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The Benefits of the Rain Forests

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IN 1844, Greek scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf spotted 129 sheets of an ancient manuscript in a wastebasket in a monastery. Tischendorf walked away with the priceless leaves, and they now form part of the Codex Sinaiticus—one of the world’s most famous Bible manuscripts.

That treasure was rescued in time. The rain forests—whose true worth is also frequently ignored—are rarely so fortunate. Every year during the dry season, thousands of fires set by ranchers and itinerant farmers light up the tropical sky. Al Gore, now U.S. vice president, who witnessed such a conflagration in the Amazon, said: “The devastation is just unbelievable. It’s one of the great tragedies of all history.”

Seldom do we burn something that we know is valuable. The tragedy of the rain forests is that they are being destroyed before we comprehend their worth, before we understand how they function, and even before we know what they contain. Putting a rain forest to the torch is like burning a library to heat a home—without checking the contents of the books.

In recent years scientists have begun to study these “books,” the vast store of information locked up in the rain forests. They make fascinating “reading.”

A Forest like No Other

“The trees of these Indies are a thing that cannot be explained, for their multitude,” exclaimed Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in 1526. Five centuries later his appraisal is not far off the mark. “The rain forest,” writes author Cynthia Russ Ramsay, is “the most diverse, the most complex, and the least understood ecosystem on earth.”

Tropical biologist Seymour Sohmer states: “We should never lose sight of the fact that we know little or nothing about the way most humid tropical forests are structured and how they function, not to mention the component species.” The sheer numbers of species and the complexity of their interrelationships make the researchers’ task a daunting one.

A temperate forest may contain only a handful of tree species per acre [per hectare]. An acre [a half hectare] of rain forest, on the other hand, may support over 80 different species, even though the total number of trees per acre [hectare] averages only about 300 [700]. Since the classifying of such diversity is an exhausting and painstaking task, few rain-forest plots larger than a few acres [one hectare] have ever been analyzed. Those that have, however, yield surprising results.

The vast assortment of trees provides innumerable niches for a huge number of forest residents—far more than anyone had imagined. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences says that a typical four-square-mile [10 sq km] area of pristine rain forest may harbor as many as 125 different species of mammals, 100 species of reptiles, 400 species of birds, and 150 species of butterflies. By way of comparison, we note that the whole of North America has or receives visits from fewer than 1,000 bird species.

Although some of the myriad plant and animal species may be found over a wide area of rain forest, others are restricted to just one mountain range. That is what makes them so vulnerable. By the time loggers finished clear-cutting a mountain ridge in Ecuador a few years ago, 90 of the endemic plant species had become extinct.

In the face of such tragedies, the United States Interagency Task Force on Tropical Forests warns: “The community of nations must quickly launch an accelerated and coordinated attack on the problem if these greatly undervalued and probably irreplaceable resources are to be protected from virtual destruction by the early part of the next century.”

But the questions may arise: Are these natural resources that valuable? Would the demise of the rain forest greatly affect our lives?

Food, Fresh Air, and Medicine

Do you start off the day with a bowl of cornflakes, perhaps a boiled egg, and a cup of hot coffee? If you do, indirectly you are reaping the bounty of the tropical forests. The corn, the coffee beans, the hen that laid the egg, and even the cow that produced the milk—all had their origin in the fauna and flora of the tropical forest. Corn comes from South America, coffee comes from Ethiopia, domestic hens were bred from Asian jungle fowl, and dairy cattle descended from the endangered banteng of Southeast Asia. “Fully 80 percent of what we eat has its origins in the tropics,” explains the book Tropical Rainforest.

Man cannot afford to turn his back on the origins of his food supply. Both crops and livestock can become weakened by too much inbreeding. The rain forest, with its vast collection of species, can supply the genetic variety needed to fortify these plants or animals. For example, Mexican botanist Rafael Guzmán discovered a new species of grass related to modern corn. His find excited farmers because this grass (Zea diploperennis) is resistant to five of the seven major diseases that ravage crops of corn. Scientists hope to use the new species to develop a disease-resistant variety of corn.

In 1987 the Mexican government protected the mountain range where this wild corn was found. But with so much forest being destroyed, invaluable species like this one are doubtless being lost, even before they are discovered. In the forests of Southeast Asia, there are several species of wild cattle that could strengthen the breeds of domestic herds. But all these species hover on the brink of extinction because of the destruction of their habitat.

Fresh air is just as important as the food we eat. As anyone who enjoys a bracing forest walk has noticed, trees do an invaluable job of replenishing the atmosphere with oxygen. But when they are burned, carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide is released. Both gases cause problems.

Some estimate that man’s activity has already doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Although industrial pollution is thought to be the major culprit, the burning of the forests is said to account for over 35 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide creates the so-called greenhouse effect, which many scientists predict will cause serious global warming.

Carbon monoxide is even worse. It is a principal lethal ingredient found in the smog that is the bane of city suburbs. But researcher James Greenberg was amazed to find “as much carbon monoxide over the Amazon jungles as over US suburbs.” The thoughtless burning of the Amazon forests had fouled the very atmosphere that the trees were designed to cleanse!

Besides being a source of food and clean air, the rain forest can be a veritable medicine cabinet. A quarter of all the drugs doctors prescribe are derived from plants that grow in tropical forests. From the cloud forests of the Andes comes quinine, for fighting malaria; from the Amazon region, curare, used as a muscle relaxant in surgery; and from Madagascar, the rosy periwinkle, whose alkaloids dramatically increase the survival rate of many leukemia patients. Despite such impressive results, only about 7 percent of all tropical plants have been screened for possible medicinal properties. And time is running out. The United States Cancer Institute warns that “the widespread elimination of the tropical moist forests could represent a serious setback to the anticancer campaign.”

There are other vital tasks that rain forests perform—although their importance is rarely appreciated until the forests are gone. Among these are the regulation of rainfall and temperature as well as protection against soil erosion. “The bounty of the world’s tropical forests far exceeds our present-day understanding of it,” reports the book The Emerald Realm: Earth’s Precious Rain Forests. “But we do know even now that its value is incalculable.”

“We Will Conserve Only What We Love”

To destroy the resources that can provide for us so bountifully is surely the height of folly. Over 3,000 years ago, God instructed the Israelites to conserve the fruit trees when warring against an enemy city. The reason he gave them was simple: “They provide you with food.” Furthermore, “the trees of the field are not men that you should besiege them.” (Deuteronomy 20:19, 20, The New English Bible) The same can be said of the beleaguered rain forest.

Evidently, rain forests, like fruit trees, are worth much more when they are left standing than when they are cut down. But in this modern world, short-term benefits often override the long-term value. Education, however, can change attitudes. Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum points out: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Tischendorf stole those ancient leaves in the Sinai Desert because he loved antique manuscripts and he wanted to preserve them. Will enough people learn to love the rain forests in time to save them?

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