This is an opinion piece by Brittany Wienke of the Rainforest Alliance.
If you live in a city, the closest thing you come to seeing a forest is probably the scraggly street tree that houses that pair of sneakers and a few stray plastic bags. Maybe you spend your days at an office desk, or running around suburbs or cities. You could be forgiven for thinking tropical forests have little do with your daily life.
But you rely on forests more than you know. In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say your life depends on them.
Everyone knows that forests produce air. But did you know the Amazon rainforest alone produces about 20 percent of all oxygen in the atmosphere? What about forests’ role in the water cycle? About one-third of the world’s largest cities get a significant proportion of their drinking water from forest watersheds, including cities like Bogotá, Tokyo, and New York City.
Besides providing the air we breathe and the water we drink, forests are also the source of so many foods and products we use every day. Avocados? From rainforest areas. Coffee? Grown on mountainous rainforest slopes. Chocolate? Made from cocoa grown in low-lying forests.
Your consumer choices directly affect these (potentially) far-away, life-giving forests. Maybe you’ll never step foot in one of the dreamy, mist-enshrouded forests in southeast Asia or Central America, but you are inextricably connected to the forests and the people who live there.
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Not convinced? Read on.
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts forests give us is their capacity for absorbing the monstrous amount of greenhouse gas emissions we humans generate: almost as much carbon is stored in forests as is in the atmosphere. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the air, store it, and generate the oxygen we all breathe.
Forests are vital to the hydrologic cycle (rain and water systems), and they maintain some of the world's most fragile soils. Additionally, forests act like the earth’s air conditioner, stabilizing global temperatures, and helping to regulate global weather patterns.
In fact, forests are our best defense against climate change. By some estimates, we have lost about 80 percent of our forests. This staggering loss, when combined with the way that the cleared land is used after the forest is cleared, contributes to between 9 – 11 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions each year—almost as much as all the world's trains, planes, and automobiles combined. But by stopping the destruction of mature (old-growth) forests, we prevent a huge amount of carbon from going into the atmosphere, and by promoting Earth-friendly planting and management of young forests, we absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon.
The world’s most popular fruit -- the banana -- comes from the rainforest. Once notorious for worker and environmental abuses, the banana industry has changed its ways, thanks in large part to the Rainforest Alliance’s pioneering work in Central America. Other staples that come from rainforests include citrus, cassava, cashews, Brazil nuts, and ubiquitous spices like vanilla and cinnamon. Then there are a few foods that many of us consider necessary—coffee, tea, and cocoa—and yes, they come from tropical forests, too.
If we are not careful, however, our appetites for these products could destroy the source from which they come. Agriculture is responsible for more than 70 percent of deforestation in the tropics, but there are ways to farm that don’t destroy forests, and the Rainforest Alliance shares these Earth-friendly and climate-smart methods with farmers and foresters around the globe.
Many of the Western medicines that we use today are derived from plants found in tropical forests. Medications to treat or cure inflammation, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, surgical complications, malaria, heart conditions, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma, and hundreds of other maladies, come from forest plants.
Tropical forests yield some of the most beautiful and valuable woods in the world, such as teak, mahogany, rosewood, balsa, sandalwood, and countless lesser-known species. These woods surround us at home and in offices in the form of furniture, cabinets, paneling, and more. But only recently has the industrialized world realized the limits to timber extraction. Just like agriculture, logging can either nurture or destroy an ecosystem. It is up to us to support environmentally responsible logging and promote smarter wood production and consumption around the world.
Other forest products show up in your home and office, too. Tropical forest fibers are found in rugs, mattresses, ropes, strings, and fabrics.
Cleaning, cosmetics, and more
Tropical forest oils, gums, and resins are used in insecticides, rubber products, fuel, paint, varnish, and wood finishing products. And tropical oils are key ingredients in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, disinfectants and detergents.
What can I do?
Our world is facing the greatest extinction crisis since the fall of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The future of many of Earth's plants and animals—and hundreds of human cultures—will be determined within the next few decades. Because we are so dependent on the forest's great bounty, we need to act responsibly, be good stewards of the Earth's tropical forests, and do all we can to ensure that forests—and their many gifts—are around for future generations.
You can look for Rainforest Alliance certified products, like coffee, bananas, and chocolate. The green frog seal means the ingredient came from a farm where deforestation is prohibited and earth-friendly practices are the norm.
You can read more about forests and how they intersect with your urban life. Take it a step further—advocate for urban forests in your city.
Finally, if you have the spare cash, donate to forest conservation organizations, knowing that you’re investing in water, food, and climate stability for the future. Some good ones: Rainforest Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, or the Nature Conservancy.