Tropical rainforests may be near a tipping point beyond our control
Deforestation may work like diseases: if left uncontained, it can win
In the Amazon, Congo, and Indonesia, the three regions that are home to nearly all of the world’s tropical rainforests, the human motivations behind and methods of deforestation are entirely distinct. In South America the most significant driver of forest loss is the need to clear land for industrial-scale agriculture and ranching, so huge swaths of forest are burned into oblivion by human-set wildfires. In Southeast Asia, on the other hand, the high price of timber in the global market makes clear-cutting a lucrative venture. In Africa, deforestation lacks this industrial scale, but is more haphazard as small farmers clear land in piecemeal efforts to plant subsistence crops.
The net result is that the rainforests of today’s post-industrial world are more like millions of tiny, isolated patches of forest than the massive stretches of jungle that blanketed the tropics for millennia. The ramifications echo far beyond sentimental conservation — these forest fragments collectively emit 31 percent more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than intact rainforests, even after accounting for emissions from deforestation. In addition, numerous plants and animals that call the tropical rainforests home, and that inspire pharmaceuticals for human medicine, have struggled to adapt to patchwork forests, and so face extinction.