Deforestation

This section looks at a deforestation definition, causes of deforestation, effects of deforestationsolutions to deforestation and deforestation facts. The latest deforestation news is included at the foot of the page.

Deforestation definition: deforestation, clearance or clearing is the removal of forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use. A forest stand is a close community of trees sufficient in size, composition and location to distinguish it from other nearby communities.

Causes of deforestation

Forests cover around 30% of the land's surface according to NASA but they are under threat from a variety of human activities. This is remarkably short-sighted given the many benefits forests bequeth mankind: clean air, timber, shelter, soil stability, climate regulation, biodiversity and food supply. Data on deforestation rates is variable. A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) estimated that around 7.3 million hectares are being lost a year (18 million acres). Other reports claim that between 1960 and 1990, 20% of the world's tropical rainforests were wiped out whilst other reports claim that tropical rainforests will be all but wiped out by the middle of this century.

Deforestation caused by fires

Fires are a natural and beneficial element of many forest landscapes, but they are problematic when they occur in the wrong place, at the wrong frequency or at the wrong severity.

 

Each year, millions of acres of forest around the world are destroyed or degraded by fire. The same amount is lost to logging and agriculture combined.

 

Fire is often used as a way to clear land for other uses such as planting crops.

 

These fires not only alter the structure and composition of forests, but they can open up forests to invasive species, threaten biological diversity, alter water cycles and soil fertility, and destroy the livelihoods of the people who live in and around the forests.

Deforestation caused by clear-cutting for agriculture

The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture.

 

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture. 

 

Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation; commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%.

 

Farmers cut forests to provide more room for planting crops.

 

Often, small farmers will clear a few acres by cutting down trees and burning them in a process known as 'slash and burn' agriculture.

Deforestation caused by ranching

Cattle ranching is now the biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon, and nearly 80 per cent of deforested areas in Brazil are now used for pasture.

 

The cattle industry has ballooned since the 1970s, giving Brazil the largest commercial cattle herd in the world.

 

Since 2003, the country has also topped the world's beef export charts and the government plans to double its share of the market by 2018.

 

The impact this is having on the forest is huge - between 1996 and 2006, an area the size of Portugal was carved out for cattle ranching. As with the soya industry, a host of social ills have followed the wave of expansion. Cattle ranching has the highest rates of slave labour in Brazil .

Deforestation caused by unsustainable or illegal logging

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, logging is responsible for around 14% of deforestation activity.

 

National laws supposedly regulate the production and trade of timber products at all stages, from harvesting to processing to sales. These laws can be violated in any number of ways, such as taking wood from protected areas, harvesting more than is permitted and harvesting protected species.

 

Illegal logging occurs around the world, and in some places, illegal logging is more common than the legal variety.

 

This destruction threatens some of the world’s most famous and valuable forests, including rainforests in the Amazon, Congo Basin, Indonesia and the forests of the Russian Far East.

 

Illegal logging also depresses the price of timber worldwide, disadvantaging law-abiding companies, and depriving governments of revenues normally generated by duties and taxes.

 

Poor communities near forests are often vulnerable when outsiders try to gain control over the timber nearby, which can lead to repression and human rights violations.

Deforestation and climate change

Forests and climate are intrinsically linked: forest loss and degradation is both a cause and an effect of our changing climate.

 

It is likely that changing temperature and precipitation patterns will produce a strong direct impact on both natural and modified forests. Studies and simulations predict a polar-ward movement in forest ranges but exact impacts can only be guestimated and show a high degree of regional variability. Some species will thrive, others decline markedly.

 

Fires, insects, pathogens, and extreme events will all be affected by changes in climate. 

 

For forestry, the climate change-induced modifications of frequency and intensity of forest wildfires, outbreaks of insects and pathogens, and extreme events such as high winds, may be more important than the direct impact of higher temperatures and elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

 

Although models suggest that global timber productivity will likely increase with climate change, regional production will exhibit large variability.

 

Climate change will also substantially impact other services, such as seed availability, nuts, berries, hunting, resins, and plants used in pharmaceutical and botanical medicine. In summary, a warming climate will have positive and negative impacts.

Deforestation cause by human overpopulation

As the human population continues to grow, there is an obvious need for more food. Wood is still a popular fuel choice for cooking and heating around the world, and about half of the illegal removal of timber from forests is thought to be for use as fuelwood.

 

In addition, agricultural products, such as soy and palm oil, are used in an ever-increasing list of products, from animal feed to lipstick and biofuels.

