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.

Replanting the Rainforests

The golden toad is one of many amphibian species to recently become extinct.
The golden toad is one of many amphibian species to recently become extinct.
Michael & Patricia Fogden/Minden Pictures/Getty Images

So, can we push up our sleeves, grab a shovel, dig in and just start replanting the rainforests? To a certain extent, we can. However, while efforts at reforestation have significant value, they're usually not as crucial as preserving existing rainforests. Rainforest conservation is just as important as trying to reforest other areas.

Reforestation can be accomplished by nature, by humans or through a combination of the two. Some reforestation efforts focus on growing forests quickly because these woodlands are key to many of Earth's natural cycles, such as the carbon and water cycles. Replanting deforested land with quick-growing exotic tree species, like eucalyptus or Australian acacia, can help solve immediate problems such as soil erosion and elevated carbon levels.

Bats like the spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) are great at dispersing seeds, which could help accelerate reforestation efforts.
Patricia Robles Gil/Minden Pictures/Getty Images

How­ever, exotic trees may make the land unsuitable for future rainforest cultivation by changing the soil's original characteristics. Scientists need to study individual situations to determine what type of impact each foreign species will make on the area's microbial life, and what the appropriate choices are for reforestation. On a positive note, fast-growing secondary forests and tree farms can replace primary forests as a source for agricultural and energy needs. A primary forest is basically one that's undisturbed by humans and has suffered very few ecological disruptions. There are several other names for a primary forest, such as old growth and primeval forest. A secondary forest is one that has regrown after a destructive event, like a fire or logging. Primary forests usually have much higher levels of biodiversity than secondary ones, which is part of the reason conservationists are trying to save old growth [source: Butler].

In areas where deforestation is severe, remaining patches of primary forests are often located at great distances from other surviving rainforests or reforested regions. This makes animal survival and recolonization, as well as plant cross-pollination, difficult and can impede efforts to sustain actual rainforest ecology. Although the parcels of vegetative land can increase the chance of some species' short-term survival, researchers say the species are likely doomed to extinction over the long term.

­One ­way conservationists seek to protect rainforest species is to reforest the corridors of trees that lie between rainforest parcels. This gives plants and animals access to a larger habitat and the chance to mix with other populations, which can boost their genetic diversity and help prevent extinction through isolation for most species. Conservationists can help cultivate these arboreal arteries into supportable rainforest habitats by working to have these corridors widened. The wider the corridors are, the safer they become for migrating animals to use.

It's also important to reforest and enlarge areas adjacent to these surviving parcels. This provides an easy means for species to inhabit new territory and expand viable rainforest ecology.

Researchers are exploring several options for improving and easing reforestation efforts. One inventive method involves bats. Installing man-made bat roosts in deforested areas can encourage these uniquely flight-enabled mammals (like the spectacled flying fox) to spread seeds and begin the process of rainforest regeneration. Activities like installing bat roosts are examples of how people are a part of natural reforestation efforts.

Reforestation is gaining momentum on a global scale. To get a better idea of worldwide reforestation efforts, go to the next page.

Rainforest Reforestation Efforts

Ecotourism is one of the economic motivations for replanting the rainforests.
Ecotourism is one of the economic motivations for replanting the rainforests.
Jerry Driendl/The Image Bank/Getty Images

­Reforestation efforts are sprouting up all around the world. Numerous conservation groups are working to preserve, enlarge and connect the world's rainforests. Let's take a closer look at some of those projects.

Rwanda's government and various ecological groups are paying special attention to the Gishwati Forest Reserve. Once a vast rainforest, activities such as deforestation and refugee resettlement reduced it to a fraction of its original size around the turn of the century [source: Science Daily]. Since then, reforestation has somewhat increased the size of the forest, but it remains a sliver of its original size.

A project called the Rwandan National Conservation Park is gaining momentum, and those people involved with the project are working to bring the rainforest back and connect it with larger, surviving rainforests nearby. These individuals and organizations are looking to accomplish this through the use of wide tree corridors. They also plan to increase the acreage of the core forest and study the ecology of the forest's animals, particularly its chimpanzees.

Indonesia, where extensive rainforests have been severely decimated, is also investing in reforestation. On Nov. 28, 2007, each of the country's 79,000 government institutions planted 1,000 trees -- contributing 79 million trees in all [source: ­Anderton]. This effort aligns with other tree-planting projects, as well as vigorous monitoring of illegal logging operations.

In Brazil, the pace of rainforest loss has begun to slow, and several conservation efforts are underway [source: Ausubel]. Huge projects that involve the cooperation of many Brazilian and international organizations have been working to replant the rainforests. Developing and building vast networks of corridors is one major focus, along with species protection and protective breeding programs. Conservationists have also worked to educate the local community about the value of a thriving rainforest. In addition, ranchers and farmers receive incentives for cultivating forest parcels on their lands.

The United Nations Environment Programme met with such success during its worldwide Billion Tree Campaign -- the 1 billion mark was hit in just eight months -- that the new goal is 7 billion trees [source: U.N.] They hope to achieve this goal by the end of 2009, and citizens from around the globe are invited to pledge plantings and register their planted trees at Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign.

