Rainforest Beef

    The US contains one-twentieth of the world's population and is responsible for importing about one-third of all internationally traded beef, so this chapter will concentrate on the US, the world's largest producer and consumer of beef.[61] Although it was not determined whether Canada imports unprocessed rainforest beef, as it seems highly improbable, Canada nevertheless imports rainforest beef by buying convenience foods from the US and Brazil, such as corned beef.

    The typical cattle rancher acquires land for next to nothing, either from the government or for about $110 per hectare from subsistence farmers who have already cleared part of the land.[62] If the farmer does not want to leave, "it remains common in the Amazon for businessmen to employ pistoleiros (hired gunmen) to get land for them. A few hundred dollars puts ten or twelve armed men at your disposal."[63] Once the area to be ranched is "acquired," the cattle rancher cuts and burns all the trees. The area is then planted with grass, establishing the ranch.

    Immediately after a ranch is established, it can sustain one cow per hectare; after five years, it can sustain only one cow per every five hectares. Former rainforest converted to pasture is quickly and permanently exhausted of nutrients, as the bare soil allows the very heavy rain to wash them away (some areas have over 3.5 metres of annual rainfall.)[64] This means that ranches can become unprofitable after only a few years; this is no problem for the ranchers, as they simply acquire a new patch of undisturbed forest.

    As the price of ground beef is considered to be the main cause of inflation in the US, beef amounting to one percent of all US beef consumption is imported into the US from Central America, and this keeps the price of beef about a nickel per pound cheaper than it would be otherwise.[65]

    There is a large environmental cost to the importing of rainforest beef: a single 1/4 lb burger produced on a rainforest ranch requires the permanent destruction of seven square metres of rainforest.[66] Cattle raising is the main reason for the destruction of Latin America's tropical forests,[67] as it uses 72 percent of the cleared forest areas,[68] and there isn't much time left -- 66 percent of the rainforests of Central America have been converted to tropical grassland.[69] Cattle in Central America are raised on grass, so the meat is very lean, unlike the marbled meat of North American grain-fed cattle. This lean beef is only good for the increasing fast-food and processed-meat markets in the US, so "the demand for cheap, lean beef is unlikely to slacken."[70] Fast food chains can claim that they use only domestic beef. The may appear to be true, but they may unwittingly be using rainforest beef because the US Department of Agriculture categorizes imported beef as domestic beef before it is released on the open market.[71]

    Heavily subsidized by government, cattle ranchers in Brazil own huge blocks of land -- though less than one percent of all landowners own property over 10 square kilometres, this small group occupies half of the available farmland.[72] The situation is just as bad in Guatemala, where 2.2% of the population owns seventy percent of the agricultural land. Well over half of Central America's rural families own no land or too little to support themselves. Land reform could redistribute some of the agricultural land among the landless peasants, as happened after the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, and reduce the pressure of these impoverished peasants into lowland forest zones.[73] The reason that governments do not redistribute land is mainly because of politics and culture:


    To own land and cattle fosters both social standing and political power. Ranchers include many professionals, notably government officials, who retire to their country estates on weekends to ride horseback and enjoy an image as gentlemen stock raisers. By contrast with the small-scale peasant, who of necessity must make very intensive use of his small holding, the prestige rancher is often content to use his land in an extensive fashion, which usually means an inefficient and wasteful fashion. Many of these large-scale landholders feel little incentive to intensify their beef-raising methods, especially when they believe there is plenty of untouched forest left "out there." Thus those who control the largest amounts of agricultural lands are those with the least motivation to use it efficiently; and because of their privileged position in the political structure, they are unlikely to meet serious opposition.[74]
    There are several ways to reduce the amount of rainforest destruction caused by cattle ranching. The easiest way would be to eliminate imports of rainforest beef, which is only one percent of total beef consumed. The US could use its influence to persuade ranchers to become much more efficient and sustainable through better management. "Beef exporters could be obliged to demonstrate that they raise their cattle on already established pastures, not on newly cleared forest lands."[75] More land could be conserved in reserves through international pressure, reducing the amount of land available for ranching.

