What’s Lost?

Pinning down exact numbers is nearly impossible, but most experts agree that we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plants, animal and insect species every day—or some 50,000 species a year—as the forests fall.

According to researcher and writer Rhett Butler, who runs the critically acclaimed website, Mongabay.com, tropical rainforests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a key role in the basic functioning of the planet. They help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall and provide many other important ecological functions.

Rainforests are also home to some 50 percent of the world’s species, Butler reports, “making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources.” Environmentalists also point out that a quarter of our modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, but less than one percent of the trees and plants in the tropics have been tested for curative properties. Sadly, then, we don’t really know the true value of what we’re losing as we slash, burn, and plant over what was once a treasure trove of biodiversity.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), overall tropical deforestation rates this decade are 8.5 percent higher than during the 1990s. While this figure pertains to all forests in the world’s tropics, researchers believe the loss of primary tropical rainforest—the wildest and most diverse swaths—has increased by as much as 25 percent since the 1990s. November 19, 2009 Scientific American