When You Want To Save Earth, Start With The Rainforests

By Dominic O’Sullivan

You may, or may not, have realised that rainforests are vitally important in the struggle to tackle Climate Change.  If you are amongst those that did not realise, you are about to.

The intricate dynamics of rainforests is still largely unknown, misunderstood and vastly undervalued.  To some, the forests look like a lot of green, a lot of trees that stand and appear to do…..not a lot!  They have always just been there, and Malaysia was given them in massive abundance.  However, over the years we have learnt that forests are a vibrant interdependent community, and that the trees even talk to each other, and help each other.  But what are the rainforests actually doing that has helped them flourish over thousands and even millions of years, and what is the impact of destroying over half of them in just over a century?

Regulating The Atmosphere

Rainforests (in fact all forests) consume vast amounts of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) produced mainly by our determined reliance on fossil fuels as our principal source of energy.  By absorbing the sun’s heat energy, and through photosynthesis (plant food making process) replacing it with life-giving oxygen and with water vapour that returns to the atmosphere, keeping it moist and helping to regulate conditions which support all life on our planet.

When we remove or disrupt the forests, that excessive man-made CO2 is not absorbed.  Instead, that CO2 adds to ever-rising Greenhouse effect and we see temperatures go up, weather patterns change giving severe storms, droughts and even crop failures.

Destruction Of Carbon Sinks 

Over hundreds of thousands of years (far, far longer than man has been around), plants have lived and died and much of their carbon dense tissues became laid down as huge deposits below forests that continued to grow above them. These are called ‘carbon sinks’ that lock much of that organic carbon in a safe and stable place that does not affect the atmosphere. When the carbon sink is exposed or destroyed by deforestation, vast amounts of CO2 and methane (CH4 – a much more damaging GreenHouse Gas [GHG] than even CO2) are spewed into the atmosphere as from a volcano, driving up temperatures and unchallenged by the forest that was previously regulating it.

Massive Disruption Of Water Supplies

The organic material and the root systems of the forests penetrate the ground and help to create vast reservoirs of clean filtered underground Water, usually in porous rock layers called aquafers.  This capacity to enable water to more rapidly reach the aquafers maintains water there which helps farming as well as maintaining the health and biodiversity of the forest itself.  In times of heavy rain, this capacity also helps to prevent floods and to later release water gradually in the dry season. However, disruption leads to less water retention, more floods, contaminated water supplies, shortages and even drought.

Downstream flooding caused by disturbance of massive areas of forest for plantations.- Picture Courtesy of Willie Smits

Soil Stability

The same root systems provide stability to the soil, like linking arms in a human chain, and maintains physical stability of the landscape by holding it together.   Taking the Forest ecosystem away again breaks that chain, and leads to massive soil nutrient loss, to excessive run-offs, flooding, erosion and mudslides, and loss of the very soils themselves hindering attempts at reforestation and doing untold damage all the way to the oceans.

Create A Cooler Environment At Ground Level

In the tropics, there is nothing nicer that sitting under a tree on a hot day; unless it is doing that with a refreshing cool drink.  The canopy of the forest is much hotter than the ground level. Up there, the trees are actively absorbing all that solar energy while we below enjoy being out of the midday sun.  That cooling effect supports the life cycles of so many flora and fauna, helping germination of seeds to perpetuate the forest, and it even offers comfortable, cooling, healthy green space when valued and encouraged in urban settings.

Home To Indigenous Peoples

Most indigenous peoples can trace their attachment to their lands back hundreds of years.  They have adopted sustainable lifestyles taking only enough from the bounty of the forest to meet their daily needs – food, water, shelter, and even medicines. 

Their way of life on their land, as part of the forest, is unobtrusive, and from it they have derived knowledge, skills and a wisdom that is in many ways still beyond the understanding of even our best scientists.  To continue that lifestyle, undisturbed, is their right.  What right has any of us to take that away, together with the priceless knowledge of the animals and plants of the forests and the benefits that knowledge has yet to offer mankind?  Yet we do!