    As long as businessmen of Latin America and Brazil see cattle ranching as a prestigious activity, and the demand for rainforest beef from the US and Europe continues to exist, ranching will continue to destroy the rainforest. An irony is that Brazil could meet its people's entire animal protein needs if it were to fish the Amazon River system, which has over 2000 known species of fish.[76]


    The Scourge of Subsistence Farming

    By far the number one factor in disruption and destruction of tropical forests is the small-scale farmer [shifted cultivator]. In strong contrast to the next two most significant contributors to forest depletion, that is the timer logger and the cattle raiser, the farmer sees no alternative to what he is doing. He simple does not believe that there is any other means available for him to gain a livelihood. Being much more numerous, moreover, than the timber logger, the cattle raiser, and the fuelwood cutter combined, he affects much larger areas of forest.[77]
    There are two types of subsistence farmers, or slash-and-burn cultivators in the rainforest: natives who have lived in an area of rainforest for several thousand years, and landless peasants who have recently migrated from the city, where population pressure has prevented them from owning land. In most Latin American countries, the only way to establish legal ownership of land is to prove that it is being used, and the easiest way to do that is to clear it.[78] As mentioned above, these farmers are very numerous: they are roughly five percent of the Earth's population.[79]

    Slash-and-burn rainforest tribes, or shifting cultivators, use the fallow system: they clear an area and farm it until it becomes less fertile, and then plant orange or rubber trees on it. In the ten to twenty-five years or so it takes the rainforest to overrun the orange and rubber trees, the farmer benefits. The field is then ready to be reused as farmland.[80] This is a sustainable form of agriculture, as the same fields can be used every ten to twenty years, and no more primary rainforest is chopped down. These farmers are cutting down the rainforest faster than it can regrow, exhausting the soil.

    Migrant peasants, or shifted cultivators, destroy primary rainforest without knowing how to reclaim it. They farm until the land become less fertile, like shifting cultivators, and burn more forest. The difference is that they do not replant it -- once stripped of its nutrients, a field is allowed to degenerate into scrub, or it is sold to cattle ranchers. The soil is destroyed so effectively that the rainforest will never return.

    In Brazil, from 50% to 90% of the people don't legally own land.[81] These people live mainly in urban areas, and the opportunity of owning land is enough to entice many out into the rainforest, as land is free. The settling of desperately poor peasants from overcrowded cities in the rainforest is both a developmental, environmental and political issue: As the soils of the rainforest are very poor, people can barely maintain a subsistence living, and have very poor living standards as a result of their poverty and isolation.

    The governments refuse to officially admit that these forest farmers exist, and wish that they would just disappear. This is reflected by statistics that deliberately underestimate their numbers.[82] These people are not recognised as citizens because to do so would admit that there was a problem. If the plight of forest farmers (on the forest or of themselves) was made into a political issue, the credibility of the politicians involved would be reduced because of the influence of larger landowners.

    The only way to solve the problem of shifted cultivation is to encourage and promote sustainable farming. Farmers don't need to cut down trees if they plant them in multi-species gardens. The trick is to grow plants that support each other, rather than compete with each other. Farmers would grow leguminous plants among their other crops, such as climbing beans, clovers, and various trees and shrubs, because these plants `fix' nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil, fertilizing the plants around them.[83]

    No area in such a plot is covered with just one species: the garden would supply all of the farmer's needs, from food to medicinal herbs to fuelwood. "The main secret of the multi-storied structure is that it efficiently exploits the sun's energy through plants of many forms that absorb light and warmth in many ways."[84] If this type of farming is done correctly, the patch of forest need never wear out. The farmer does not get as much cash with this system as he does with monoculture crops, but he would be much more self-sufficient and never wear the forest out. If he needed cash for utensils and other essentials, he could grow cash crops between the other plants in his garden.

    The problem are that farmers may be resistant to this type of farming, as they are so used to the monoculture farming of more temperate lands, and it requires a lot of work to teach farmers to farm in this way. A great deal of international effort is needed to halt the problems of shifted cultivation. This would be found in the form of volunteers and international pressure on governments to teach farmers how to plant multi-species gardens.



    Third World countries' need for hard currency is the main reason to log the rainforests, as most of the logs are exported to First World countries. Ironically, developing nations pay almost half of their total earnings from tropical hardwood exports for paper pulp,[85] as they buy their wood chips back as pulp. Almost two- thirds of paper pulp produced is manufactured into packaging materials, tissues, and convenience products such as paper cups and plates.[86]

    Japan is heavily dependent on foreign sources of wood chips: it seeks about half of its sources overseas.[87] If US and Canadian softwood chip prices increase, Japan and Europe will turn to Southeast Asia and tropical America for hardwood chips. Canada's forests are only a few thousand years old and will disappear under ice during the next ice age in twenty thousand years. Some forests of southeast Asia have existed continuously for seventy million years, or since the days of the dinosaurs.[88]

    It could take hundreds of thousands of years for new species to evolve if the rain forest was cut down, while most species in Canada are not endemic: they migrated north as the ice melted away at the end of the Ice Age. Therefore, B.C.'s forests are more disposable than the rain forest (when examined purely on fragility and biodiversity.) B.C.'s forests are no less beautiful than the rainforest, so it will be hard to convince people that B.C.'s forests are any less valuable than the rainforest.

