rainforests are the lungs of the world

Green Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Uncertain Future Of Our Rainforests Revealed

8 mins

Indigenous stewardship, plant-based diets and quitting fossil fuels for good are key to safeguarding our remaining rainforests which are the lungs of the planet

The remarkable story of four lost children – aged 13, nine and four, and an 11-month-old baby – who survived for 40 days living on fruit and seeds after their plane crashed in the Colombian Amazon was a very recent reminder that the rainforest really does provide, given the chance. 

Earth’s oldest living ecosystems, rainforests carpet six per cent of the earth’s surface. From Australia’s 180-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest to Borneo’s orangutan-famed Kalimantan Rainforest, they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.

Diversity-rich habitats, our world’s ‘green guardians’ are home to half of all plant and animal species. Humans have a lot to thank them for. Not only do one out of four modern medicines originate from rainforest plants, but these critical carbon sinks  – which remove harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – regulate the planet’s climate; sustaining life not only in the misty jungle, but in our mega metropolises too.

Scientists have reported areas of the Amazon rainforest are emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb, which could trigger the ‘Savannization of the Amazon,’ which would struggle to store the vast amounts of carbon once absorbed by its trees, accelerating the global climate crisis in the process

So why then do we continue to plunder this precious natural resource? Ten football fields’ of tropical forest were destroyed every single minute in 2021 according to non-profit The World Resources Institute (WRI). A crisis that extends far beyond Brazil’s borders, 11 Latin American countries have already torn down their intact forests, while just nine per cent of the Indian island of Sumatra’s native rainforests remain standing.

These irreplaceable living ecosystems continue to be hit hardest by deforestation, which accounts for 20 per cent of all carbon emissions according to the United Nations. Cleared for mineral mining, oil drilling and plantations growing crops like soy, palm oil, corn and cacao, rainforests are razed for big dollars.

Deforestation aerial photo. Rainforest jungle in Borneo, Malaysia, destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations
Rainforest in Borneo, Malaysia is destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations

A first-of-its-kind report by Rainforest Foundation Norway makes for sobering reading, revealing that two thirds of the world’s tropical rainforest are either destroyed or degraded. If we continue at the current rate of deforestation, they will have all but disappeared by the year 2100. Which begs the uncomfortable question: is there still time to reverse the fate of our rapidly disappearing rainforests?

Britain’s Forgotten Rainforests 

Hot ‘n’ steamy jungle comes to mind when we think of rainforests. But this equatorial variety has a cooler cousin that thrives near coastal areas with high rainfall. “It [temperate rainforest] is much rarer than tropical rainforests,” a spokesperson from Britain’s  Devon Wildlife Trust tells The Ethicalist. It’s estimated the world has already lost a staggering 50 per cent of temperate (also known as Atlantic) rainforest.

Devon's rainforest in england
The world has already lost half of its temperate rainforest but now a rainforest will be planted in Devon, England. Photo: Strutt and Parker

‘Native to the British Isles, temperate rainforest once stretched from Cornwall to the West of Scotland,’ DWT’s spokesperson says,’now it covers less than one per cent of the UK.’ The Devon Wildlife Trust is behind the ambitious project to plant a 75-acre temperate rainforest near Totnes, in Devon, by rewilding the site with both native and deciduous trees including oak, birch, rowan, alder, willow and hazel. 

As well as sequestering thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and supporting flood resilience, rarer species like pine martens and wood warblers will hopefully return after an all too long absence. ‘We aim to create bigger areas of rainforest that are better managed and more connected – the start of a 100-year journey to recreate the lost rainforest of the British Isles and Northern Ireland,’ DWT’s spokesperson says.

Guardians Of Biodiversity

It’s not planting but people that are critical to conserving tropical rainforests. Rather than ousting local communities who’ve lived in harmony with the forest for generations, we should be empowering them Executive Director of NGO The Rainforest Foundation UK Joe Eisen argues.

‘It’s essential that we move away from ‘fortress conservation’ [which restricts local people from residing in protected areas] toward a model that’s founded on the rights of those living on the frontlines of tropical deforestation,’ he tells The Ethicalist.

