Imagine a deforestation project that lays bare all of Delaware, eastern Maryland, Washington, D.C. and the Greater Baltimore area. That’s 4,200 square miles, equal to the amount of tropical rainforest in Brazil destroyed last year. It was like that the year before. 2021 is headed for the same record.
The nearest patch of Brazilian rainforest is 2,500 miles away from Gainesville. Why should we care?
Cancer therapy is one reason. One-fourth of current pharmaceuticals are derived from tropical rainforest plants. Birth control drugs, chemotherapy and many other products are derived from “nature’s pharmacy”, as the rainforest of the Amazon has been called.
Others call it “the lungs of the world” because it produces oxygen. In the process it absorbs carbon dioxide and lessens the climate change caused by rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. But even after some attempts to save this rich environment, development is replacing the rainforest with towns, farms and ranches.
In North Georgia and around the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina it’s easy to find areas like that. A century ago, they were poorly yielding crop fields. Farming was discontinued, and today we see thriving forests of relatively young trees. But the Amazon is different. The nutrients needed for tree growth aren’t found in the soil. They are stored in the living plants. When a tree dies, decomposition breaks it down very quickly and allows new plants to grow.
Slash-cut a few hundred acres, burn the debris as is common practice in the Amazon, and the nutrients have all turned into smoke and carbon dioxide. The soil is only marginally fertile. Farms established on the difficult ground lose productivity after a few seasons and are replaced by cattle ranches. Herds of cows trample the soil, which causes erosion, removing more nutrients. Dark, rich forests have now become pale, bleached-looking regions. This, in turn, suppresses rainfall and removes the chance of letting nature try and slowly restore itself.
We don’t know all the species of plants and animals in the rainforest. The cure for cancer may still be hidden there. But destroying this environment is akin to taking a treasure chest, dumping its contents unseen, and using the rest as firewood. A drive along Brazilian rainforest roads in Google Maps (Street View) provides scary views of the slashed, burned land that was to produce our oxygen and pharmaceuticals.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.