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The Rainforest

1995, 2009 by Tony Medley

     I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that a plant in the rainforest contains the cure for AIDS.  The bad news is that the plant very likely has been permanently destroyed by man without ever being discovered.

     Don't read this if you don't like to be scared by facts.  Avoid this article if you want to continue living in a serene, comfortable world believing that nothing changes much and the earth will be our pleasant home forever.  Throw this away and burn it if you want to keep your false sense of faith and security that you feel mankind shares in safeguarding mother nature.

     Why?  Because our wonderful life is dependent on the earth's ecosystems.  And one of the most important, if not the most important, of earth's ecosystems is the rainforest.  And the rainforests are being systematically destroyed by government action and torpidity.  This is akin to the destruction of the great Buffalo herd in the 19th century, but the consequences for mankind are far more dire.

     The rainforest ecosystem has been called an energy utilization complex far more efficient than any energy conservation system developed by man.  Rainforests circled the equator in a green belt for 60 million years - but man would have cleared them within the next 20 years!

     So what?  This is where it gets really scary.  This is where you should throw this article away and go out to play golf if you don't want to know.

     So what?  OK, I'll tell you.  Twenty five percent of our prescription medicine comes from 10% of the known rainforest plants.  But, fasten your seat belt, only an estimated 5-25% of all plant species have been found.  1,300 of the known 2,000 cancer-fighting plants come from the rainforests.  But only 1% of the total number of plants have been studied for medicinal properties!

     So what?  In existence for 60 million years, 40% of the primary tropical rainforest has been destroyed in 50 years!  And by the end of the century, less than 5 years away, there will only be 25% of it left!  57 acres of rainforest are destroyed every minute!  Mankind destroys 17 million trees worldwide every day (that's equal to an area three times bigger than Switzerland destroyed every year)!  At last count there were approximately 2,700 man-made fires raging in the Amazon alone.

     So what?  It's been estimated that almost a quarter of the atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution comes from burning the rainforests.  This causes what is popularly known as the "greenhouse effect."  The problem arises because the plants in the rainforest absorb carbon dioxide and store it in beautiful plant mass.  When the trees are burned, the carbon dioxide is then released into the atmosphere, destroying the most efficient and beautiful waste container imaginable.

     The rainforests by themselves contain an estimated 90% of earth's plant and animal life forms, 80 million insect species, 11 million different plants.  The rainforests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen @ 27 tons per acre per year!  Without oxygen, well, need I spell it out? 

     An area as small as 1,000 acres of typical primary rainforest contains as many as 600 species of flowering plants, 280 species of trees, 600 types of butterflies, 40 types of reptiles, and 24 species of amphibians. 

     Rainforests are the primary gene pools for most wheats, coffees, and other foods upon which we depend. 

     So, maybe you're beginning to get the picture.  But I can go on.  We need the rainforests for the oxygen they produce.  We need the rainforests for the medicine they produce.  How many medicine-producing plants are made obsolete without even knowing they exist each day by our destruction?

     At the present clearing rate, plant and animal species are becoming extinct at the incredible rate of one species per hour (some data indicate that the rate of extinction is much greater, more than 100 species per day)!  Life forms that have been evolving for millions of years are being wiped out every few minutes.  In the United States we have an Endangered Species Act that, for example, has committed $250 million to preserve the Kangaroo Rat.  Compare this action we have taken upon the concern we have with nations that are taking no action to prevent the destruction of one species per hour.

     Now, maybe you're beginning to get a small glimpse of the picture.  If you're still reading, maybe you're a little bit concerned.  Maybe you think you have the big picture.  Now maybe you want to know some specifics.

     What does all this mean?  How does it work?  OK.  Those are fair questions.  So let me get down and dirty.  Let's talk about "relationships."  No, not the "relationships" of which you might be thinking.  These are real "relationships."  And what's really important isn't the "relationship," it's the interrelationship.

     There are more than 100,000 different types of fungi living in the rainforest.  They live off of decaying plants, which create ammoniac and methane, which are the food for the fungi.  The waste product of the fungi is, what?  NITROGEN, just exactly the fertilizer the trees need to exist and grow!  The fungi create far too much nitrogen.  If the nitrogen wasn't somehow consumed, it would destroy the fungi.

     But the fungi weave into a network-like shape around the roots of their host trees.  Thus when the fungi excrete the nitrogen, they are transporting it directly to the roots.  The leaves produce the canopy of the rainforest.  Seventy percent of all life forms come out of the canopy.

     Wait a minute, I'm not finished.  The leaves produced by the trees using the nitrogen produced by the fungi engage in photosynthesis, which means that they take up the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide is produced by us, by you and me.  It's our waste.  Carbon dioxide is one of the primary gases that cause the "greenhouse effect."  The leaves take the carbon dioxide, convert it into oxygen, and release 27 tons of oxygen per acre per year into our atmosphere!

