The Living World
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Threats to Tropical Rainforests and Management Strategies

Tropical Rainforests (TRFs) are remarkable biomes that house a large variety of the world’s flora and fauna. Scientists are still assessing the full importance of these ecosystems and their benefits for both local and global environments. However, it is clear that maintaining rainforests will be crucial in our fight against climate change.

The Amazon rainforest alone absorbs approximately 25% of the CO2 absorbed by all land on Earth. The Earth’s soil, forests and oceans are part of the carbon cycle that helps to regulate the level of CO2. However, their effectiveness is being severely compromised by decades of human activity that threatens the very existence of rainforests.

Human Threat to Tropical Rainforests

Approximately 13,000 years ago, the first humans migrated to the Amazon rainforest from Central America. For thousands of years, indigenous communities lived sustainably within the rainforest, in settlements and villages. They relied on small-scale farming, developing orchards and fields, and occasionally hunting in the forest for meat.

It wasn’t until 1492, when the first European colonisers arrived in South America, that significant deforestation began. By the 20th century, although the Amazon had largely been left alone, the process of clearing trees in other areas of South America was well underway. Also, many of the indigenous people had died.

In 1964, the Brazilian government declared the Amazon Rainforest a national security risk and sought to develop it as a centre for agriculture. The policies rolled in and mass deforestation began, leading to the loss of more than 420,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest between 1985 and 2014.

An estimated 17% of the Amazon has been lost due to actions over the past 50 years, and concerns are arising that the rainforest may soon be irreparably damaged.

In the modern era, the Amazon has been deforested for several reasons:

  • Agriculture – Extensive areas of rainforest have been cleared to grow crops and raise livestock.
  • Logging – Valuable trees are felled (cut down) for furniture, while others are used to produce paper.
  • Mining – The Amazon Basin is rich in minerals such as iron, tin, gold, manganese and aluminium. Mining operations clear vast areas of rainforest.
  • Roads – Roads are built to access farms and develop communities.
  • Hydroelectric Power – Large areas of rainforest are cleared to create dams and reservoirs for hydroelectric power stations.
  • Population – Increasing human populations lead to the expansion of suburbs, home-building and infrastructure.

The widespread deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has led to severe consequences for the ecosystem. If allowed to continue unchecked, it will damage the rainforest’s ability to function.

As trees are cleared, the nutrient cycle is disrupted due to the lack of vegetation. This makes the soil infertile, and incapable of sustaining life. The absence of trees and plants means there are no roots to anchor the soil, so the soil erodes away. This is known as soil erosion.

The destruction of plant life inevitably damages the food web, leading to the extinction of many animal species and reducing the biodiversity of the rainforest.

Deforestation accelerates the rate of climate change, as the rainforest’s capacity to absorb CO2 diminishes.

However, the economy of the country experiencing deforestation may improve temporarily. Revenue is generated by companies that pay the government for the right to clear rainforest land, which can support local populations and fund future development projects.

Sustainable Management 

The trend of tropical rainforest ecosystems being damaged worldwide is alarming. However, initiatives by aid groups and governments are underway to repair or mitigate the damage.

  • Sustainable Logging and Replanting – Trees are selectively felled to give young trees space and light to grow. For each tree cut down, another is planted to maintain the population of trees.
  • International Agreements – Treaties ask countries with tropical rainforests to commit to environmental protection in exchange for economic aid from wealthier nations.
  • Ecotourism – This environmentally friendly tourism option creates jobs for locals and funds sustainability and conservation projects.
  • Education – People around the world are taught about the importance of preserving rainforests and encouraged to consider the environmental impact of their lifestyles.

Although the threats to tropical rainforests are numerous, proactive steps are being taken to manage and protect these critical ecosystems for future generations.

Key Terms

AgricultureThe practice of cultivating the land and raising livestock
DeforestationThe large-scale removal of trees in a forest, which can lead to a loss of biodiversity
Nutrient CycleThe recycling of nutrients through the decomposition of biomass in the rainforest, enriching the soil
BiodiversityThe variety of plant and animal life in a particular habitat or ecosystem

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