Executive Editor: George Clark; Editor: Paul Malamud
U.S. Department of State Office of International Information Programs

Redwood forest in California. Courtesy of

Forests are prime reservoirs of biodiversity, as well as the ancient cradle of the human race. Anthropologists believe that species ancestral to ours lived amid the trees, later emerging to grassland savannas to explore and hunt.

Still cradles of life, forests also perform all kinds of practical services that benefit modern humans. They produce oxygen we breathe and suck up air pollution. In the United States, 80 percent of fresh water originates in forested areas. Forests purify water and refill underground aquifers; in addition, they absorb rain, and slow down floods and water runoff.

Forests and woodlands over the world have changed over the millennia due to changes in climate and geology. In the modern world, forests are classified into various groups, including temperate-zone and tropical forests. Not all rain forests are in the tropics -- some are in cooler climates. And there are other kinds, such as riparian forests, that separate interior areas from coastlines.

Forest in Alaska. Courtesy of

Each part of the forest supports life. The soil is full of uncounted numbers of microbes, insects, and fungi, essential to recycling organic matter, and thus to the survival of all life on earth. Larger animals live on the forest floor, and the shrub and tree canopy layers are vital to birds. There are about 1.5 million known species in the world, and the true number of species may be ten times more than that. Many of these spend their lives growing, burrowing, wriggling, or plodding along in forests -- or flying through trees. The extent of forested lands has made it possible for birds and animals to range freely in search of food and appropriate climate; the resulting horizontal and vertical complexity of the forest and its density of life creates biodiversity.

Rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Courtesy of

Tropical forests generate the richest biodiversity, as the energy generated by the equatorial sun encourages life to proliferate amid abundant nutrients. Unfortunately, these forests are quite fragile, and over the past half-century have succumbed in large numbers to human clearing and logging. Global forests themselves, as well as their diverse reserves of plants and animals, are threatened as never before. It has been estimated that by the late 1980s three quarters of old-growth forests on the planet had been destroyed, including about half of tropical and temperate rain forests; and human population expansion continues to lead to the clearing of new lands.

Rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Courtesy of

According to the U.S. State Department, "one of every six known bird species, one of every 11 mammals, and one of every 15 reptiles" makes the Amazon rainforest its home. Unfortunately, as David B. Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, recently noted: "Tropical forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Saws and bulldozers are leveling roughly 200 hectares per minute. A soccer field is close to two hectares, so we are losing about 120 soccer fields of tropical forest per minute, more than 7,000 soccer fields per hour, more than 170,000 soccer fields per day."

Deforestation in Borneo. Courtesy of

Around the globe, forests that are not totally destroyed are being fragmented by roads and human development, a change that threatens the health and survival of the indigenous plants and animals. Biologists believe that destroying 90 percent of a wooded habitat reduces local species by about half. Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson has noted that "the poorest people with the fastest-growing populations live next to the richest deposits of biological diversity" and that a single "farmer clearing rain forest to feed his familyíwill cut more kinds of trees than are native to all of Europe."

As the configuration of forests changes, other factors come into play as well. For instance, some forest dwellers require "edge" habitat, areas of woods near glades or grassland, to thrive, while others require the forest interior. Highly fragmented woodland areas diminish the proportion of interior to edge habitat and alter the balance of species. Greater exposure of once-sheltered trees to "edges" may cause them to dry out and become prey to invaders. Global climate change is liable to pose new challenges to the survival of forest ecosystems; habitat fragmentation could hinder the ability of species to adapt.

Rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia. Courtesy of

Once a forest habitat has been weakened, it is more susceptible to disease and to alien species invasion. For instance, following World War II, most songbirds on the Pacific island of Guam were wiped out by a single species of snake, not native to the island. In the United States, some native birds have declined due to the thinning out of forests, which has made it easier for cowbirds to penetrate into woods and parasitize their nests. Many factors affect species decline. When a local population, or a subspecies, becomes diminished, its members breed with one another, amplifying genetic weaknesses and quite possibly precipitating a final decline to extinction.

Rosy periwinkle in Madagascar. Courtesy of

Effective forest conservation requires a commitment to look beyond the short term and to retain large forest areas for the bounty they can provide future generations. The greater the biodiversity of an environment, the greater its ability to withstand environmental stress and produce new and useful forms of life. Properly managed, forest animals and plants may produce more valuable medicine, food, and construction material over the years and decades than can be procured by clear-cutting forests and destroying them in their current form. One frequently cited example of the rewards of maintaining biodiversity for future generations is the recent discovery of the Madagascar rosy periwinkle, which was found to produce chemicals that can cure Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukemia. About 3 percent of the world's flowering plants, so far, have been examined for anticancer chemicals similar to those of the periwinkle. In the United States, 25 percent of pharmaceutical prescriptions are derived from plant extracts and another 13 percent are from microorganisms. The venerable neem tree of South Asia has been thought for centuries to have all kinds of health-giving effects; yet, scientists are just beginning to study it systematically. Little-known plants and animals can be potent sources of pharmaceuticals because they have evolved a range of chemical strategies over the millennia to defend themselves from predators, survive, and thrive.

Forest in Oregon. Courtesy of

Forests are stores of food. About a dozen fruits - apples, peaches, strawberries, bananas, etc. - dominate world consumption. There are probably about 3,000 more kinds of fruits in the tropics, of which 200 are widely eaten. Tens of thousands of other grains, vegetables, and forms of plant food are out there waiting to cure starvation and create greater variety on the dinner table, if they are allowed to survive. The winged bean of New Guinea, for instance, is full of protein, is entirely edible, and can be fried, roasted, ground into flour, or served as a hot beverage. And it grows to a length of 4 meters in a few weeks. The Amazonian babassu palm, still found in a natural state, offers the world's highest yield of vegetable oil from its fruit. It can also feed livestock, produce thatching materials, and be burned for charcoal. Iguana meat is prized by many in the Southern Hemisphere. Scientists estimate forest-ranched iguanas can yield ten times the amount of meat as cattle on the same acreage of cleared land. Other less well-known, yet tasty, animals could produce much food without destroying their forest cover.




Benefits of Biodiversity
Traditional crop varieties and food security
Plant-based medicines
The death of global biodiversity
How to save biodiversity

Coral reefs
Endangered Forests [page 2]
Biodiversity of Wetlands
Arctic Biodiversity