Understanding the economic value of rainforests and conserving them will enable greener and more inclusive economies, leading to a more sustainable world.


First published in December 2020.


  • Protecting rainforests is worth more to modern economies than destroying them for commercial gain.
  • Controlling climate change is the most substantial contribution to the world made by rainforests.
  • Governments must ensure laws are enforced to safeguard the last surviving primary rainforests.

Rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates. Since the 1960s, nearly half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed. What once covered 14% of the earth, now covers only 6%. Every day, the world loses about 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of rainforests. For generations, governments and economists evaluated the monetary value of rainforests by tangible benefits, without fully assessing their socio-economic advantages. However, as one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, rainforests offer a lot more.

Where are rainforests found?

Rainforests are categorized as tropical and temperate according to where they are found. Tropical rainforests are located near the equator in regions of South and Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, South and South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Rainforests are widely known for their layers of flora identified as emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor.

On the other hand, Temperate rainforests comprise around one-quarter of the earth’s forests in temperate, moist regions with higher altitude and precipitation such as North America, Europe, East Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Albeit different in its appearance, both genres of rainforests attract similar amounts of rainfall with approximately 2,000 millimetres a year.

The Amazon is undoubtedly the world’s largest single rainforest covering 6.7 million kilometres at present, hosting up to 10% of the world’s biodiversity in one single forest. Others include the Congo rainforest in Central Africa, the second largest rainforest, as well as Southeast Asian Rainforests covering Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia. Apart from fragments of rainforests in India, Sinharaja is a rare primary rainforest found in Sri Lanka, extraordinarily rich in its biodiversity. Recognized as a UNESCO heritage site since 1978, Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s last remaining natural rainforest covering 8,864 hectares and hosting 60% of endemic flora and 50% endemic fauna.

Where have forests been lost and gained?
Image: World Bank

The economic value of rainforests

One of the biggest threats to the rainforests is their destruction for commercial gain. For example, the Amazon and rainforests in Asia are largely threatened by commercial logging, incineration, agriculture and industrial activity such as growing palm oil and livestock. However, their survival is worth more to modern economies than their destruction.

Controlling climate change is the most substantial contribution made by rainforests. According to the United Nations climate scientists, the world spends $300 billion at present to stop the rise in greenhouse gases and buy up to 20 years to mitigate the climate crisis. The very existence of rainforests will help regulate climate change and minimize the amount spent on lowering CO2 emissions. Rainforests absorb approximately 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per year, which accounts for one-third of CO2 generated by fossil fuels annually, while releasing oxygen to the atmosphere, acting as a natural air purifier and controlling toxic emissions.

More than 25% of modern medicines originate from rainforests as well. That is even more astounding considering it consists of only 1% of flora discovered in rainforests so far. As Professors Robert Mendelsohn and Michael Balick argue, tropical plant species could be worth as much as $147 billion to society as a whole, treating critical diseases such as HIV and cancer. The loss of rainforests will cost the pharmaceutical industry billions of dollars.

Rainforests are key sustainers of water bodies around the world. Large tree covers increase precipitation in the air, providing and regulating a healthy rainfall and nourishing all water bodies including fresh water. The depletion of rainforests will not only jeopardize a sufficient water supply to cumulative populations but further risk their contamination.

Rainforests are also home to 30 million known species of flora and fauna, which is nearly half of the earth’s wildlife and two-thirds of plant species. The loss of biodiversity incurred by deforestation breaks the equilibrium of all ecosystems. No matter how small or of how little significance a species is, they all have a vital role to play collectively, to sustain life on earth. The loss of biodiversity will decimate economies by affecting pollination and food sources, increasing irregular rainfall and exacerbating climate catastrophes.

Deforestation. | Pixabay

Conservation of rainforests

1) Reforestation

The most common action taken in restoring the lost primary forests is by replanting them. In 2017, Conservation International partnered with the Brazil government and community NGOs to plant 73 million trees in the Brazilian Amazon. However, it is imperative that native plants are used for rehabilitating and restoring the degradation without using alien or foreign species, in order to sustain the original ecosystem of the primary forests.

2) Tougher laws

Governments must ensure laws are enacted and law enforcement continues in order to safeguard the last surviving primary rainforests like in Indonesia, Madagascar and even the Amazon. Proper land demarcations, tougher fines for human encroachments, regulating deforestation for industries – such as tea and coffee plantations – and preventing species trafficking will further support protection of the remaining natural rainforests and its critically endangered and endemic biodiversity.

3) Investing in conservation and research

Conservation of rainforests will be pivotal for their survival. Yet most conservation efforts are carried out by non-profit organizations and volunteers who will not succeed without adequate investment. For example, the Rainforest Trust supports local conservation groups such as in Ecuador to acquire 495 more hectares for the Río Canandé Reserve, which encompasses higher concentrations of endemic and threatened species. Similarly, the UN REDD invested in the Democratic Republic of Congo to create an online National Forest Monitoring System to track and map data on logging concessions to prevent unlawful felling.

4) Awareness

Educating young people about the social and environmental value of rainforests and directing them towards sustainable living will be essential to saving the remaining primary rainforests. Rainforest Alliance is one non-profit that uses its seal to mark eco-friendly products and services like eco-tourism that do not harm rainforests further and encourage responsible and sustainable living.

It takes millions of years for rainforests to develop. That is why safeguarding the remaining natural rainforests is more effective than restoring and rewilding them. Understanding their economic value and conserving them will enable greener and more inclusive economies, leading to a better world.🔷



Tharanga Gunawardena, Communications Manager at Room to Read, Sri Lanka.





[This piece was originally published in World Economic Forum and re-published in PMP Magazine on 5 December 2020, in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/IndoMet in the Heart of Borneo. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)