Restoring Our Tropical Rain Forests
Often, my strong urge to travel has to do with seeing something before it disappears. For years I felt that way about going to Africa; I wanted to go on safari before it was too late to see the animals in the wild. I was painfully aware that in many areas of Africa where ecological consciousness is non-existent, poaching and loss of habitat have resulted in animals being added to the endangered species list, if not brought to the brink of extinction. Thus I was delighted last year to discover that the animal populations in Africa seemed to be thriving, at least in the areas where I visited.
I feel the same way about the shrinking rain forests around the globe. Researchers now tell us with certainty that climate zones will shift and some climates will disappear completely by 2100. Tropical highlands and polar regions may be the first to disappear, and large swaths of the tropics and subtropics will reach even hotter temperatures. I sometimes feel desperate to visit the great rain forests of the world before they are gone and so I was most interested to read about a project of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Sciences at Cornell University that is attempting to restore the tropical rain forest ecosystems in Costa Rica.
In 1993, researchers began replanting a parcel of worn-out pasture land. For 50 years the soil had been compacted under the hooves of grazing animals and its nutrients washed away. They trimmed away the pasture grasses so that the trees could take hold and planted mixtures of fast-growing local tree species, collecting seeds from native trees in the community before hungry monkeys beat them to it. After just five years, averaging about six feet of growth per year, those first trees formed a canopy of leaves that shaded out the grasses underneath. Ten years after the initial plantings, the species of plants growing in the shade numbered more than 100 in each plot and many of the new arrivals were also found in nearby remnants of the original forests.
The benefits of the project are more wide-ranging than just restoring a beautiful tropical rain forest. The process also helps to control erosion and improve the quality of life of the local people. Researchers point out that drinking water becomes more readily available when forests thrive because tree roots act as a sort of sponge and prevent water from running off hills and draining away.
Fully rescuing a rain forest may take hundreds of years, but the mere hope that we may be able to accomplish this restoration gives me tremendous hope that it is not too late to save our fragile and beautiful Mother Earth. Perhaps I have a few more years to visit the rain forests of the world, after all.