According to Conservation International‘s 2009 book, The Wealth of Nature, ecosystems support and regulate all natural processes on earth, while contributing to cultural, social, and economic benefits to human communities. These have become known as ecosystem services and, according to the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF), they would cost trillions of dollars per year if human beings had to provide them for themselves. Here are just five types of many of the ecosystem services provided to people and planet by the world’s rainforests:
1. Supporting. The rainforest supports a number of natural cycles and processes. According to RCF, for example, many tropical rainforests live “on the edge”—they receive very few inputs of nutrients from the outside. This means that they have to produce most nutrients themselves. When a rainforest is whole it acts as a closed loop system and recycles the nutrients it has created. Without tree cover, these would be lost and the forest would not survive.
Soil formation is another important and related supporting service. Most rainforests are wet deserts—they are often formed in locations that normally cannot sustain much life. Trees and plants maintain soil quality by providing organic materials (leaves and branches). Their roots anchor the soil and thus prevent it, and the nutrients within it, from being washed away by high rainfall (soil erosion and nutrient leaching, respectively). This makes rainforest soils poorly adapted to agriculture since they are highly vulnerable to erosion and rapid loss of forest biodiversiy—plethora of plant and animals found in the rainforest—once trees are removed.
2. Rain Making. Some forests’ services extend across vast geographical areas. For example, National Geographic reports that the Amazon rainforest makes as much as 50 percent of its own rainfall through a combination of processes. According to the Paradise Earth Project, Westward winds arriving in the Andes mountain range bring with them moisture from the Atlantic Ocean, which evaporates causing humidity. The plants use that water to grow and recycle it when they transpire—lose water into the atmosphere through their leaves. Each canopy tree transpires some 760 liters of water annually, translating to roughly 76,000 liters for every acre of canopy trees. This, and persistent cloud cover, add to humidity and form the basis of rains that move throughout the jungle. When these rains hit the rocky walls of the Andes, the water is deflected—a unique Amazonian characteristic that provides important rainfall that supports agriculture and water-based energy production in nearby parts of Brazil and Argentina. “The newly recognized Amazon rain machine is making a vital contribution to the Brazilian economy through its benefits to agro-industry and some hydro-electric facilities,” says Paradise Earth.
3. Regulating. Rainforests help to maintain balance by regulating a number of processes. According to Rainforest Concern, “without rainforests continually recycling huge quantities of water, feeding the rivers, lakes and irrigation systems, droughts would become more common.” Creation and recycling of rains thus helps to regulate the local climate.
Rainforests also help regulate air quality, whilst locking away carbon—in an opposite system to human beings, trees absorb (breathe in) atmospheric carbon dioxide and produce (breathe out) oxygen; they use the extracted carbon as raw material for growth of their living parts (stems, leaves, and roots).
4. Provisioning. Rainforests do not simply play supporting and regulating roles. They are also prolific producers of goods that people derive economic value from—according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2011 Year Book, about 1.6 billion people rely in some way on forests for their livelihoods. For example, when trees are extracted from them, rainforests provide human necessities such as wood, fiber, and fuel. In addition, species and processes of the rainforest provide an invaluable source of ideas for the growing field of biomimicry—the examination and emulation of nature to find solutions to human problems.
Beyond privately gained extractive benefits, rainforests are also vital for local, often indigenous, communities that inhabit them. According to The Wealth of Nature these include fresh water; wild foods; crops and livestock; wild fisheries; wood for fire and construction; fibers and other materials for arts and crafts; and natural biomedicines and pharmaceuticals.
5. Culture Sustaining. Rainforests are also crucial to culture and society. They are increasingly popular destinations for recreation and eco-tourism. For those far away, they hold much educational and scientific value. For those living close, they are a source of a deep sense of belonging, cultural heritage, and religious and spiritual significance. And, of course, their beauty provides immeasurable aesthetic value to the world at large.
According to the 2011 Keeping Track of Our Changing Environment: From Rio to Rio+20 (1992-2012) report by the UNEP, since 1990, the world’s primary forest area has decreased by 300 million hectares, an area larger than Argentina. Yet, without the ecosystem services that forests provide, many natural and human processes would collapse. This scientific fact makes planet Earth’s natural treasures worth saving.
Do you know of other examples of nature’s ecosystem services? Leave a reply below.
Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies.
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UNEP (2011) Keeping Track of Our Changing Environment: From Rio to Rio+20 (1992-2012)
Conservation International (2009) The Wealth of Nature.