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Sunrise over lowland rainforest in the Danum Valley in Borneo.

Sunrise over lowland rainforest in the Danum Valley in Borneo. The Danum Valley Conservation Area encompasses 171 square miles. It is one of the most diverse forests in the world, with over 200 species of plants per hectare, 270 bird species, and 124 species of mammals, including the Bornean rhinoceros and pygmy elephant. The rainforest is said to be 130 million years old. In 2019, the tallest tropical tree in the world was discovered there, a 331-foot Yellow Meranti Tree.

Credit: Frans Lanting/National Geographic

Tropical Forests

Call to action:

End the destruction of tropical forests by protecting remaining stands of trees, restoring degraded areas, incentivizing regenerative management, and respecting Indigenous rights.

Tropical rainforests are highly endangered ecosystems critical to life on Earth. Although they occupy less than 10 percent of all land, they hold more than half of the world’s biological diversity, including tigers, jaguars, macaws, tapirs, gorillas, monkeys, and orangutans. Tropical forests are home to Indigenous and traditional communities. They play an essential role in regulating the Earth’s climate. The largest forests are located in AfricaIndonesia, and South America. Historically, tropical forests have been an important sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, as a result of deforestation many tropical forests are becoming a net source of greenhouse gases. Human activity, including logging, mining, development, agriculture, and demand for rubber has caused one-third of the original rainforests to be lost and one-third to be degraded. The final third is intact but under threat. The destruction of tropical forests needs to end, followed by permanent protection. Supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples is critical to success. Nearly a quarter of all tropical forests are managed by Indigenous peoples, who provide a buffer against logging and human-caused fires.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why tropical forests are threatened and why it is important to protect and restore them. Tropical rainforests are found in seventy nations. A small section of rainforest can hold 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds, and 150 species of butterflies. Worldwide, loss of total tropical tree cover averaged 30 million acres per year between 2010 and 2018. In 2022, the loss of primary (old-growth) tropical forests increased by 10 over the previous year, hitting a six-year high. The leader was Brazil. Under current deforestation rates, the Amazon could soon reach a tipping point, causing vast changes to this critical ecosystem, including significant impacts to rain cycles and climate change globally. Strategies to end the destruction include protection, sustainable harvesting, reforestation, and supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples. Key points:

Reduce your consumption of tropical forest-based commodities, especially beef, soy, palm oil, and paper, or switch to certified forest-friendly sources. Deforestation of tropical forests is principally driven by the production of four commodities—cattle, soy, palm oil, and wood (timber and pulp)—much of which is exported. Beef is the top driver of deforestation and is responsible for the highest carbon emissions. The deforestation impacts of palm oil are lower than soy, but palm oil produces more carbon emissions. Reducing consumer demand for these products will lower the pressure on tropical forests and allow them to be protected and regenerated. Other products contribute as well. Here is an article on the role the fast fashion industry plays in deforestation.

  • Buy only local products where you live, whenever possible.
  • Eat less red meat and eat only grass-fed meat sourced from regenerative farms and ranches. Here is a grass-fed directory for North America.
  • Buy products that use soy sourced sustainably. The World Wildlife Fund and other organizations have established standards for responsible soy products and help to promote sustainable soy trade.
  • Use recycled paper or use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper products.
  • Coffee is grown in the tropics and contributes to deforestation when grown as a monoculture or within protected areas. Buy organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee whenever possible.
  • Avoid products that use palm oil (see Palm Oil Nexus).
  • Check the rankings of companies most responsible for tropical forest destruction before buying a product. This organization ranks companies on their impact on rainforests. Some of the largest companies doing a poor job include Cargill, Walmart, and ADM (see Bad Actors below).
  • Use non-wood forest products that are harvested sustainably, including nuts, fruits, mushrooms, spices, herbs, sweeteners, fragrances, seeds, resins, oils, rubber, and medicinal plants. The Rainforest Alliance has a directory of farm and forest products that meet environmental and social sustainability goals.
  • Avoid products made from threatened tropical woods, such as ebony, teak, rosewood, and mahogany. Here is a list.
  • Don’t buy exotic pets, many of which are stolen from tropical forests, including reptiles and amphibians.

Make a donation to organizations that protect and restore tropical forests and support the rights of Indigenous peoples. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play a critical role in the defense of tropical forests and Indigenous peoples around the world. Many of them work closely with Indigenous peoples and local communities to protect forests (see Indigenous Groups). Supporting these organizations with a donation or membership is vital to their success (see Key Players for a list).