    Almost all exploiters of tropical forests could get what they need from secondary, or disturbed, forests alone if plantations were established. This would make more sense in the long run, as secondary forests grow much faster and can tolerate disruption more than primary forest.[89]

    Naturally, logging is widespread in regions where human numbers are higher. Logging roads open up a previously uninhabitable area to landless peasants. The peasants, used to soil and rain of drier, more fertile climates, practice such intensive slash-and-burn agriculture that the forest has no chance of recovery. The peasants, wiping all species except for the crops they grow off their piece of land, damage the rainforest much more than the logger does.[90]

    Because the trees are worth, on average, $20 000 of foreign exchange per hectare, and since the majority of people in rainforest countries are impoverished, it is hard to argue in favour of the rainforest.[91] However, poverty and the need for foreign exchange are the two main reasons that the rainforest is destroyed. There is an alternative method to selective logging called "full forest harvesting," whereby all the branches of a tree are chipped up and turned into pulp and then paper. The chipping machine can reduce an average-sized tree, branches and all, into chips, each about the size of a dollar coin, in about one minute.[92] This means that a smaller area of rainforest is destroyed, but it is destroyed permanently. Felling one tree with selective logging can fatally damage up to seventeen other trees. In the end, up to 70% of the rainforest in a selective logging area is destroyed for the sake of a few trees.[93] Selective logging leaves a damaged, but still existing, secondary rainforest, with a slight chance of eventual recovery. The problem with taking all the wood in the tree, and not just the trunk of the tree, is that trees store most of their nutrients in their extremities rather than their trunks.[94] When the whole tree is removed, almost all of the nutrients are removed from that patch of rainforest, as almost all of the nutrients in a patch of rainforest are stored in the tree.[95]

    Tropical hardwoods constitute only one-seventh of global trade in all forest products,[96] but most tropical hardwood is exported as raw logs: high tariffs on imported finished products and a lack of cash to buy the processing equipment remove the incentive to process tropical hardwood. Rainforest countries would cut down less primary forest, have more jobs, and get three times as much foreign exchange if they processed raw logs rather than shipping them to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.[97]

    Both of these obstacles are caused directly by the First World. The superficial reason to put tariffs on imports of processed wood is to protect industries and jobs, but the real reason is to keep Third World currency undervalued so that the Third World debt can never be paid off.


    Rainforest Countries' Debt

    One of the main reasons for inaction on the part of the Third World countries to save their rainforests is their massive debts. In 1970, Third world countries owed about US$72 billion[98] to foreign lenders; today, they owe approximately $1.3 trillion.[99] Two so-called "development" agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are forcing Third World countries, mainly Latin America and Brazil, to destroy their rainforests to reduce their debt. The World Bank has suggested to Brazil to "bring under control and management" 50 000 square kilometres,[100] or 1.4%, of its rainforest.

    However, the Third World debt can never be paid off even if the rainforests are completely liquidated:[101] Brazil spends over 40% of the money it earns on exports on the yearly interest on its foreign debt, which totals over $100 billion.[102] This has come at the expense of social programs, which are the first thing that these agencies cut -- it's a hard fact of life that the ideals of socialism and high finance don't mix.

    The debt was created in the first place when various countries borrowed money to build expensive mega-projects and to gain military power. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund built the Trans-Amazon Highway right through the middle of Amazonia for $457 million[103] -- which failed miserably, because shifted cultivators moved in along it instead of more "profitable" enterprise, such as cattle ranching.

    The World Bank has planned to build 125 hydroelectric dams in Amazonia by the year 2010, which would flood 2300 square kilometres of rainforest.[104] The problem with hydro dams in the rainforest, besides the obvious destruction of forest, is that settlers move in on the roads built to service the dams and strip the surrounding hills of vegetation. The loss of soil causes erosion. That silts up the dam, which decreases its capacity. That cuts the expected lifetime of the dam in half or less, and the costs of building the dam are not recovered. This allows the development agencies to loan even more money to the countries for the purpose of more capital projects, and the amount of power that they have over the Third World country's economy increases.