 

The major increase in soybean cultivation is a direct response to growing (population) demand. Soybean meal is the largest source of protein feed in the world, and is generally used in animal feed. 

To grow soybeans, vast expanses of land are needed. Production is overtaking huge areas in fragile ecosystems such as the:

 

Brazilian Cerrado (a relatively flat, mixed woodland and savannah area of central Brazil)

 

the Amazon

 

the Chaco

 

and the Atlantic Forests of South America.

 

Rising demand has created incentives to convert forests to farmland and pasture land. Once a forest is lost to agriculture, it is usually gone forever—along with many of the plants and animals that once lived there.

NASA imagery reveals extent of Amazon deforestation

Effects of deforestation

Forests are more than just a collection of trees—they are integrated ecosystems and home to some of the most diverse life on Earth. They are also major players in the carbon and water cycles that make life possible. When forests are lost or degraded, their destruction sets off a series of changes that affect life both locally and around the world. Forests contribute around 30% to atmopsheric oxygen - pretty much all of the oxygen balance comes from marine organisms.

Deforestation impact on greenhouse gas emissions

As carbon dioxide accrues, it produces a layer in the atmosphere that traps radiation from the sun. The radiation converts to heat which causes global warming, which is better known as the greenhouse effect. Plants remove carbon in the form of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis, but release some carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere during normal respiration. Only when actively growing can a tree or forest remove carbon, by storing it in plant tissues. Both the decay and burning of wood releases much of this stored carbon back to the atmosphere. In order for forests to take up carbon, there must be a net accumulation of wood.

 

Tropical forests hold more than 210 gigatons of carbon, and deforestation represents around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. These greenhouse gas emissions contribute to rising temperatures, changes in patterns of weather and water and an increased frequency of extreme weather events. For example, in Sumatra, rainforests on deep peatlands are being cleared, drained and converted to pulp plantations, contributing to Indonesia’s high greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in climate can affect forest-dwelling creatures by altering their habitats and decreasing availability of food and water. Some will be able to adapt by moving to higher elevations or latitudes, but species losses may occur.

 

Deforestation impact on water cycle

Trees play a key role in the local water cycle by helping to keep a balance between the water on land and water in the atmosphere. But when deforestation or degradation occurs, that balance can be thrown off, resulting in changes in precipitation and river flow. Trees extract groundwater through their roots and release it into the atmosphere. When part of a forest is removed, the trees no longer transpire this water, resulting in a much drier climate. Deforestation reduces the content of water in the soil and groundwater as well as atmospheric moisture. The dry soil leads to lower water intake for the trees to extract.

 

Trees, and plants in general, affect the water cycle through:

 > their canopies intercept a proportion of precipitation, which is then evaporated back to the atmosphere (canopy interception)
 > their litter, stems and trunks slow down surface runoff
 > their roots create macropores – large conduits – in the soil that increase infiltration of water
 > they contribute to terrestrial evaporation and reduce soil moisture via transpiration
 > their litter and other organic residue change soil properties that affect the capacity of soil to store water
 > their leaves control the humidity of the atmosphere by transpiring 99% of the water absorbed by the roots

 

Deforestation impact on soil erosion

Deforestation generally increases rates of soil loss, by increasing the amount of runoff and reducing the protection of the soil from tree litter.

 

Without trees to anchor fertile soil, erosion can occur and sweep the land into rivers. The agricultural plants that often replace the trees cannot hold onto the soil. Many of these plants—such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean and wheat—can actually exacerbate soil erosion. Scientists have estimated that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost through soil erosion and other types of degradation since 1960. And as fertile soil washes away, agricultural producers move on, clearing more forest and continuing the cycle of soil loss.

 

Deforestation impact on livelihoods

Millions of people around the world depend on forests for hunting, gathering and medicine, forest products such as rubber and rattan, and small-scale agriculture. But deforestation disrupts the lives of these people, sometimes with devastating consequences. In the Greater Mekong in Southeast Asia, where land tenure systems are weak, deforestation has contributed to social conflict and migration. In Brazil, poor people have been lured from their villages to remote soy plantations where they may be abused and forced, at gunpoint, to work under inhumane conditions.

 

Deforestation impact on biodiversity

Deforestation results in a decline in biodiversity and is known to have caused the extinction of many species. 

 

Tropical rainforests are the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and about 80% of the world's known biodiversity eminates from them. It has been estimated that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation, which equates to 50,000 species a year.