The indigenous Asháninka of the Peruvian Amazon have shown how ethical cocao can be good for people and the rainforests
The indigenous Asháninka of the Peruvian Amazon have shown how ethical cocao can be good for people and the forests

Cacao may have a bad rap for its industrial-scale plantations that have cleared huge swathes of rainforest in places like Ghana and the Ivory Coast, but this is only half the story. Ethically-made chocolate harvested with shaded agroforestry can reap benefits for both locals and the forest.

‘The indigenous Asháninka of the Peruvian Amazon have shown how this can be done,’ Eisen says. ‘Their award-winning [Rainforest Foundation-supported] cooperative Kemito Ene has both boosted production of forest-friendly cacao to improve the livelihoods of hundreds of families, and enhanced the protection of hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest.’ 

Giving up meat will help the rainforest as cattle ranching accounts for 80 per cent of Brazil’s deforestation. Consuming two plant-based meals a week over the course of a year equates to planting 14 billion trees

Some 6,500 miles away in Africa’s Congo Basin – dubbed the world’s most important rainforest carbon sink – a Rainforest Foundation UK initiative is putting previously ‘invisible’ forest communities on the map, Eisen explains. Their MappingForRights programme ‘has been used by communities in a variety of ways from helping to defend their lands against harmful industries to supporting legal claims to these areas,’ he says. 

mapping rights in the rainforest

Last year, the rights of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Pygmy peoples (DRC’s rainforest hunter-gatherers) were legally recognized. And in another win for indigenous communities and rainforests, Brazil’s newly elected president Lula da Silva formed the country’s first-ever Ministry of Native People in January. 

Amazon Tipping Point?

Home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else in the world, the Amazon Rainforest is twice the size of India and spans nine nations, with 60 per cent lying within Brazil’s borders. Around 30 million people live here, along with one in ten of all known species: from endangered pygmy three-toed sloths to rare orchids. But an onslaught of human activities – from mega dams to mining for gold – threatens to displace them and devastate its biodiversity.

Alarmingly, scientists have reported that some areas of the Amazon rainforest are emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb, which could trigger a tipping point of no return. A much-feared consequence of this is the ‘Savannization of the Amazon,’ whereby its lush rainforest morphs into a scrubby savanna-like ecosystem. This fire-prone environment would struggle not only to support life, but to store the vast amounts of carbon once absorbed by its trees, accelerating the global climate crisis in the process.

So, what can be done? Well, giving up meat is a good place to start. Cattle ranching accounts for more than 80 per cent of Brazil’s deforestation. According to Greenforce(a German food tech start-up), consuming two plant-based meals a week over the course of a year equates to planting 14 billion trees

Paradoxically, it’s a protein-rich legume that’s driving deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon. But rather than being processed for plant-based products, its soy is primarily used for livestock feed in Chinese and European factory farms. 

According to AgFlow data, Britain alone imported over 450,000 tons of Brazilian soybeans last year. Despite an internationally-recognised Soy Moratorium being established in 2006, scores of soya farmers and traders have failed to make good on their zero-deforestation pledges. Greenpeace reported that 400 square miles of rainforest has been felled for Brazilian soy plantations in the past decade. 

But there are glimmers of hope filtering through the forest canopy. President Lula da Silva is making great strides in protecting the Amazon rainforest, or at least what’s left of it. At the UN’s COP27 climate summit he pledged to reach zero deforestation in Brazil by 2030. In the short six months that Da Silva’s been in office, his government evicted nearly all the illegal gold miners in Yanomami: a Portugal-sized indigenous reservation in the Brazilian Amazon. 

But this is a fight that demands an international effort, the world’s largest rainforest provides 20 per cent of earth’s oxygen after all. Encouragingly, Germany donated $38m to the Amazon Fund (set up in 2008 to safeguard its namesake rainforest) earlier this year, while President Biden earmarked $500m towards the cause in April.

For the sake of the scores of remarkable wildlife and indigenous people who call them home, as well as our warming planet, rainforests must remain firmly rooted in the ground, where they rightfully belong.

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