Shawn talks about how the rainforest covers just 2% of the Earth's surface, yet houses as many as 30 million species of plants and animals. Fossils found in tropical rainforests indicate they are the Earth's oldest living ecosystems, having existed in their present form for about 70 to 100 million years. Yet, at the current rate of deforestation, scientists estimate that nearly all tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed in the next 30 years.
Tropical rainforests are home to some of the most beautiful, most dangerous, and strangest-looking animals on earth. Somewhere between 50 to 90% of the world's species live in the rainforest; 90% of all non-human primates, 40% of all birds of prey and 80% of the world's insects. A typical four square mile patch of rainforest contains as many as 1500 species of flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 125 mammal species, 400 species of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians, and 150 different species of butterflies. Every hour, six animal and plant species are lost forever.
Rainforests are an invaluable source of medicinal plants and food. One-fourth of the drugs available at the drugstore contain products that come from the rainforest, including aspirin and drugs to treat childhood leukemia, cancer and heart disease. However, less than 1% of the world's tropical forest plants have been tested for pharmaceutical properties. World Rainforest Report no. 26 illustrated the invaluable power of the rainforest when researchers started with gum trees from Malaysia and from the tree, isolated a compound blocking the spread of AIDS in human cells. A team of biologists rushed back to Malaysia for more samples from the tree, only to discover it had been cut down. No identical trees have been found in the surrounding area.
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Tribal people living in the rainforest for thousands of years were the first to discover and use medicinal plants. Living in harmony with the forest, these people know how to find and use wild plants, and know how to farm crops in a sustainable manner. As deforestation occurs at an alarming rate, the more than 1,000 rainforest cultures which still exist face a grim future.
But rainforests are not only essential to the plants, animals and people who live in them, rainforests are essential to everyone on the whole planet. Rainforests play an important role in regulating the Earth's atmosphere. When forests are burned, carbon from the vegetation is released into the air, adding to the greenhouse effect. This has the potential to drastically affect global weather patterns. As a giant reservoir, the rainforest also release water throughout the year to streams and rivers, supporting the lives of billions of people and meeting the needs of 40% of the farmers in the Third World.
Rainforests used to cover 14% of the Earth's land. Now they cover 2%. Most of the rainforest destruction has occurred in the last 50 years, with forests being destroyed at the alarming rate of the equivalent of 150 acres per minute or 75 million acres per year. As the oldest, richest and most productive ecosystems on earth, the rainforest's destruction will have devastating effects on a local, regional, and global level.
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Locally, deforestation means the loss of independence for indigenous people. As rainforests are destroyed, tribal people are forced to move into camps or cities. Without their home, food source and water, exposed to new illnesses, these people often cannot survive. At the regional level, deforestation causes extensive flooding and soil erosion, affecting the lives of people as well as their productive lives such as farming and fishing. On a global level, the elimination of the rainforest contributes to the greenhouse effect. Plant and animal extinction occurs at an alarming rate - approximately six species an hour.
What can you do to protect the rainforest?
Rainforest Action Network suggests there are things you can do every day to protect the rainforest. Use less paper. Remember that forests are cut for trees. By using less paper, you will help save rainforests. Use a lunch pail or a canvas sack to take your lunch to school. Use cloth napkins when you can. If you have to use paper napkins, conserve and use one. If you are in a restaurant that has a napkin dispenser, ask the manager to put up a small sign reminding people to use just one, that napkins come from trees.
Eat less meat - or at lease buy beef raised in the United States or in rainforest free countries, where it hasn't been raised on cleared land.
Be an educated consumer - buy things with the least amount of packaging. Choose cereals, nuts and cookies made with rainforest products that advertise their support for rainforest preservation. Notice when corporations are being boycotted for rainforest destruction and urge people to avoid buying these products.
Educate others about the rainforest. Read books and articles about the rainforest. Talk about the destruction and raise people's awareness of the issue.
Get involved! Join rainforest action group or learn about conservation efforts going on and how you and your class can get involved at www.rainforest-alliance.org.