Why Visiting a Rainforest Might Just Save the World

Global warming - do you believe in it? Is our climate actually changing so drastically? If so, is it really all our fault? Despite the UN making climate change their top priority at a recent summit, scientists are still divided on the true cause and effects of global warming - but whatever our personal opinions on this are, we can't deny that we are destroying our planet.

While the rising temperature is dismissed by global warming naysayers as part of Earth's natural cycle, there is no convenient justification for the rate of deforestation that's occurring all across the globe. While forests still make up around 30 percent of the world's land mass, each year bands of forest the size of Panama are lost. At the rate we are going at, all rainforests in the world could disappear within a hundred years.

Most of us know this - to a degree, at least. We know how important conservation is; we know deforestation is bad; we know we should be trying to save the ancient ecosystems that support over half of all wildlife on earth. But how much do we actually understand this? How much do we fully grasp the magnitude of what will actually happen when the last of the forests vanish for good?

Plants found in Jamaica's Cockpit Country forest. Image by Chris Favero.

For me at least, it wasn't until actually setting foot in a rainforest that I could entirely comprehend just what these ecosystems mean to our planet. During a trip to Jamaica earlier this year I visited Cockpit Country, Jamaica's largest remaining contiguous rainforest and home to 280 threatened species. While it certainly felt vast, as far as rainforests go Cockpit Country is tiny - only 22,327 hectares of forest compared to the staggering 62 million hectares that make up the Amazon rainforest.

In the same way most of us struggle to appreciate the incalculable massiveness of space, it's hard to gain a real idea of just quite how immense these environments are. Being in a rainforest - actually in amongst the dense trees and pushing your way through the obstructive undergrowth - gives you a sense of how indispensable they are. It's nearly impossible to convey just how wide-reaching the effects of total deforestation would be; aside from losing over half of our wildlife, evicting countless indigenous people and disturbing the fragile ecological balance of our planet, the ramifications will extend to our health too.

Over a quarter of today's western medicine originates from the rainforest, and we're not talking about home remedies for colds - this is medicine we use to treat cancer. Madagascar's rosy periwinkle is used to cure leukaemia while the anti-malarial drug quinine is made from trees only found in the Andean rainforest. Quite what humans intend to do when the last of these plants disappear is unknown. We only understand how to use 1 percent of the plants in the rainforest - the possibilities that could come from experimenting with the other 99 percent are limitless.

Aside from anything else, being in the rainforest gives you a sense of antiquity, of being in a place that's barely changed for millennia. How sad it is that over 80,000 acres of rainforest that took between 60 and 100 million years to evolve are destroyed each day - and with Brazil shamefully refusing to sign a pledge to end deforestation by 2030, the threat of our rainforests disappearing is as real as it ever was.

While hordes of tourists with cameras swarming through rainforests is also obviously not what we want, the more people understand these incredible ecosystems, whether through actually visiting themselves or learning proactively, the better. Only increased awareness of the power and possibility that rainforests create for us can inspire the conviction needed to actually do something - before it's too late.