What are rainforests?
Rainforests are evergreen woodlands, characterised by heavy precipitation averaging around 100 inches per year and a continuous canopy of leaves. They are the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, and although today they cover only about 6 per cent of the earth's surface they are believed to be the sole habitats of more than half of all species.
Rainforests are principally tropical, occurring in parts of South America, Africa and Asia. However, there are also rainforests in temperate regions, including Chile and Alaska.
Sometimes referred to as "the green lungs of the planet", rainforests play a key role in the carbon cycle, which maintains life on earth. They absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, thus combating the Greenhouse Effect. The Amazonian rainforest of South America, for example, alone produces 20 per cent of the world's oxygen.
Furthermore, alongside the intrinsic value many ascribe to the biodiversity of the rainforests, they are the largest single source of materials for pharmaceutical developments. An estimated 25-40 per cent of all pharmaceutical products are based on flora and fauna found only in the rainforests, while only a very small proportion of native life forms has been tested for potential uses.
As the world's oldest undisturbed ecosystems, moreover, they are invaluable to biologists and natural historians. The rainforests of Southeast Asia are understood to have existed in more or less their present form for 70 to 100 million years.
However, recent years have seen the size of the rainforests dramatically reduced by human activity. Many scientists argue that current rates of deforestation will see nearly all tropical rainforests destroyed by 2030-2050.
Deforestation and the degradation of woodlands have accompanied the rise of human civilisation from the beginning. Eight thousand years ago, 40 per cent of the earth's land was covered by forest, but as the human population rose and agriculture developed, the most fertile land was cleared and turned over to other uses. Even in pre-Christian times, the native forests of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean vanished as a result of human activity.
The advance of civilisation increased demand for wood as a fuel (a requirement accelerated by the industrial revolution) and for fertile land for agriculture. Improved communications and transport permitted this trend to be exported worldwide. The first clearing of rainforests took place in coastal Brazil and the Caribbean some 500 years ago, to make way for European sugar plantations.
However, deforestation accelerated to much faster levels in the 20th Century, and particularly since 1960. The causes are modern versions of their historical antecedents; commercial logging and the clearing of forest to create grazing land for livestock. While large-scale business is a major cause, experts warn that in Africa in particular, the collection of firewood by rural populations is also a cause of slow but steady degradation.
It is estimated that the Philippines lost 55 per cent of its rainforest between 1960 and 1985 and Thailand 45 per cent between 1961 and 1985. Rainforests in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Haiti have already been completely destroyed.
It was not until the late 1970s that deforestation was widely recognised as an environmental issue of global importance, and saving the rainforests became one of the principal rallying calls of the newly emerging green lobby in the 1980s.
In 1992, amidst much division between developed and developing countries, the UN reached the first global consensus on forests. The major outcome of negotiations was the "Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests" (the "Forest Principles"). This was supplemented in the same year by Chapter 11 of Agenda 21 - the programme for sustainable development agreed at the Rio "Earth Summit", dealing with combating deforestation.
Since then progress has been swift. Between 1995-2000, both the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), and the Forum on Forests (IFF) were established under the auspices of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, entrusted to promote the management, conservation and sustainable development of forest ecosystems.
The United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) was set up in 2000 as part of a new international arrangement on forests, to carry on the work building on the IPF and IFF processes and a non-legally binding instrument on all types of forests was adopted on 28th April 2007.
The UN-REDD programme launched in 2008 is a United Nations collaborative initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). The initiative aims to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, thereby incentivising developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.
The REDD+ Partnership was launched in May 2010 by some 50 countries attending the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference. REDD+ provides a global platform to co-ordinate and implement more speedily the various international initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emission from deforestation and forest degradation. Pledges of around $4 billion USD were made to support the measures for the period 2010-2012.
The scientific evidence for the role played by the rainforests in supporting life on earth is hardly contested. It is well-established that deforestation destroys biodiversity and indigenous cultures, leads to desertification and land degradation (as cleared land rapidly loses its former fertility) and contributes towards the Greenhouse Effect by reducing the planet's capacity to recycle carbon dioxide.
As such, the controversy surrounding deforestation is largely a question of economics and politics. The vast bulk of the world's rainforests are in developing countries, many of which also have weak political and social institutions. Timber and land are valuable resources that, some countries and their supporters contend, cannot simply be ignored. The global growth of the palm oil and soy industries pose a particular threat in this regard. Much of the pressure for conservation, conversely, comes from the developed world, to which the economic issue is less directly significant than the environmental and cultural issues. The location of the rainforests has thus turned the debate about their preservation into a rich-poor question.
Furthermore, some national governments persist in flouting internationally agreed quotas on rainforest depletion. The Brazilian government has been particularly criticised by environmental organisations, such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature, for encouraging or turning a blind eye to logging and clearances , while publicly committing itself to increasing the size of protected areas. At the same time, a number of Brazilian regional administrations have actively reduced the size of their national parks.
The developed world, however, is not blameless in this regard. Recent surveys have shown that many European countries do little to stop the importation of illegal timber from the rainforests, and the protected forests of Russia and Eastern Europe (indeed, the WWF claims that as much as 50 per cent of logging in Asian Russia is illegal). The UK has arrangements in place to monitor timber sourcing in public procurement. It also has a partnership agreement with Indonesia to combat illegal logging.
Natural tropical forests are home to at least 70% of the world's land-based plants and animals, sheltering more than 13 million distinct species.
Over one billion people depend on tropical forests, with local communities using them every day for food, water, housing and medicines.
Deforestation causes up to 20% of all human emissions of greenhouse gases - more than all of the world's transport.
With our partners, we're protecting nearly 240,000 hectares of tropical forest in seven countries across the world
Source: RSPB - 2012
“We believe that the best way to keep forests standing is by ensuring that it is profitable for businesses and communities to do so.”
Rainforest Alliance - 2012