The ‘rain forest’ covers a wide range of different environments. They from a band around the Equator between the tropics, covering about seven per cent of the Earth’s surface. They all have an average temperature over 26 degree celcius and annual rainfall between 300 and 600 cm.
The rain forest is a natural environment, with fruit, vegetables and animals providing a good food supply for all its inhabitants, including man. In addition there are metals, timber, rattan, rubber and medical plants which are used only by man. The rain forest also take in large amounts of the carbon dioxide produced in the industrial areas of the world and give out oxygen: one third of all the world’s oxigen is produced by the rain forests. They are necessary to maintain a healthy balance between producing food, generating oxygen and removing carbon dioxide.
There is no reason why the rain forests should not be used. However, using the rain-forests has usually meant destroying them. Much of the rain forests of Central and South America has been destroyed in order to raise cattle, to provide cheap beef for export to multinational hamburger companies. The ashes of the burned forest improve the poor soil for about ten years, but after that time the soil is useless for raising cattle, or for cultivation. Moreover, because there are no trees to protect the soil, there is a great danger of soil erosion and landslides, where the side of a mountain falls down and destroys villages and crops.
There is an alternative to the destruction of the rain forests. As storage and international transport become easier, harvesting the forest for natural products becomes easier too. Forest products are now more marketable, and the people of the forest can earn money without causing destruction. Everybody knows that bananas, pineapples, cashew nuts, mangoes, star-fruits, lychees and other crops have come from the rain forests. There are many other potential crops in the forests. For example, in Irian Jaya the local people harvest over two hundred plants from the forest; only two plants out of this number are known in the industrial countries in the West.
Twenty per cent of all modern drugs contain extracts of rain forest plants. For example, the malaria drug quinine comes from a tree bark, while cocaine comes from leaves. However, it is estimated that only one per cent of forest plants have been examined for possible cosmetic or drug use. Finding out more about rain forest plants and their uses could be of great importance to man.
It takes over a hundred years to produce a mature forest tree, but it takes only a hundred minutes to cut it down. Once the rain forests have destroyed, they never come back again and neither will the plants and animals that live there. The whole world will lose as a result.