­To find out more about the benefits of reforestation, how you can get involved and other great links about replanting the rainforests, follow the links on the next page.

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Rainforests: Author's Note

Jessika Toothman, Staff Writer
Jessika Toothman, Staff Writer
HowStuffWorks 2009

This was one of the many articles I have been called upon to write where my understanding of the issue underwent interesting twists during the course of my research. That's because I came to realize there was a related, yet larger issue at hand. While we can, to some extent, replant rainforests, we desperately need to stop cutting down the rainforests that still remain. Then, through replanting initiatives, we need to reconnect what's left like pearls on a treasured necklace. Rainforests contain a gift beyond measure -- biodiversity -- and squandering that for the sake of unsustainable activities like mining and agriculture is dangerously shortsighted. Now of course, I know there are many other factors and stakeholders involved that make such a course of action challenging, but after reading about what the rainforests of the world have done for us in terms of modern medicine alone, well, it's my opinion that we need to make saving, then replenishing them, the order of priority.

Sources

  • "Afforestation." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/afforestation
  • Agence France-Presse. "Indonesia to hold mass tree planting day." United Nations Environment Programme. (June 10, 2008) http://www.unep.org/billiontreecampaign/CampaignNews/indonesia.asp
  • "Amazon Corridors Far Too Narrow, Warn Scientists." ScienceDaily. 2/24/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080218134554.htm
  • Anderton, Trish. "Indonesia Embarks on Tree-Planting Campaign." NPR 11/28/2007. (June 10, 2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16686552
  • Ausubel, Jesse. "Study: Reforestation Shows Signs of Life." Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. NPR. 11/17/2006. (June 10, 2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6503405
  • Butler, Rhett. "In the Amazon, primary forest biodiversity tops that of secondary forest, plantations." MongaBay.com. 11/12/2007. (June 10, 2008) http://news.mongabay.com/2007/1111-amazon.html
  • "Fact sheet: Stepping Up International Action on Climate Change. The Road to Copenhagen." United Nations Framework Action on Climate Change. (June 10, 2008) http://unfccc.int/files/press/backgrounders/application/pdf/the_road_to_copenhagen.pdf
  • "Fast Facts." United Nations Environment Programme. (June 10, 2008) http://www.unep.org/billiontreecampaign/FactsFigures/FastFacts/index.asp
  • "Garuda Indonesia, Forestry Department and WWF Indonesia Rehabilitate Sebangua National Park." Garuda Indonesia Airline. (June 10, 2008) http://www.garuda-indonesia.com/index.php?menu=news&opt=detail&id=133
  • Harris, Tom. "How Rainforests Work." HowStuffWorks.com (6/10/2008) https://www.howstuffworks.com/rainforest.htm
  • Joyce, Christopher. "Climate Experts Mull Payment to Stop Deforestation." NPR. 12/3/2007. (June 10, 2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16827590
  • Morell, Virginia. "The Rain Forest in Rio's Backyard." National Geographic. 3/2004. (June 10, 2008) http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/earth/habitats/rio-rain-forest.html ?nav=FEATURES
  • "No Convincing Evidence for Decline in Tropical Forests." ScienceDaily. 1/8/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080107181343.htm
  • "Press Conference by United Nations Environment Programme on the New Tree Campaign." United Nations Department of Public Information. 5/13/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2008/080513_UNEP.doc.htm
  • "Questions and Answers." United Nations Environment Programme. (June 10, 2008) http://www.unep.org/billiontreecampaign/FactsFigures/QandA/index.asp
  • "Reforestation Using Exotic Plants Can Disturb Fertility of Tropical Soils." ScienceDaily. 6/3/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080529105241.htm
  • "Rwanda Conservation Effort To Link Isolated Chimps to Distant Forest." ScienceDaily. 3/20/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080318084337.htm
  • "Rwanda's Gishwati Forest Selected As Site For Historic Conservation Project." ScienceDaily. 1/17/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080115085344.htm
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  • ­"Tropical Reforestation Aided by Bats." ScienceDaily. 4/28/2008. (June 10, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080428124235.htm

Rainforests: Cheat Sheet

Stuff you need to know:

  • Deforestation can occur through natural means, such as forest fires, but modern practices like logging, mining and agriculture have all taken a huge additional toll.
  • Once a rainforest is destroyed, not only is a wealth of biodiversity lost, the land where the rainforest once stood is more prone to soil erosion, landslides and flooding.
  • Quick-growing exotic species can be used to plant secondary forests after primary forests have been destroyed in order to help amend critical issues, but it's not a perfect solution.
  • Replanting with non-native species can change the soil composition and make a parcel of land untenable for the expansion of a rainforest's native species. Secondary forests also tend to be poorer in terms of biodiversity.
  • Conservation efforts often aim to plant secondary forests in corridors between remaining islands of primary forest to help prevent species from becoming cut off from one another. This practice bolsters their available habitat while helping prevent extinction in isolation.

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