The ways the natural world serves the human population are sometimes referred to as ecosystem services, led by clean water, air, and soil. Rain forests and other areas of dense tree growth also provide ecological services and are part of the world’s natural capital. Trees take in carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, among many other important functions. Therefore, the accelerated loss of the world’s rain forests is of great concern for nature and humankind. Last week’s column cited the removal of 29 million acres of tree cover around the world in 2019. In the Amazon Rain Forest from July 2018 to July 2019, 2.4 million acres were destroyed from deforestation, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
There are a number of human actions responsible for the deforestation of the rain forests. A major factor is the conversion of rain forests to agriculture/ranching land. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 80% of current deforestation in the Amazon is for cattle ranching. Several U.S. and EU financial institutions have been lending millions of dollars to the three major Brazilian beef companies that function in the Amazon.
Many palm oil plantations have replaced parts of the rain forests. Global demand for palm oil has tripled over the past 18 years since it is used in so many products; elimination of palm oil plantations is likely not an option. However, palm agriculture combined with patches of forest and other crops in agroforestry systems protects biodiversity and many ecosystem functions. In other words, there are ways to establish sustainable farming that will respect and protect rain forests.
The reduction of Brazil’s environmental regulations associated with mining, logging, and ranching is another part of rain forest destruction. Severe wildfires, some associated with climate change and others with direct human activities, have been damaging forests on a grand scale.
The bottom line is that solutions are both simple and complex. Ultimately, we are the consumers of goods. It can be difficult to determine exactly which businesses/products are exploiting our natural capital of rain forests and trees around the world. In contrast, many businesses are now evaluating these types of environmental costs as an increasingly important factor in business performance. The simple part is the personal choice of a humble lifestyle, where less is better, where local and sustainable businesses are supported, where we take a pass on the extras. In Pope Francis’s discussion on integral ecology in the Laudato Si, “when we speak of “sustainable use” consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.”
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.