 

Deforestation impacts on the wider ecosystem and public health

Deforestation eliminates a great number of species of plants and animals which also often results in an increase in disease.

 

Loss of native species allows new species to come to dominance. Often the destruction of predatory species can result in an increase in rodent populations which can carry plague. Additionally, erosion can produce pools of stagnant water that are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos, well known vectors of malaria, yellow fever, nipah virus, and more.Deforestation can also create a path for non-native species to flourish.

 

Deforestation has been coupled with an increase in the occurrence of disease outbreaks. In Malaysia, thousands of acres of forest have been cleared for pig farms. This has resulted in an increase in the zoonosis the Nipah virus. In Kenya, deforestation has led to an increase in malaria cases which is now the leading cause of morbidity and mortality the country.

 

A 2017 study in the American Economic Review found that deforestation substantially increased the incidence of malaria in Nigeria.

 

Another pathway through which deforestation affects disease is the relocation and dispersion of disease-carrying hosts. This disease emergence pathway can be called “range expansion,” whereby the host’s range (and thereby the range of pathogens) expands to new geographic areas.

Deforestation solutions

Government actions to reduce deforestation

Governments need to do their bit. That starts with cracking down on corruption and ensuring fair enforcement of forest conservation rules.

 

Corruption fuels illegal logging and unsustainable forest management, which in turn can fuel organised crime or even armed conflict.

 

Major international organizations including the United Nations and the World Bank, have begun to develop programs aimed at curbing deforestation.

 

The blanket term Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) describes these sorts of programs, which use direct monetary or other incentives to encourage developing countries to limit and/or roll back deforestation.

 

Funding has been an issue, but at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties-15 (COP-15) in Copenhagen in December 2009, an accord was reached with a collective commitment by developed countries.

 

Significant work is underway on tools for use in monitoring developing country adherence to their agreed REDD targets.

 

In the United States, laws like the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Lacey Act and the Roadless Rule help protect forests and stop illegal wood products from entering the U.S. marketplace.

 

Nations support and use regional rules like the Amazon Soy Moratorium and global treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect forests and the endangered species that rely on forest habitats.

 

Globally, we need government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation in developing nations, especially those with tropical forests. 

Personal actions to reduce deforestation

With thanks to GreenPeace:

 

You can make a difference in the fight to save forests by making informed daily choices.

 

By using less stuff, eating sustainable food, and choosing recycled or certified sustainable wood products, we can all be part of the movement towards zero deforestation.

 

Using your voice to speak for forests matters, too. When people join together and demand forest conservation, companies and governments have to listen.

 

Make sure that the forest-derived products you buy are made from 100 percent post-consumer content materials.


Make informed food choices. Eating a plant-based diet or reducing your consumption of animal products like meat and dairy can help save forests.


Buy from companies that have a commitment to reducing deforestation through forest-friendly policies.


If you are buying products made from virgin forest fibre, make sure that it bears a seal from a credible forestry certification system, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

 

About 85% of all palm oil is produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia; but most of the time not produced using sustainable measures. Unless there’s concrete proof that it’s been sustainably produced, do not buy palm oil at all.


Educate your friends, family, and community about how our everyday actions can impact forests around the world.

 

Simple steps include: plant a tree, reduce paper usage or go paperless.

Recycle and buy recycled products.

Deforestation news

For the latest deforestation news stories and other environmental news, check out our news page

 

Deforestation news, including commentary and archival articles published in The Economist.

 

Deforestation news, including commentary and archival articles published in The Independent.

 

Deforestation news, including commentary and archival articles published in Mongabay.com.

 

Deforestation news, including commentary and archival articles published in the Guardian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deforestation facts

Agricultural needs accounts for around 80% of deforestation on Earth

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture. 

 

Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation; commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%.

48 football pitches worth of forest area are lost every minute of every day

7.3 million hectares or 18 million acres lost every year.

20% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost since 1970

This has been mainly caused by forest conversion for cattle ranching and has been particularly intense around urban areas although the pursuit of gold, oil and mahogany have led to remote areas also being plundered.

15% of greenhouse gas emissions have beem caused by deforestation

Forests act as a powerful carbon sink - storing carbon dioxide that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere.

210 gigatons of carbon held in tropical forests

A gigaton? A billion tons!

One third of arable land lost since 1960

Deforestation has led to a third of all arable land being lost through soil erosion and other types of degradation.

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