Why rainforests matter
Rainforests, dense tropical or subtropical forests with over 2,000 mm of annual rainfall, are critical for our planet’s health. They house immense biodiversity, act as carbon sinks, regulate the water cycle, and offer economic resources. Despite their significance, they face severe threats, including deforestation, agriculture expansion, infrastructure development, and hunting. Organizations can help protect rainforests by providing financial support to NGOs, fostering sustainable supply chains, raising awareness, reducing their carbon footprint, and investing in green initiatives. Collaboration and systemic efforts have previously proven effective in reducing deforestation, as seen in the Brazilian Amazon.
In an age of urban sprawl and technological advancements, there are still places on Earth that stand as a testament to nature’s untouched splendour. Imagine walking into the heart of a rainforest, enveloped by a symphony of sounds—from the chorus of birds to the whisper of wind through leaves. It’s like stepping into a grand conference of nature’s most elite, where the agenda is the future of our planet. For any individual, recognizing and championing the significance of rainforests becomes more than an ecological responsibility. It becomes a call to protect our world’s climatic equilibrium.
What is a rainforest?
A rainforest is a dense, tropical or subtropical forest that receives a high amount of rainfall throughout the year, typically more than 2,000 mm (about 79 inches) annually. Rainforests are characterised by their tall, broad-leaved evergreen trees, which form a multi-layered canopy. Due to their location around the equator, they maintain a warm and consistent temperature range, rarely dropping below 20°C (68°F).
There are two types of rainforests we should be aware of. The first is tropical rainforests, which are found close to the equator. These rainforests experience warm temperatures year-round and have the greatest species diversity. The second is temperate rainforests, which are located further from the equator, have cooler temperatures, and receive heavy rainfall. They are found in parts of North America, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Rainforests play a critical role in the health and functioning of our planet for several reasons.
To start with, rainforests are home to more than half of the world’s plant and animal species. Many of these species are found nowhere else on Earth. This biodiversity is not only a source of wonder but also crucial for ecosystem resilience, potential medicinal compounds, and genetic resources.
The trees in rainforests absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow. This carbon sequestration process makes rainforests vital in combating climate change. When these forests are destroyed or degraded, stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere, intensifying global warming.
They’re the world’s water cycle regulators. Through the process of transpiration, rainforests contribute to the global water cycle. Trees release water vapour into the atmosphere, leading to cloud formation and rainfall, which can influence weather patterns both locally and globally. Their dense canopy also regulates temperatures and humidity levels and influences local and regional climates.
Rainforests also have economic benefits. Over a billion people directly rely on rainforests for their livelihoods. Rainforests provide food, medicine, timber, and other resources. Indigenous communities, in particular, have lived in and around these forests for millennia, with their cultures and traditions deeply rooted in these ecosystems. Many modern medicines have been derived from rainforest plants. Given the vast number of species yet to be studied, rainforests hold potential for future medicinal discoveries.
Rainforests, despite their vital importance to the planet, face multiple threats. Many of these are anthropogenic, resulting from human activities.
Vast areas of rainforests are being cleared to meet the global demand for wood, paper, and agricultural land. Large swaths of forest are often cut down or burned, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even in areas designated as protected, illegal logging can be rampant, driven by the high demand for tropical hardwoods.
In countries like Brazil, large portions of the Amazon rainforest are cleared to make way for cattle ranching. Rainforests are also cleared to cultivate crops such as soybeans, palm oil, rubber, and cocoa. The demand for palm oil, in particular, has led to significant deforestation in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Roads, highways, and dams built for transport or hydroelectric projects can fragment habitats and provide easier access for illegal activities like logging and hunting. In some countries, land ownership laws encourage deforestation. Land is cleared and claimed (often for agriculture) to establish de facto ownership, which can later be sold at a profit.
Over-hunting of certain species can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem. In some cases, animals are hunted to extinction, which can have cascading effects on the food chain and habitat. Non-native plants, animals, or pathogens introduced to rainforests can out-compete, prey on, or bring diseases to native species, often leading to declines or extinctions.
Organisations, regardless of their industry or size, can make significant contributions to rainforest conservation. Their influence can be both direct, through targeted initiatives, and indirect, by shaping corporate culture and consumer behaviour.
The first way is financial support. Organisations can directly fund NGOs, conservation groups, or research projects focused on rainforest protection and restoration. Many conservation groups and tree-planting organisations also offer “adopt an acre” or “adopt a forest” programs where organisations can finance the protection of a specific portion of a rainforest. They can also partner with environmental NGOs or indigenous communities for on-the-ground conservation efforts, and collaborate with other businesses to fund larger conservation projects or create products or services that directly benefit rainforest conservation.
The second way is by setting up sustainable supply chains. Organisations can source responsibly, ensuring that products, especially timber, paper, and certain agricultural goods like palm oil, soy, and beef, are sourced from sustainable and certified suppliers. They can also use organisational influence to encourage suppliers and partners to adopt sustainable practices.
The third is through awareness and advocacy. Organisations can launch campaigns to educate employees, stakeholders, and customers about the importance of rainforests. Just as importantly, they can lobby for stronger environmental policies and regulations at local, national, and international levels.
Reducing carbon footprint is a great way to contribute to saving rainforest ecosystems. This can include investing in carbon offset projects supporting rainforest conservation, reducing waste, promoting recycling, and adopting energy-efficient practices in operations.
Organisations can also put their money where their mouth is by investing in green bonds or in companies that are environmentally responsible. A step further would be to divest from industries or companies that are responsible for significant deforestation or environmental degradation.
Incorporating these strategies requires commitment from organisational leadership and a genuine interest in sustainability. With global awareness of environmental issues at an all-time high, organisations that pitch in to save rainforests not only benefit the environment but also enhance their corporate image and resonate with environmentally conscious consumers.
There is sufficient evidence to prove that organising together and tackling rainforest preservation and conservation systematically can bear fruits.
For example, the Brazilian Amazon experienced intense deforestation during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, largely due to cattle ranching, agriculture, and infrastructure projects. In the mid-2000s, the Brazilian government, under domestic and international pressure, implemented stricter enforcement of environmental laws, established new protected areas, and promoted satellite monitoring of the forest. Additionally, a soy moratorium was adopted, where major traders committed not to buy soybeans linked to recent deforestation. So what happened? Between 2004 and 2012, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon decreased by roughly 80%.
It’s important to note that rainforests are not a Panacea. While they play a significant role, rainforests alone cannot “fix” climate change. A holistic approach, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning to renewable energy sources, and implementing sustainable agricultural practices, is crucial!