Participate in ecotourism and travel to tropical forest destinations. Ecotourism takes visitors to natural environments with the goal of supporting local conservation efforts, observing wildlife, and the local economy. In tropical forests, ecotourism provides an economic alternative to the destruction of the forest, proving more profitable per hectare than those cleared for pastures and plantations. To ensure forests are left undisturbed, it is critical that governments see the economic benefits of ecotourism. Choices include:

Join a campaign and speak up. Add your voice to the many others advocating for tropical forests.

Join a social media site run by an advocate for tropical forests. Here is a sampling:

Support the protection of tropical forests in order to conserve their medicinal value. Tropical forests hold as many as two hundred thousand different species of plants, many of which have not been cataloged. In addition to producing food for humans and animals, these plants are a reservoir of medicines. Eighty percent of the human population on earth relies on traditional medicines, mostly derived from plants. The genetic and chemical diversity of rainforest plants, forged by evolution over millennia in response to pests, disease, and environmental stress, provides medicine for Indigenous peoples. The first antimalarial drug, quinine, was developed from a neotropical tree native to the Andes. According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, approximately 70 percent of plants that show anticancer properties exist only in tropical rainforests. Only a small fraction of tropical plants have been examined by scientists for their medicinal potential. Conflicts have arisen between pharmaceutical firms and Indigenous tribes over access, legal rights, and patent ownership of natural resources.

  • Here is an article on the value of natural products from tropical forests as a regenerative source of new medicines.
  • Here is an article on the medicinal qualities found in the Amazon rainforest.
  • Protecting rainforests could help prevent the next pandemic.

Support the restoration of tropical forests. Passive restoration is simple, low-cost, can happen quickly,  and lets nature takes its own course. It focuses on releasing land from unsustainable use through protective measures that allow natural regeneration and succession. Active restoration involves planting and cultivating native seedlings as well as removing invasive species. Both can increase the quantity of carbon sequestration, though active restoration does so more quickly. Active restoration is usually employed in areas where soil has been severely degraded and where natural seedbanks are not present (see Degraded Land Restoration Nexus). However, be wary of carbon offset schemes that claim to restore tropical forests. Recent analyses have cast doubt on the efficacy of the carbon marketplace to fulfill its goals and promises.

  • Restoration isn’t meaningful if the forests are cut down or burned a decade or so later. Forests have to be maintained over time for economic and ecological benefits to be established.
  • Restoration efforts must work closely with Indigenous peoples and local, forest-dependent communities.
  • Restoration must be done in conjunction with international monitoring in order to track overall progress and sustain successes. Advances in satellite technology make monitoring more accessible.
  • Here is a story about an agroforestry cooperative in western Brazil that has reclaimed degraded land for sustainable agriculture, including the cultivation of fruit trees, spices, and medicinal plants.
  • Brazil has proposed a $250 billion international fund to end tropical deforestation and protect critical ecosystems, called Tropical Forests Forever.

Groups

Indigenous

Work with Indigenous leaders, NGOs, scientists, policymakers, media, and others to ensure your rights are respected and your homelands protected. Protecting Indigenous peoples is key to protecting tropical forests. Many of the remaining intact forests are used by Indigenous peoples and local communities who have been practicing sustainability for millenniaCollaborating with Indigenous peoples is key to reducing and eliminating deforestation in the tropics and mitigating climate change. Indigenous reserves have low rates of deforestation and fire, high levels of biological diversity, and high rates of carbon sequestrationPartnerships between scientists, advocates, policymakers, and Indigenous leaders can expand the protection of intact tropical forests. However, in many instances, the legal right of Indigenous peoples to their land and their way of life is not acknowledged by governments and corporations. The right of Indigenous peoples to their land is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007. The death of Indigenous activists in defense of tropical forests is not widely recognized or acknowledged. Human rights abuses and murder committed against Indigenous groups is ongoing. In 2019, Indigenous leaders signed a Declaration demanding an end to the violence.

