Can we replant the planet's rainforests?

Pristine portions of the Amazon, like this one in French Guiana, offer shelter to myriad forms of life­.
Pristine portions of the Amazon, like this one in French Guiana, offer shelter to myriad forms of life­.
Philippe Bourseiller/The Image Bank/Getty Images

­It's hard not to be impressed by rainforests. Towering, aged trees called emergents stretch almost 250 feet (76 meters) into the air, surpassing the interwoven canopy that both covers and houses more than half of the world's species. Though rainforests contain nearly half of all the planet's trees, they only cover about 7 percent of the surface of the land [source: UNEP].

Despite the importance of rainforests, deforestation practices continue. Though the term can apply to natural causes like forest fires, it's commonly linked to human activities, like logging, agriculture and mining -- all important for our economy. But by stripping the land of these resources, we must accept the consequences of our actions. Chopping down rainforests increases the likelihood of soil erosion, landslides and flooding. It also decreases biodiversity and medical resources. More than 25 percent of modern medicine is derived from rainforest plants, and only 1 percent of rainforest plant species have been studied for potential medicinal uses [source: Harris]. Deforestation also destroys the homelands of indigenous cultures and affects the livelihoods of millions of other people, many of whom live in the world's poorest regions.

­In an effort to counteract this destruction, conservation efforts are blossoming across the globe. Among these are reforestation projects, aimed at increasing the amount of living trees and physically linking remaining forests together, to combat habitat loss and prevent species extinction.

There are many challenges facing these projects. Firstly, rainforests are full of ancient, gigantic trees; these aren't the saplings you buy at your local nursery. Much of the action of a rainforest's ecosystem takes place in the lofty upper reaches, which can present problems for reforestation efforts since towering trees take decades to grow. Secondly, rainforest trees closely rely on their evolutionary playmates -- the surrounding flora and fauna -- to create the delicate conditions needed to sustain functions such as nutrient cycles and pollination.

So while rainforests provide a flourishing habitat for life, the success of that habitat relies on a fragile balance of ecological factors. Take away the trees and you have a major problem. But if the soil's bacteria and other microorganisms, which break down the nutrient-rich organic matter that tumbles to the dark forest floor, are also eliminated, the rainforest is destroyed. If the insects and birds that act as critical pollinators go extinct, life will falter.

­Can we imitate nature and create a harmonious environment where we previously destroyed one? Read the next page to find out.