     There's more.  If there is not enough decaying mass to feed the fungi, the fungi send out a chemical message summoning vast numbers of specialized ants to come in and cut leaves.  The ants can't eat the leaves because they can't digest fiber, only protein.  So they carry the leaves to the fungi to feed the fungi. 

     Here's where it really gets cute.  The ants then eat the fungi because fungus is protein and that's what ants need for their existence!

     That's what I call an "interrelationship!"

     But, wait a minute.  Haven't we all heard about getting terrible diseases from the rainforest because there are so many different bacteria to which we have not been exposed?  Didn't AIDS come from the rainforest?  Didn't the Ebola Virus come from the rainforest?  Right.  That's exactly where they came from.  And that's one of the reasons that the preservation of the rainforest is so important.

     Bear with me.  In a healthy environment, mutating bacteria and viruses are kept under check and balance because the healthy environment will produce a way to deal with the uncontrolled explosion of the mutations.  That's the wonder of the inventiveness of nature, and it's what we are destroying forever.

     It's only a destructed environment, a rainforest that has been damaged by human activity, that causes these terrible diseases that attack and may destroy mankind.  In an unhealthy environment, one that has been destructed, the environment is not strong enough to combat the mutating bacteria and viruses, so they have more chance to take over, resulting in terrible scourges like AIDS and Ebola.

     Well, you might say, let's just replant.  Great idea.  However, re-forestation cannot restore the vital primary rainforest and its bio-diversity.  Incidentally, the rainforests contain as much as 90% of the world's bio-diversity in less than 8% of the earth's surface!  Secondary forests need more than 2,000 years to convert back to primary forests.  But that's assuming that the topsoil remains, and it doesn't.  Once the trees are removed, the topsoil disappears because it is only two inches thick.  So, once the rainforests are removed by man, they are gone forever.

     There's a big difference between our moderate forests, with which we are familiar here in North America, and the tropical rainforest.  For one thing, our moderate forests get about 80% of their nutrition from the breakdown of minerals in the soil.  The tropical rainforest, on the other hand, with only a two inch thick strand of nutritiously poor topsoil, needs to get 80% of its nutrients from above the soil in a symbiotic relationship with every other life form in this ecosystem.

     Second, a tropical rainforest reacts like a single biological entity.  A disrupted canopy, for instance, is conceived by the forest like an open wound.  Rainforests may pull back as much as 2 miles from either side of a road being built through it, until it can "heal" itself.  The narrow ecological niches prohibit most life forms from crossing roads, thus isolating huge sections of the rainforest from the rest.

     Third, three-fourths of the rain in tropical rainforests comes from its own evaporation!  This means that when the forest is gone the rain stops, thus making it impossible for the rainforest to regrow.

     The countries who are destroying their rainforests are misinformed and acting directly contrary to their best interests.  The countries that preserve their rainforests are much better off,  economically, than those that destroy them.  A tragic example is on the island of Hispaniola that is home to the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  There is a picture of the rainforest along the border between these two countries accompanying this article.  The Dominican Republic area is filled with a lush rainforest.  The border is a line where the rainforest ends and the devastation wreaked by Haiti begins, as Haiti has cut down its rainforest for burning wood.  Haiti has the worst economy in the hemisphere, whereas the Dominican Republic is prospering. 

     Even though the easy answer is to condemn the countries that are destroying the rainforest, that's not fair.  Most of these governments are under staggering debt, pay high interest rates for their money, and are combatting mind-boggling poverty.  They feel that their rainforest is one of their most valuable assets and a source of quick access to cash.  Instead of condemning Haiti, Brazil (where one reason for cutting down the rainforest is to plant the new style of coffee plants), and the others, the United States should be concentrating on educating them, showing them how they can utilize this extraordinary and irreplaceable asset.  Our challenge is not to criticize and condemn. Rather, we should devote the time and energy required into showing them how their rainforest can contribute to their economy by preserving and maintaining it.  That's the challenge we face.

     How critical can we be, anyway, here in the United States, about such destruction by foundering countries?  Rafael Angel Calderon Fournier, the former president of Costa Rica, put it perfectly, when he said:

If the world doesn't know that the rainforest is a world community asset, how can anyone blame a developing nation if they look at it as a national asset?

We, here in the United States, have the knowledge.  It's up to us to educate the world about the value of the rainforest and to show developing nations how much better off they will be economically if they preserve it instead of cutting it down for firewood and other transitory purposes.

     The rainforests may contain the answers to many of our medical problems.  They should be pampered and developed instead of being cut down and burned.  And it's up to us to turn this around and make it happen.

