• Deforestation

Understanding Deforestation

  • Deforestation

Understanding Deforestation

What is Deforestation?

Deforestation means cutting or clearing trees and forests covering a large area, and not replanting them.

Forest degradation is a related term that indicates when a forest is no longer functioning as a healthy ecosystem: A degraded forest can no longer sustain populations the way it used to. For instance, it might not offer enough quality habitat or food to animals. In other words, when a forest is degraded it still exists, but it can no longer function well. It becomes a shell of its former self.

There are four different types of forests worldwide: tropical forests, temperate forests, and boreal forests and plantations. Deforestation is happening around the world with all forest types but occurs mostly in tropical areas. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that around 31% of the world’s land is covered by forests. But this forest coverage is under severe threat due to factors including agricultural expansion, infrastructure, and logging. “In 2019, the tropics lost close to 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every single minute,” according to a WWF report.

Deforestation within the Amazon Basin over a period of 5 years. NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Deforestation & the Climate Emergency

Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming and the climate emergency. A mature tree absorbs and stores carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas we emit from burning fossil fuels, like coal, gas, and oil. These gases cause climate change and lead to a warming in the planet’s temperature. As more forests are destroyed, so too is our ability to trap these greenhouse gases and slow rising temperatures around the world which cause droughts, forest fires, and more frequent hurricanes and typhoons.

“Deforestation is one of the largest carbon-dioxide emitters, accounting for nearly 15 percent of global CO2 emissions. Deforestation’s outsize impact stems from the fact that removing a tree both adds emissions to the atmosphere (most deforestation today involves clearing and burning) and removes that tree’s potential as a carbon sink.”

“Deforestation is one of the largest carbon-dioxide emitters, accounting for nearly 15 percent of global CO2 emissions. Deforestation’s outsize impact stems from the fact that removing a tree both adds emissions to the atmosphere (most deforestation today involves clearing and burning) and removes that tree’s potential as a carbon sink.”

McKinsey, 2020

(Top) Heavy rainfall and high sunlight quickly damage the topsoil in clearings of the tropical rainforests. In such circumstances, the forest will take much longer to regenerate. The land will not be suitable for agricultural use for quite some time.

(Above) Destruction of natural habitats will lead to the extinction of many of the worlds animal species.

Other Consequences of Deforestation

Deforestation is a critical environmental concern. The loss of trees and forests can cause desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, and a host of other problems:

  • Food problems Once deprived of their forest cover, lands rapidly degrade in quality, losing their fertility, and arability
  • Exposure of soil to heat and rain Heavy rainfall and high sunlight quickly damage the topsoil in clearings of the tropical rainforests. In such circumstances, the forest will take much longer to regenerate. The land will not be suitable for agricultural use for quite some time.
  • Flooding Fertile topsoil is eroded and flooded into the lower regions. Many coastal fisheries and coral reefs suffer from the sedimentation brought on by the flooding. This results in adverse effects on the economic viability of many businesses and damage to the wildlife population.
  • Loss of biodiversity through destruction and extinction of many plants and animal species.
  • Displacement of indigenous communities The loss of forests threatens some indigenous people’s way of life and survival – as they have to move out of the forests to town and cities.
  • Economic loss A forest’s value is often higher when it is left standing than it could be worth when it is harvested as it provides a host of natural services, such as water purification and carbon dioxide storage. It also provides a home to millions of flora and fauna that are the source of ancient and modern medicines.

The most common reasons for deforestation are to clear the land for farming and ranches or to cut trees for firewood, paper, and lumber for furniture.

“Deforestation is one of the largest carbon-dioxide emitters, accounting for nearly 15 percent of global CO2 emissions. Deforestation’s outsize impact stems from the fact that removing a tree both adds emissions to the atmosphere (most deforestation today involves clearing and burning) and removes that tree’s potential as a carbon sink.”

Causes of Deforestation

  • Population growth: To meet the demands of a rapidly growing population in developing countries, forests are converted for agricultural lands, new living settlements, and infrastructure-building of roads.
  • Mining. The increase of mining for gold and other valuable minerals in tropical forests is furthering damage due to the rising demand and high mineral prices. This causes environmental impacts like soil erosion, the formation of sinkholes, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes.
  • Logging or cutting of trees for paper production, firewood, building materials and furniture-making
  • Commercial agriculture, such as palm oil which destroy mangrove plantations
  • Livestock ranching. Conversion of forests to cattle ranching and deforestation are most vital in Central and South America

In a nutshell, agricultural expansion is the main driver of deforestation in Africa, Latin America, and (Sub)tropical Asia alike. Agriculture is especially responsible for deforestation in Latin America, where it accounts for over 90% of deforestation (whereas in Africa and subtropical Asia, it accounts for 70 – 75%). It all begins with an idea. Maybe you want to launch a business.

