Rainforest Conservation: The Human-Environment Relationship

I. Introduction

Rainforest conservation has been a hot topic for years. As the impacts of human actions have become more well-known, sustainable initiatives to promote healthy conservation within our tropical ecosystems have grown. However, many threats continue to be posed on these precious havens that continue to produce serious consequences to humans and the environment. Many of these threats are human-induced. The primary pressures are deforestation, hunting, fire and climate change which all impose environmental, sociological and economic threats. The following paper will discuss these threats along with a few solutions that can be implemented to begin changing the way people look at tropical conservation.

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II. Threats to Tropical Rainforests

II-A. Deforestation
Deforestation has become a threat on not just a local but a global scale. Land-use change is thought to have the greatest impact on biodiversity in tropical forests (Sala, 2000). As humans clear land to make room for farms and buildings, for construction and heat and to build roads connecting urban areas, tropical rainforests are quickly disappearing. Approximately half of the tropical forest that was present at the beginning of the twentieth century has already disappeared, with peak deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s (Wright, 2005). Deforestation tends to meet human needs but in the end it has profound consequences including social conflict, biodiversity loss and climate change. Even though tropical rainforests make up only 7% of the earth’s land, they are home to almost half of the species on earth. When land is deforested, these unique species of plant and animal often become vulnerable and many times extinct.

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The tropics are a very unique and special place. Within genes of plants in tropical forests there is thought to be one of the greatest un-discovered finding on earth, the cure for cancer and disease. After an area is completely deforested, nutrients in the soil are almost non-existent. After an occurrence such as this, flooding and erosion rates are extremely high and soil is usually unable to support crops for years to come (Lindsey, 2007).

II-B Hunting
The international population affected by loss of tropical forests have responded in the past by putting sustainable practices in place that help with conservation. However, protecting the forests alone is not enough due to over-hunting, which is depleting populations of forest animals that contribute to the tropical circle of life. Loss of these special animals threatens the entire tropical forest ecosystem as essential pollinators and dispersers vanish. This phenomenon makes it very hard for the forest to maintain itself and regenerate after a dramatic event. Hunting also negatively affects rural areas where people rely on these animals for food, clothing, income and culture. The meat from these sacred animals provides more than 50 percent of the protein for many tropical forest peoples and is often their livelihood in caring for their families and themselves (Bennett, 2000).

II-C Fire
Fire is a double-edged sword. It can wipe out plants and animals and cause extreme damage to ecosystems, yet it can also be the source of regeneration and nutrient recycling in tropical forests. Fire, the experts say, is nature’s way of recycling the essential nutrients that our planet needs, especially nitrogen. A few types of trees such as the Lodgepole Pine and the Jack Pine thrive with fire in that their cones open up and seeds germinate when exposed to fire. Another tree, the Mountain ash, requires the land completely burnt in order to be exposed to direct sunlight for this species of flowering tree to regenerate. Burning decomposes organic matter into mineral components that causes plants to regrow. This process can also reduce disease in the tropical forest, allowing plants to thrive and species to regenerate. However, fires under extreme weather conditions such as drought and high temperatures can be devastating to all the living left in its path (Gorte, 1995).

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Even though there are positive, naturally occurring effects of forest fires, the impacts of tropical forest fires can have both local and global consequences. Fires can produce local extinctions of plant and animal species that may never come back to life again as well as substantially change the ecosystem functions of soil and hydrology. Forest fires also produce gaseous and particle emissions that impact the composition and functioning of the jet stream and the global atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Tropical forest destruction, through fire, could also spiral our weather systems in new and unpredictable directions (Goldammer, 1997).

Traditionally, humans have started fires intentionally for a specific purpose. For hundreds of years, humans have “played with fire” and altered natural fire routines by changing the frequency and intensity of fires. People have excluded or suppressed fires and changed the nature of the landscape so that a naturally occurring fire will not behave in the same way if it weren’t for human impact. The relationship between humans, fire and forests is a very complex one and has been the subject of numerous studies and reports (Jackson, 1998).