     Dr. Walter Moseneder is, presently, the voice crying in the wilderness to save the rainforest.  Dr. Moseneder resigned from his career as an international business entrepreneur to found the Operation Rainforest Foundation, a non profit organization. 

     Worldwide conservation of the rainforest can only be assured through increased knowledge and awareness, which is directly proportioned to the amount of research into the rainforest.  There are no facilities in the rainforest.  No Hilton Hotels or Motel 6.  No airports or taxis.  No travel agents.  No roads.  There is no civilization.

     Dr. Moseneder has directed his energies to the primary issue of finding out more about the rainforest. Right now we know virtually nothing. 

     So he has designed and is building, on a non profit basis, a unique living facility, called a Mobile Base Camp (MBC) to facilitate rainforest Research and Conservation.  The MBC is designed to support 2 scientists for period of up to 4 weeks without contact with civilization.  If required an MBC can sleep up to five people. A shortwave transmitter, combined with satellite communication capabilities, ties the MBC to a central monitoring location for position reports, supplies, emergencies and protection.  They can be trucked in or helicoptered in, and left in place (or moved).  They provide the facilities that don't exist otherwise to support the people who have to do the research.

     However, when located within the confines of the rainforest itself, the MBC, or any camp, it totally incommunicado with the outside world because the canopy of the rainforest prohibits any sound communication, which is dependent upon line of sight.

     Without Dr. Moseneder's MBCs, which cost an average of $30,000-40,000 each, the alternative camps must be custom built with costs exceeding $80,000 for the basic cabin and an additional $90,000 for the necessary truck.  The MBC provides the opportunity for sophisticated research in the rainforest itself without the numbing cost of custom built living facilities. 

     How, you may ask, will an MBC help maintain the rainforest?  Good question.  To understand this it's necessary to explain how the scientific community works, and, specifically, how scientific research has anything to do with the preservation of the rainforest.

     If you've followed me this far, you understand the vast biodiversity of life in the rainforest, and how much of it is undiscovered.  Scientists drool at the thought of being able to examine the rainforest.  A good example is Dr. Moseneder's son, Christian, who lives in Austria.

     The MBC provides Christian with exactly what he needs for his research.  Christian is an expert on flower beetles.  He will collect and study them in the African rainforest, setting up a base camp at the perimeters of the forests to conduct study around the base camp, including long term observations with the wallCmounted cameras of the MBC.

     Further, he can use the MBC after a walking expedition to determine and package specimens, enter collecting and observation-data in the on-board computer, and get a good rest for his next hike into the depths of the forest.  The vital features of the MBC will provide him with elaborate water-purification filters and refrigeration system (which is also suitable for his vials of anti-snake serum).  The MBC will allow Christian to extend his stays in the rainforest almost indefinitely, due to its comfort and mobility.

     The MBC contains a built in Satellite Global Positioning System, which can pinpoint locations within a few feet.  As a result, location of all of Christian's discoveries will be known and saved on computer so that it may be instantly located at any future time by anyone who is interested.  No guesswork.

     Another aspect of the MBC is that it has an optionally available Satellite Communication equipment through which Christian's observations may be sent to researchers around the world.  Thus, this equipment can immediately process vital information and even direct him to other locations. 

     Christian's research, like that of other scientists using the MBCs, will help enlarge the small window of information we presently have on tropical rainforests.  More information of biological processes in these biotopes leads to a higher recognition of its immense value for mankind.

     Most important, as more information is learned about what is available in the rainforest, the rainforest-rich countries will eventually recognize the value and protect their most valuable natural resource for the countries' long term enrichment.

     Other scientists with other specialties will use the MBC to study their interest.  With enough MBCs available, the rainforest will be much more open to scientists exploring its secrets.  This is truly the new frontier for exploration, not the ocean floor or space, but the rainforest.  Eventually, if we can save the rainforest, one by one, little by little, the vast treasures of the rainforest can be discovered.  From these discoveries, new miracle drugs can be developed that could make penicillin look like a mild sedative.

     These are the things that we must show the host countries, that the rainforest has value far and beyond the value it provides in the form of firewood or places to grow coffee trees.  We must show then that the rainforest is their most valuable asset.  The MBC is the vehicle for us to use.

     Dr. Moseneder formed Operation Rainforest to build and distribute the MBCs.  Operation Rainforest will solicit Fortune 500 corporations to provide the funds to acquire MBCs at cost.  The MBCs will then be designated with the sponsoring corporation's name prominently displayed, and will then be deployed in selective locations worldwide to further research and protection of the rainforest and the education of the public.  Operation Rainforest will own the MBCs and will rent them to qualifying scientists at a rent that will be equal to the operating expenses of the MBC. 

     Operation Rainforest could be the rainforest's last, best hope for survival.  We cannot remain silent while this irreplaceable asset of incalculable value is destroyed.