    The reader may wonder from where all this money comes. It doesn't come from governments, but from government-regulated banks and trust companies. All six major Canadian banks are contributors to a commercial bank loan of $5.2 billion to Brazil.[105] One sees advertisements such as "Latin America growth funds" in the newspaper advertising bonds that pay 17-20% -- these bonds are loans to companies to "develop" the rainforest in Latin America. This means that the reader may be unwittingly loaning money through their RRSP or bank account to Third World countries to destroy their rainforest.

    One of the developing nations' most critical needs is to get rid of their debt and improve their economies. Without that, the need to destroy rainforest for debt payment will not end. One way the First World can improve these countries' economies is to help them reduce their debt.[106] One can do this by petitioning the main six banks of Canada to stop loaning money to Third World countries for any non-sustainable use of the rainforest. Another more effective way is for non- profit groups to purchase debt from Third World countries in what are called "debt-for-nature" swaps:


    The Nature Conservancy, A US-based nonprofit group .... bought $5.6 million of Costa Rica's debt for $784,000 from American Express Bank. The Conservancy will then turn this money into Costa Rican currency bonds worth $1.7 million. The group expects these bonds to pay an average of 25% a year over five years, yielding more than $3 million for Costa Rican national parks.[107]

    What we can do

    The best thing one can do about the rainforest is to educate themselves and others about the value and potential of the rainforest. The next thing to do is to write to one's representatives and tell them that you want them to support legislation and/or international pressure on other countries to stop rainforest destruction. If it were made illegal for the large banks of Canada to loan money to rainforest countries for the purpose of hydroelectric dams, and if payments on the debt owed by rainforest countries was conditionally deferred, these countries would be much more likely to preserve their rainforest.

    Obviously, one should discontinue buying non-renewable rainforest products, and buy renewable rainforest products if possible. However, the Japanese company that used rainforest cardboard to package one's VCR will continue doing so unless they are told to stop -- it is not good enough to have no mahogany furniture and be satisfied with that - much more, in the form of protest letters, can be done.

    The reason that people, whether a lowly migrant peasant from the city or the CEO of a multinational corporation, choose to destroy their environment is that they see no value in the rainforest as it stands, and do not understand its importance -- as the rainforest is alien to them, they can only see dollar signs or next year's crop. If people can only have a reason, whether emotional or financial, to keep the rainforest as it stands, that can overrule all other reasons for cutting down the rainforest, they will fight for its survival.


    The End

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    End Notes:

      The reason that most people see the rainforest as an impenetrable tangle of vegetation is that explorers traditionally explored forest regions by boat along waterways, where the forest receives lots of sunlight, which causes lots of tangled vegetation. Footnote: as #2, below.

      Norman Myers, The Primary Source (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984) 29.

      Linda Feldmann, "A Third World Debt-For-Nature Swap," Christian Science Monitor, Jan 18, 1989: p.7. Back to top

      Work Cited

      Caldicott, Helen. If you love this planet: a plan to heal the earth. New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Co, 1982.

      Caulfield, Catherine. In the Rainforest. London: Pan Books, 1986.

      Feldmann, Linda. "A Third World Debt-For-Nature Swap." Christian Science Monitor, (Jan 18, 1989, p.7.) SIRS, The Atmosphere Crisis, vol. 1, article #21.

      Meyer, Christian, ed. and Moosang, Faith, ed. Living With The Land. Gabriola Is, BC: New Society Publishers, 1992.

      Mohawk, John. "Rainforest Ecomyopia: Extinction is Forever." DAYBREAK, (Spring 1988, p 32.) SIRS, The Atmosphere Crisis, vol. 1, article #21.

      Myers, Norman. The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and our Future. New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Co, 1984.

      Raven, Peter. "Tropical Deforestation." The Science Teacher, (September 1988, p 80-7.) SIRS, The Atmosphere Crisis, vol. 1, article #47.

      Suzuki, David. Inventing The Future. Toronto: Stoddart, 1989.

      Warburton, Lois. Rainforests. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1991.

      Wolf, Edward C. "Survival of the Rarest." World Watch, (March/April 1991, pp. 12-20.) SIRS, Life Science, 1991, article #65.

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