II-D Climate Change
The consequences of climate change on tropical forests are immense. At stake are the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on earth and the most diverse and precious ecosystems in the world. It is no longer a matter of climate change being a “hoax” or a legitimate impact on our world. Climate change is happening, and very quickly. Healthy tropical forests absorb and accumulate large amounts of carbon, helping to regulate temperature and precipitation. When forests are destroyed, this carbon is released into the atmosphere where it contributes to the warming of the earth. Many studies have shown that climate change causes species to shift to higher latitudes and elevations, as environments they have always been a part of be come too hot (Wilson, 2007).

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During photosynthesis, trees, like all green plants, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis. During respiration plants give off very small amounts of carbon dioxide, but in much smaller amounts than is taken in during photosynthesis. Trees for instance, store carbon which allows the tree to grow bigger and bigger. When trees are cut down or burned, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide is the main culprit trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, cutting down trees is a huge contributor to climate change (Union, 2012).

There are many impacts that the threats of deforestation, hunting, fire and climate change can have on the earth. These threats can have a very detrimental effect on the earth if not tended to and looked after properly. So, what should be done? This has been a huge question for years. According to Rhett A. Butler, a scientist from Peru, “the solution must be based on what is feasible, not overly idealistic, and dependent upon developing a new conservation policy built on the principle of sustainable use and development of rainforests. Beyond the responsible development of rainforests, efforts to rehabilitate and restore degraded forest lands along with the establishment of protected areas are key to securing rainforests for the long-term benefits they can provide mankind” (Butler, 2006).

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Works Cited: Had trouble finding sources*

Lindsey, R (2007). NASA: Earth Observatory - Tropical Deforestation http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/
Sala O. E., et al., 2000. Global biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100. Science 287, 1770–1774. http://bit.ly/Q8oMq3
Wright S. J., 2005. Tropical forests in a changing environment. Trends Ecol. Evol. 20, 553–560.
Wright S. J., Stoner K. E., Beckman N., Corlett R. T., Dirzo R., Muller-Landau H. C., Nunez-Iturri G., Peres C. A., Wang B. C. 2007. The plight of large animals in tropical forests and the consequences for plant regeneration. Biotropica 39, 289–291.
Wilson R. J., Davies Z. G., Thomas C. D., 2007. Insects and climate change: processes, patterns and implications for conservation. Insect Conservation Biology (eds Stewart A. J. A., New T. R., Lewis O. T.), ch. 11, pp. 245–279. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.
Bennett, E. and Robinson, J. (2000). The World Bank - Environment Department Papers: Toward Environmentally & Socially Sustainable Development. Biodiversity Series – Impact Studies. “Hunting of Wildlife in Tropical Forests: Implications for Biodiversity & Forest Peoples. http://bit.ly/MHLr0k
R. W. Gorte, 1995. Forest Fires and Forest Health, Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, Congressional Research Service, Report for Congress.*
J. G. Goldammer, R.E. Burgan, P. Cheney, M. A. Fosberg, V. Kelh, J. Roads, A. Simard, & B. J. Stocks, 1997. Early Warning Programme Report on Early Warning for Fire and Other Environmental Hazards, United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction Early Warning Programme,*
A-C. Galtié, 1996. Is El Niño Now A Man-Made Phenomenon? The Ecologist, 1999, March/ April, Vol 29, No2, pp67; quoting H. Zhang, K. McGuffie, & A. Henderson- Sellers, Journal of Climate, 1996, Vol. 9
Jackson, W.J. & Moore, P.F., 1998. The Role of Indigenous Use of Fire in Forest Management and Conservation. In press. International Seminar on Cultivating Forests: Alternative Forest Management Practices and Techniques for Community Forestry. Regional Community Forestry Training Center, Bangkok, Thailand. September, 1998*
Union of Concerned Scientists, 2012. Tropical Forest Association: Tropical Deforestation and Global Warming: A Solution. http://bit.ly/mTXJsv
Butler, R., 2006. Tropical Rainforests: Saving What Remains. “Solutions: How to save tropical rainforests.” http://rainforests.mongabay.com/1001.htm
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