The Importance of Rain Forests

Rain forests are important to human societies because they contain a high diversity of species and perform a variety of key ecological functions. Rain forests have economic value, scientific and health value, and environmental value. Rain forests are also valuable for recreation. These qualities are maintained only, however, if the rain forest remains intact.

The major economic value of rain forests comes from the production of timber. About 60 billion cubic feet of wood valued at more than $7 billion are harvested each year from rain forests. Nontimber resources such as fruits, nuts, oils, fibers, and resins are also very valuable. Indonesia exports about $300 million of rattan products each year, and more than 50,000 tons of Brazil nuts, 6,000 tons of carnauba wax, and 18,000 tons of rubber are harvested annually from Amazonian rain forests.

Scientific knowledge about tropical rain forests is very incomplete. Of the 3 to 4 million types of organisms that are estimated to live in these forests, only about a sixth of them are known to science. Very little is known about how rain forests function as ecosystems, and how these ecological processes vary from region to region. The complex relationships between plants and animals that have evolved in tropical rain forests are also very much in need of study. Learning how rain forests function can greatly enhance efforts to manage and conserve these ecosystems.

Tropical rain forests contain many undiscovered foods and medicines of direct importance to human health. A survey in Kalimantan revealed more than 400 different plant species used for food. Several important medicines—quinine (used to treat malaria), tubocurarine (a muscle relaxant used in heart surgery), and pilocarpine (used to treat glau-coma)—are derived from rain forest plants. The rosy periwinkle from Madagascar is the source of the vincristine and vinblastine alkaloids used to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.

Rain forests provide several key environmental benefits. They absorb an enormous quantity of rainfall, use it, and then recycle much of it back to the atmosphere as fresh water. They regulate local climate, control soil erosion, and reduce the severity of floods and droughts. Rain forest trees absorb and store massive amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow, thus preventing the build-up of

CO2 in the atmosphere. This helps to slow global warming, which is triggered by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Finally, rain forests are places of great beauty. The lush vegetation, unique fauna, and abundant water resources offer a wealth of recreational opportunities for local residents and foreign visitors. A growing number of "eco-tourists" visit rain forests each year. People of all nationalities are learning that the best way to understand the beauty and value of the rain forest is to visit one.

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