Various types of forests are distributed throughout the Caribbean region: tropical and subtropical moist forests; montane cloud forests; dry forests and coniferous forests; ands dry limestone forests. Each of these forests type can be found right here in the Caribbean where they serve a myriad of ecological and economical purposes to the region as a whole.
As these sensitive ecosystems are being threatened by deforestation and climate change, the benefits of forests enjoyed by the region’s flora, fauna and human population are diminishing. The dissemination of information about the natural treasures provided to us by forests is imperative to the conservation and restoration of forests themselves. This will, by extension, allow for a higher quality of life and a more sustainable existence within the Caribbean.
Forests are highly complex ecosystems that contain many habitats and microhabitats. This ecosystem is characterized by the presence of trees that give rise to a canopy. This canopy layer limits the amount of light that enters below. There are many plants such as shrubs and bushes that are adapted to live in such light-restricted zones, and these plants make up the understory of the forest. Fallen leaves and animal matter from the understory and the canopy compromise the forest floor. A few tree species are tall enough to grow tall enough to surpass the canopy, and these trees make up the much less dense emergent layer.
The organic matter (detritus) that makes up the forest floor is taken up by various detritivores, and the waste of detritivores is released back into the forest floor to be reused by the plants. There is a complex microscopic world hidden under the soil too. There, an inconceivable number of microorganisms and eukaryotes establish intricate ecological relationships that give the soil all of its properties and assist plants in many aspects, including nutrient uptake. These layers of the forests make them very self-sustainable, especially rainforests.
Much of the water that enters a rainforest stays there through several cycles of evapotranspiration and precipitation. The humid environment created by the canopy allows for frequent precipitation from water lost from transpiration. The plant species adapted to this ecosystem are very diverse, consisting of nonvascular plants, ferns, fruit trees and shrubs, epiphytes and many others. These plants are adapted to the soil’s high acidity, due to decaying organic matter, and low nutrient content, due to the heavy rainfall and subsequent leaching of nutrients.
Forest biodiversity is a measure of the ecosystem’s health. A healthy and productive forest ecosystem is laden with a wide range of flora and fauna species, both crucial to the complex interrelationships within the forest. Forest fauna wildlife is supported by the complex structures as well as resources provided by large vegetation, from directly providing food in fruits and nuts as well as providing safe havens for nesting species. This flora is supported in turn by a complex ecosystem with the soil, made of insects and microorganisms which break down organic matter into forms that plants can use.
Forests are among the most biodiverse biomes known, with tropical rainforests taking the crown. As such, tropical regions such as the Caribbean islands have their rainforests to thank for many of their endemic species and species richness not found anywhere else. Endemic species are the most vulnerable to extinction as they often have specific habitats and thus limited geographical ranges. Some of the most rare species make tropical forests their homes, such as the golden tree frog. This species is incredibly sensitive to environmental stressors, such as rising temperatures and lowering humidity and can only be found at high altitudes in a specific microhabitat. These frogs utilise water pooling in tank bromeliads which can trap water in their crowns.
The Trinidad Piping Guan, colloquially, the pawi, is another species which has been significantly threatened by deforestation, hunting, and climate change. Less than 200 of this once abundant species is believed to still be alive, mostly in the eastern region where forests are more abundant. These species serve particular niches. Frogs keep insect populations in check and foragers such as the Trinidad piping guan disperse fruit seeds. Though debated, it has been shown in a 2012 meta-analysis that species richness and evenness has positive effects on forest production. With increased biodiversity and more complex ecology, niches are established, allowing a larger variety of life to utilize each and every resource.
For the sustainable development of forests, there must be proper management or there will be loss of diversification and losses of species entirely. Forests that are logged and cut back for commercial production create a monoculture environment which leads to risks to forest biodiversity, directly through destruction of habitats and food sources for wild life as well as indirectly through increased chances of forest fires and inhibition of succession processes. In unsustainably cleared or logged areas, forests are reduced and limited to their secondary succession of shrubs and grasslands or savannas, which have been shown to have low productivity. Disturbances such as fire and logging create an environment conducive to the rapid growth of pioneer species that are often extremely competitive. For example, the higher altitudes of Lady Chancellor and Fondes Amandes, once forested areas, have been subject to devastating forest fires. The areas demolished by these fires have seen rapid colonization of bracken ferns and grasses. These ferns are highly competitive, releasing allelopathic compounds to inhibit the growth of other plant species, Additionally, recent studies have shown that they can alter its soil environment chemistry significantly to not only inhibit the growth of other species, but also to promote its own species’ growth.
Large and complex forest takes hundreds of years to develop and even longer to reach maturity, when high complexity and the level of interrelationships needed to support thriving biodiversity, can be sustainably utilised. Sustainable resource use can include utilizing more hardy and fast-growing species. Instead of logging giant trees that take decades to hundreds of years to grow, utilise bamboo, hemp, recycled wood, and other alternatives, or at least use reduced impact logging methods. When utilized effectively and sustainably, forests can serve as a continuous source of a wide range of economic goods as well as a source of food. Both of these aspects combined can aid in the alleviation of poverty within the Caribbean region. The monetary and non-monetary income originated from forests is known as forest environmental income. Forest environmental income can be maximized in the Caribbean through the cultivation of agricultural goods, timber, and raw materials for modern medicine and nature-based tourism. Additionally, forest environmental income entails materials to construct houses, the reduction of soil erosion and water regulation and purification. All of these aspects can lead to a ripple effect in which communities will be better sustained, employment opportunities will be created, and the productivity of the Caribbean region will be enhanced, thereby increasing the goods available for export and thus resulting in an influx in foreign exchange as well as economic growth. Indigenous peoples from around the world have shown that ecosystems can be utilized in a sustainable manner when ethnoecological and ethnobotanical approaches are taken to resource utilization. This includes diversifying resource use by turning to underutilized crops such as moringa, cashews, cocoa, and mangosteen to just name a few.
Forests are incredibly biodiverse ecosystems that house many threatened and endemic species which all serve niches that are critical to forest production. Forests are the source of many resources, some of which are underutilized and others which are abused. Through the effective and sustainable utilization of forests, there will be diversification of the economy and the quality of life of the region as a whole will be improved.