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) took this photograph of numerous gold prospecting pits in eastern Peru. The pits—usually hidden from an astronaut’s view by cloud cover or outside the Sun’s glint point—stand out brilliantly in this image due to the reflected sunlight. The multiple meandering channels of the Inambari River are visible on the left side of the image. The river and the pits cut through the otherwise unbroken Amazon rainforest in Peru’s Madre de Dios state. Nasa Earth Observatory.

Commercial vs. Subsistence Agriculture

The relative impacts of commercial vs. subsistence agriculture vary by continent. In Latin America, commercial agriculture occupies over a 60% proportion of deforestation drivers, while subsistence agriculture is about half that number. In Africa and Asia, meanwhile, subsistence agriculture is a larger driver of deforestation than commercial agriculture.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the majority of tropical deforestation is caused by only four crops in particular: beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products. Of these four, beef cattle are especially linked to deforestation and environmental degradation.

As for forest degradation, causes again vary widely by region. In Africa, collection of fuelwood for charcoal production is the largest driver. In Latin American and subtropical Asia, timber logging is instead the largest contributor.

A brief history of deforestation

Humans have been cutting down trees for millennia. Researchers have looked into the past to explore ecological collapses, earlier periods of climate change, and extinction events to gain insight into:
How and why these events happened.
How they may be prevented or reversed.
In addition, gaining historical perspective can help us understand deforestation better. Enjoy our brief history about deforestation events in the past and why those ecosystems collapsed.

305 million years ago

Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse. Scientists believe this extinction event occurred due in part to an earlier period of climate change (a cooler and drier climate that did not support rainforest growth). As a result of the rainforest collapse, many plant and animal species became extinct.

10,000-4500 BCE

Neolithic Period – Growth of Agriculture. During this time, humans led increasingly sedentary lives and fed themselves by cultivating crops (instead of more nomadic lifestyles reliant on hunting and gathering). The rise of agriculture led to early deforestation by humans, as settlements grew larger in size and forests were cut to make space for agricultural land. In some cases, this deforestation led to soil erosion and shortages of wood, which then forced populations to relocate.

3000BC–500AD

The Ancient world. Throughout the ancient world, these new trends of farming and crop cultivation continued, sometimes with negative environmental effects. In historical Greece, there is some evidence for soil erosion events that can be correlated to agriculture and human interference.

1200-1500AD

Europe & North America. New agricultural technologies lead to surplus food, supporting population growth and in turn fuels the expansion of the emergence of cities. These developments are again linked to deforestation. Trees were cut to make space for crops and livestock, as well as for use in cooking and heating.

Moreover, by the end of the Middle Ages, lumber was in high demand for shipbuilding. These activities have historically led to deforestation, forest degradation, extinction, and loss of biodiversity. In North America, about half the forests in the eastern part of the continent were cut down for timber and farming.

1850AD – onwards

Countless technologies introduced in the 19th century had consequences for the environment. For example, the steamboats that plied the waters of the Mississippi River and other waters used wood for fuel. According to historian F. Terry Norris:

“Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, the increasing demand for steamboat fuel resulted in widespread deforestation of riverbanks within the central Mississippi River valley.”

Deforestation had consequences for the animal species that relied on the forest for their habitat, as well as for biodiversity in general. And it also had negative effects on human settlements. As Norris continues:

“Deforestation, in turn, caused the bank lines of the Mississippi River to become unstable, resulting in significant lateral channel movement. That movement, and associated loss of portions of the floodplain, resulted in the destruction and significant damage to all but one of the colonial settlements within the central Mississippi River valley prior to 1763.”

This is just one historical example that points to the domino effect deforestation often has. As forests are cleared for short-term gain, humans and animals alike suffer the longer-term consequences: in this case, flooding, and the forced abandonment of settlements.

Deforestation today

Tropical rainforests are among the most affected by deforestation today. Because tropical rainforests contain such biodiversity, their loss is especially harmful. You may have read recent news stories covering fires burning in the Amazon Rainforest—where the smoke can even be seen from space. Since the turn of this century many tropical rainforest nations have started to put in place national conservation efforts to slow and stop deforestation. However, the rates of deforestation in some countries, like the Amazon in Brazil, have skyrocketed due to the increases in forest fires.

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

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The Coalition for Rainforest Nations works assists tropical governments, communities and peoples responsibly manage their rainforests.

The Coalition for Rainforest Nations works assists tropical governments, communities and peoples responsibly manage their rainforests.

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