Tropical Forests

updated January 2017

There are two broad categories of tropical forests. The tropical rainforest – found in a narrow band astride the Equator – and the dry tropical forest, located further north and south between the latitudes marked by the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer.

Outside South America, the largest rainforests are found in the Congo basin and in Indonesia. Ecological assets are most intense in “primary” rainforests, those which contain only native tree species and which have experienced very little human intervention beyond that of traditional forest dwellers.

Importance of Tropical Forests

The tropical forest is the jewel in the crown of the biosphere. No other ecosystem delivers more to enrich the natural resources that support life on earth.

Biodiversity is the most renowned attribute of the tropical forest. One hectare of Amazon rainforest can contain more plant species than the whole of Europe. The sensitivity of the forest ecosystem is such that the current rate of extinction of plant and animal species through global deforestation is believed to be 1000 times greater than that in pre-human history.

Less widely recognised is the stabilising influence exercised by tropical forests on regional climate and the water cycle. Water vapour emitted from the trees through evapotranspiration stimulates rainfall, whilst the roots reduce the risks of floods and drought by storing water and binding topsoil.

Deforestation disrupts this cycle, leading to a reduction in regional rainfall. International anxiety over the degradation of the Mau Forest in Kenya illustrates the dependence of a regional economy on forest assets. The clearance of forests for crop production, a major cause of deforestation, runs counter to the principles of sustainable agriculture.

Recent years have witnessed a surge in recognition of the importance of tropical forests as a major store of 25% of the world’s carbon stock in biomass, soil and dead matter. In consequence, the forests have become a political pawn in global negotiations to halt anthropogenic climate change.

The squabbling over palatable solutions to deforestation has a tendency to overlook the human presence that finds a welcome home in the forest environment. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 60 million people live within tropical rainforests. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 500,000 members of Pygmy groups live inside the forest.

The richness of the ecosystem enables these forest peoples to pursue a wide range of traditional livelihoods, from wood and textiles to food and medicines. A further 300 million people live in close proximity to forest areas, largely dependent on their resources. The World Bank estimates that as many as 1.6 billion people have some degree of dependence on forest products.

These numbers are significant because forest communities tend to experience the most severe poverty within their host countries. And the tropical forest countries themselves are mostly classified as low or middle income.

After years of painstaking negotiations and pilot programmes to reduce deforestation, the importance of preserving tropical forests gained recognition in both major international  agreements reached during 2015 – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. Many of the major donor countries have responded with generous offers of support.


Papua New Guinea: First National Forest Inventory and Biodiversity Survey – the tropical forests of this low income country are vital to protect local livelihoods. But you can’t manage what you can’t measure
from UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Brazil drought linked to Amazon deforestation – a leading earth scientist has told the BBC that there is a direct link between deforestation in the Amazon and the record drought in Sao Paulo
from BBC News

more Forests briefings
Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Causes of Deforestation
Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation
Consumer Solutions to Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links