Forests, in all their majesty, are home to more life and biodiversity than any other ecosystem on earth. Tropical rainforests alone hold more than two thirds of all plant and animal species found on land, many of which have never been discovered or recorded by humans. But each day, forests across the globe are being degraded and destroyed. Nearly all of the native hardwood forests of the eastern US, central and eastern Canada, and Europe are now gone. Each day at least 80,000 acres of forest disappear as a result of humans, and at least another 80,000 acres are destroyed because of natural causes. The loss of forests has slowed, from 39 million acres a year in the 90s to 32 million acres in the past decade, an area the size of Costa Rica. Though the slowing of destruction is a positive move, it’s been speculated that it could only be a temporary lull on account of the global economic crisis.
The effects of deforestation are vast—the largest of the two are climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Tropical deforestation accounts for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the most serious contributors to environmental change—more than all the automobiles, planes, boats, and trains combined. When forests fall, more carbon is released into the air and opportunities for carbon absorption by trees is lost. Places such as Russia and China are now dealing with desertification, or man-made deserts, the result of deforestation and other poor land practices. Desertification now threatens more than a third of the earth’s surfaces.
There are two separate kinds of deforestation—clear-cutting and selective logging. Clear-cutting occurs when most or all of an entire area is taken down, while in selective logging, loggers only cut down the trees that are of use to them. And while re-growth is slowing occurring in some countries, especially throughout North America, second-growth forests are significantly different than the original natural forests, and much of the original wealth and beauty is gone forever.
The countries with the highest rates of deforestation today are Honduras, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, Ecuador, and Haiti. The logging practices in many of which is thought to be corrupt—more than 50 percent of logging in Indonesia, for example, is illegal. The underlying forces of deforestation vary by region and country, thus it is hard to say what is the most prevalent cause of deforestation. However, main culprits are identifiable.
Dams and the harvesting of hydroelectric power in forests such as the Amazon destroy trees through flooding, resettling of people to the area around the dam, and cutting down trees on the shoreline of the dam.
Mini-gold rushes and mining for precious metals such as gold, copper, and diamonds, lead to forest destruction for both campsites and the extraction of the metals. Often times the mines are abandoned, leaving patches of cleared forest in its wake.
Selective logging and fragmentation of forests from agriculture make forests susceptible to the largest natural cause of deforestation—forest fires. Forest fires not only destroy ecosystems and kill wildlife, but they release enormous amounts of carbon into the air.
Commercial agriculture often employs slash-and-burn techniques on hundreds of thousands of acres to make way for large agricultural cultivation of mostly single cash crops such as coffee, coca, tea, soybeans, rubber, bananas, and more. Much of what is harvested is not consumed by humans—70 percent of both soybean and corn produced worldwide is fed to livestock. However, the soil can often not support long-term agricultural efforts, and thus many of the farms are failures.
After soils are depleted on farmlands, they are sometimes reverted to cattle pastures. Factory farming has increased more than 600 percent in the past three decades, and today intensive grazing uses more than 27 percent of Earth’s land surface. In addition to clearing forests to make way for the farm animals, meat, egg, and milk production release two billion tons of carbon annually.
Cutting down trees for conversion to other uses is still a main factor in deforestation. Usage of lumber includes building materials, fuel, and paper products.
If society became more environmentally conscious when consuming, deforestation might slowly decline. But on a larger scale, policy changes and initiatives, such as Brazil’s $200 million plan to slow deforestation and put an end to wildfires that destroy its tropical savanna, are needed. To find out how you can help or to learn more about deforestation, visit environmental organization websites such as Monga Bay or Greenpeace.