Abundant Biodiversity

Nature abhors monocultures (such as palm oil) which is so evident when you consider that a single hectare of rainforest may contain 42,000 different species of insect, up to 807 trees, and 1,500 species of higher plants (according to Wikipedia). Not only this, but over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered within them.

Some 90% of land species are (were) to be found here, living in a balanced and self-sustaining environment – part of the miracle of life; a vast inter-related family of organisms with complex life cycles that we barely understand.  We have already lost millions of species that we did not even know existed, and now, we will never know.  We have lost plants that may yet have cured disease and offered more sustainable food sources.  Much of the rest of the wildlife of this planet (as much as 70%) may already have been lost, and deforestation and habitat loss are the major causes on land.  Then we tend to blame and persecute the animals for encroaching on the humanised habitat ☹

A once vibrant jungle teaming with biodiversity, now pillaged for timber and palm oil. and left to the forces of erosion.- Picture Courtesy of Willie Smits.

You may not understand the value of biodiversity, but every time we lose a species, we are losing forever a unique story of how that animal or plant survived the struggle of life, all documented in its genes, and some of that history may yet have helped us to survive what is to come.

When USVP Al Gore published his stunning and prophetic book An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006, it was largely ignored by global leaders and remained so, until now.  World renowned scientists and naturalists were giving us frequent warnings that things were changing, and at an alarming rate; things that indicated that nature was now massively disturbed by our activities, and that we needed to take urgent notice.

We did not listen!  And now that Inconvenient Truth has arrived.

If We Do Not Act TOGETHER Soon, VERY SOON….

If there is one thing that scientists may have got wrong, it is that the rate of acceleration of Climate Change appears to be much faster than at first thought – we are running out of time!

If we do not act TOGETHER soon, VERY SOON, we shall see the impact of this; insufficient clean water to drink and to sustain our food supply, temperatures too high to support germination and sustained growth of our food crops, loss of pollinators, pestilence, drought and climate refugees, and much more.

Our best option now is to start with setting the priorities.  The Best option – Save the ECOSYSTEM! A heathy ecosystem optimises biodiversity and secures optimal health and sustainability.  For a good link on what action we need to take, look for The Selfish Green on Youtube. 

Ethiopians planted approximately 350 million trees in July 2019, and committed to 3.5 billion by the end of that year. If they can do it in Ethiopia, surely we can do it here? – Picture Courtesy of The Climate Reality Project

Let’s start Rewilding in earnest.  Let’s start by saving what rainforest we have left, and perhaps we can begin with Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve.   

What surprises and saddens me is that there still appears to be no concerted commitment to addressing the challenge from government whose strong leadership is key.  There are some plans (confusing as many are), and lots of statements of intent, but there is little transparency as to what progress is being made to save us all, and how we all might help to hasten the process!

Disruption of this intricate web of life is like playing jenga with nature, and we are now so very close to disaster.  IT IS TIME TO REBUILD!

And that is why rainforests are so important!    

So, Get out there.  Plant a Tree! Join an environmental NGO. And demand the strong leadership and representation that you and your grandchildren deserve.

To catch up on the scale of what we are facing, you might try these links:

David Attenborough’s acclaimed film A Life On Our Planet on Netflix.

Julia Roberts, one of many celebrities on Youtube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmVLcj-XKnM&ab_channel=ConservationInternational

And this week, there are two big events that are very relevant:

IGEM Conference:  https://virtual.igem.my/

Kuala Lumpur EcoFilm Festival (KLEFF) Programme 2020:  https://kleff.my/schedule-timetable/

Dominic recently qualified as Climate Reality Leader (CRL) under USVP Al Gore’s The Climate Reality Project and is one of 50 CRLs in Malaysia who are happy to offer webinars and talks (SOPs permitting) to groups, societies and to influencers.  Please enquire via NMH FB page. – New Malaysia Herald                                  

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