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Are tropical forests really so important?

Updated: May 22, 2022

Tropical forests cover only 6% of planet Earth, so why are they so important? With millions of hectares being destroyed by our human specie every year for unsustainable developments, let’s try to explain here briefly, and clearly, what is at stake in protecting the remaining tropical forest, and re-growing new ones.

Let’s start with a definition: tropical forests are forests that grow in a climate where there is high annual rainfall, and only 2 seasons, wet and dry. Although all tropics share these conditions, the resulting tropical forest are extremely diverse because they include various soil conditions, altitude, temperature, flooding… As a consequence, the combination of plenty of water and plenty of sun in this narrow strip of land between the tropics makes tropical forest the most productive, diverse, and complex terrestrial ecosystems on Earth.

Let’s review 4 functions that tropical forests are specially good at performing:

Cleaning functions

First, tropical forests, like all forests, clean the air. They absorb the excess carbon and other pollutants from the atmosphere, then they release oxygen through photosynthesis. And they perform this cycle at an accelerated rate, compared to forests that grow in other climates. The importance of tropical forests with regards to cleaning Earth’s atmosphere is disproportionate with the 6% area they occupy on the planet. Simply put, without tropical forests, planet Earth is unable to provide an atmosphere where living things, plants and animals – including us – can prosper.

Regulate water cycle

Second, tropical forests participate in the water cycle with a disproportionate importance. The trees we can see above ground occupy roughly the same volume as their roots system, that we can’t see underground. And in tropical forests there are lots of big trees! Invisible to us, trees pump water, from underground, via their roots, up to their leaves located in the canopy. And the leaves then release it in the atmosphere (this is called evapotranspiration). We’re talking about tons of water per tree, every day, everywhere in the tropics where forests have not been chopped down. This is a massive contribution to cloud formation, water that is released back in rivers, that flow to the oceans and influence currents and, finally, have a regulating impact on the climate of planet Earth.

Support to the local communities

Third, tropical forests provide homes and natural resources that support livelihoods for over 1.2 billion people around the world, the majority of them in Asia. Many of these communities, especially in Myanmar, have no legal right to their land, they are often poor, and they rely on poaching and destroying the forest for their subsistence. Without actions such as what ACRE promotes, they are likely to try and survive in a desert, like 40% of the Burmese population concentrated in an area now called “the dry zone”, that used to be mainly lush forests less than a century ago…

Home to the biodiversity

And fourth, tropical forests are the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, housing nearly 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. In other words, 80% of every living things we know live on 6% of the land mass: our tropical forests. And tropical forests are not just a random combination of organisms, but a complex ecological web of interactions between species. The human specie, homo sapiens, has generated huge economic development in the last 70 years. Since the end of WW2, far fewer people are hungry or illiterate, and far more people die out of overweight than famine. But this has come with a price on environment in general, and on tropical forest in particular. Asian ones have suffered most.

We hope to bring awareness on the necessity to grow new tropical forests, for the benefit of local communities, to play our part in the fight to avoid desertification of planet Earth, and to stabilize the conditions when the human specie can live in harmony with all other living things.

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