Companies

Commit to deforestation-free products, supply chains, transparency, and accountability. Responding to criticism that their products and supply chains were contributing to the destruction of rainforests around the world, more than four hundred corporations pledged in 2017 to curb deforestation linked to beef, soy, palm oil, and wood production. This was an important step, but there is still a need for more action. An Oxfam report identifies key actions that companies can take to achieve a deforestation-free food and beverage sector, for example, including:

  • Strengthen the rights and livelihoods of workers, small-scale farmers, local communities, and Indigenous peoples in agricultural supply chains linked to deforestation.
  • Implement stronger operational processes to achieve supply chain pledges to eliminate deforestation practices.
  • Invest in and advocate for inclusive and resilient land use beyond the immediate needs of the supply chain.
  • Make time-bound commitments to implement the deforestation pledges.
  • Provide stable markets and fair prices for sustainable products.
  • Improve supply-chain transparency and traceability to known origins for all forest-risk commodities, disclosing supply-chain information on mills, refineries, and plantations and requiring suppliers to do the same.

Other Actions:

Encourage all large buyers of forest products to reduce or eliminate their use of virgin forest fiber. Whenever possible, use 100 percent post-consumer recycled forest products and responsibly produced alternative fibers. If virgin wood is absolutely necessary, use FSC-certified 100 percent forest fiber, though additional due diligence is often required.

Encourage the production of traceable, zero-deforestation beef to meet customer demand. One example is the landscape approach taken by the Produce, Conserve, Include (PCI) Regional Compact in the Juruena Valley, Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Compact aims to transform the region into a verified sourcing area for cattle and other agriculture products through public and private partnerships, generating income for the local population while conserving forests. However, be aware of the hurdles that local, sustainable beef production faces, including lax regulations, weak law enforcement, and deliberately obscured supply chains. Independent monitoring of deforestation may provide more accountability.

Eliminate soy from the supply chain. For example, three Brazilian companies vowed to produce only deforestation- and conversion-free soybean products. Under the international agreement, no soybean crops will be allowed into supply chains, and the new standards will apply to future purchase contracts. Most soy ends up as feed for livestock in global markets. Reducing meat demand can help reduce the demand for soy.

Here is a report from Planet Tracker detailing four steps Brazil could take to change direction financially, including issuing a Deforestation-Linked Sovereign Bond tying interest payments to success in reducing deforestation.

Deforestation Free Funds is a database for investment funds ranked by sustainability (a project of Friends of the Earth).

Ceres, a nonprofit that works with the business community, provides an investors’ guide to deforestation and climate change.

Profundo is an NGO that analyzes commodity chains, the financial sector, and the impacts of businesses on sustainability, from human rights to deforestation and climate change and advises clients.

Accountability Framework is a road map for soy and rubber production that utilizes monitoring tools such as Global Forest Watch Pro and Trase to help corporations assess and report their progress toward no-deforestation goals.

Include natural capital and ecosystem services in business plans. An economic case for land protection and restoration can be made based on the value of nature and the ecosystem service it provides, such as clean water.

  • ReGen’s regenerative investment model provides a scalable, open-source framework that protects and restores natural capital at scale.
  • Global Canopy is a market-based initiative to provide financial institutions and corporations with data on environmental opportunities.

Governance

Support forest protection and climate-friendly policies in consultation with Indigenous groups and forest-adjacent communities. Here is an article about five different ways the government of France is helping the Amazon forest.

  • Pressure governments through diplomacy and other means to protect and restore tropical forests.
  • Consider supporting efforts, including working with private investors, to pay governments to protect tropical forests, but be wary of throwing money away.
  • Work agency to agency with governments in nations with tropical forests to protect and restore endangered ecosystem
  • Join the 30 x 30 movement, which aims to preserve and protect 30 percent of the earth’s land surface by 2030.
  • Procure food and other goods for government agencies only from sources not involved in deforestation or land degradation.
  • Prioritize policies that incentivize responsible sourcing.
  • Support the rights of Indigenous peoples and adjacent communities through official recognition, policies, and action.
  • Boost scientific capacity in rainforest nations, such as Brazil. Here is an article about an Amazon researcher fired by the Brazilian government for publishing data on deforestation rates.
  • Pressure other governments to ban the sale of endangered animal parts, such as ivory, and enforce existing laws.

Learn

Read

Mongabay, an international environmental new service

Amazon Soy news (Mongabay)

Amazon Rainforest news (Mongabay)

Rainforest Deforestation news (Mongabay)

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Rainforest books (Goodreads list)

Listen

Botanizing in Bolivia (In Defense of Plants podcasts)

Regrowing the Rainforest (BBC series People Fixing the World)

Let’s Help the Amazon Rainforest with Yuahula Alay Kalapalo: Storyteller of the Forest (Indigenous Earth Community podcast)

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