If trees go, mankind may follow

Rainforests of the World

February 4, 2000

During the last decade of the past millennium, increasing attention was paid to the forests of the world by politicians, resource managers, scientists and the public. The forests supply marketable and non-marketable goods, providing the basic resource for a wide range of industries and subsistence for millions of people. At the same time, they provide services on which the survival of the planet's peoples and ecosystems depend, moderating macro and micro-climates, controlling soil and water loss and subsequent land degradation, siltation flooding or lack of water. Further, they contain biological diversity among and within species that have great current or potential economic, cultural, aesthetic, spiritual and ethical benefits to mankind.

Most of the public and political concern has been with tropical rainforests. This is perhaps a little unjust because temperate rainforests and the drier forests of the world are equally important for many of the benefits and for supporting equally large numbers of people and their domestic cattle. However, the tropical rainforests are disappearing at a faster rate, contain more biological diversity, are less well known scientifically or publicly and occur in countries where political systems are often weak and unstable, where social and economic pressures on forests are increasing, and where environmental conditions are extremely challenging for human survival.

It is for these reasons perhaps that Rainforests of the World by Art Wolfe and Ghillean Prance, while not excluding tropical cloud forests on mountains nor the temperate forests of the west coast of North America, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, concentrates on the tropics; another and more obvious reason is the great experience of Prance as a botanist, naturalist and sociologist in the forests of South America.

Recognising that rainforests control the survival and welfare of indigenous ecosystems, animals, plants and peoples while having major influences on populations living far from them, the book considers the forests in terms of the four ancient Greek elements of life - water, fire, earth and air. Water is the factor that defines rainforests (areas that receive more than 2,000mm of rainfall each year, spread throughout most of the year); the higher temperatures of the tropical regions promote a greater diversity of ecological niches, micro-ecosystems and their associated biological diversity than the cooler temperate rainforests. Prance describes a fascinating range of adaptations and interdependencies among plants and animals in relation to the water resources available in the forest.

The fire of the sun is taken as the source of the light that is the primary necessity of plants. Light is one of the most important ecological factors in rainforest ecology, and the book introduces many of the adaptations to differing light intensity, including the nocturnal vision of many animals and the difference between shade-tolerant and light-

demanding plants. The various strata of vegetation canopies and their inhabitants are well described and illustrated. The section deals briefly with fire per se as an ecological factor in the development of rainforest, including man-made fires; traditional shifting cultivation practices ("swidden") have relied on fire and were not permanently damaging until human population pressure caused too-early returns to previously cultivated land before the forest could regenerate the soil productivity.

"Western peoples have largely lost contact with the earth. We walk in shoes on asphalt Native peoples are very aware of the ground because they walk barefooted." In this section Prance describes the origin and content of soil as the basis of agriculture and forest growth, and Wolfe illustrates the vast array of organisms that inhabit it, from fungi and other micro-organisms to the large mammals on the forest floor.

In describing the aerial environment of the rainforest, Wolfe naturally illustrates birds and butterflies in great profusion, but Prance introduces the concepts of climate change and carbon sequestration, noting that tropical rainforests are one of the world's largest stores of carbon so that extensive deforestation enhances the rate of global warming.

In their conclusion, the authors stress that to destroy rainforest is to eradicate species, to alter world climatic patterns and perhaps to condemn the human species to extinction. Although rainforests cover only 7 per cent of the earth's land surface, they contain more than 50 per cent of the world's plant and animal species. The forests must be conserved and managed in a way that seeks to meet the social, environmental and economic demands that mankind places on them.

As part of the campaign to ensure such conservation and wise use, this book is a masterpiece of sensitive text and exciting but supportive photography that merits a place on library shelves and coffee tables alike. A publisher's note on the cover categorises the book as "photography/nature/wildlife"; while this reflects the primary interest of both authors in biological diversity and the phenomenal skills of Wolfe the photographer, it does not capture the depth and breadth of social, cultural and ecological information and interpretation provided by Prance. As stated in the foreword by George Schaller, science director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, "with its stunning photographs and vibrant text, it is a book united in a rare common vision. It bears witness to the splendour of the rainforest and its many inhabitants by fusing feeling and fact."

Jeff Burley is director, Forestry Institute, University of Oxford.

Rainforests of the World

Author - Art Wolfe and Ghillean Prance
ISBN - 1 86046 582 X
Publisher - Harvill
Price - £30.00
Pages - 304

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.