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What Is Deforestation? Definition, Causes, Consequences, Solutions

Last modified on 13thMay 2020

What is deforestation? What is the definition of deforestation and why is deforestation happening? Let’s figure out what are the causes and effects of deforestation, as well as what solutions can be adopted to stop it.

What Is Deforestation?

Deforestation refers to the decrease in forest areas across the world that are lost for other uses such as agricultural croplands, urbanization, or mining activities. Greatly accelerated by human activities since 1960, deforestation has been negatively affecting natural ecosystems, biodiversity, and the climate. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the annual rate of deforestation to be around 1.3 million km2 per decade.

The Causes of Deforestation: Why Is Deforestation Happening?

Multiple factors, either of human or natural origin, cause deforestation. Natural factors include natural forest fires or parasite-caused diseases which can result in deforestation. Nevertheless, human activities are among the main causes of global deforestation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the expansion of agriculture caused nearly 80% of global deforestation, with the construction of infrastructures such as roads or dams, together with mining activities and urbanization, making up the remaining causes of deforestation.

1. Agriculture is the Number 1 Cause of Deforestation (~80%)

Why is deforestation happening? According to the FAO, agriculture causes around 80% of deforestation. And how does agriculture cause so much deforestation? According to the same report, 33% of agriculture-caused deforestation is a consequence of subsistence agriculture – such as local peasant agriculture in developing countries.

Commercial or industrial agriculture (field crops and livestock) cause around 40% of forest loss – in the search for space to grow food, fibers or biofuel (such as soybeans, palm oil, beef, rice, maize, cotton and sugar cane). It is also particularly interesting to note livestock is believed to be responsible for about 14% of global deforestation. The main reasons why have to do with the large areas require both to raise livestock but also to grow its (soy-based) food.

2. Deforestation Caused By New Constructions (~15%)

The construction of human infrastructures has also been driving deforestation. More specifically, 10% of deforestation can be attributed to new infrastructures that serve the current human lifestyle in four main ways: transportation, transformation and energy generation.

On one hand, roads, rails, ports or airports have been built to move all sorts of goods – from cereals and fruits to spices, minerals or fossil fuels – either directly to trade centers or to transformation sites. So while at first there were only fruit trees, roads soon arrived to allow transporting fruit to other regions. And while some goods were and are collected manually, others such as coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, but also meat, dairy or spirits, required the construction of large extraction, transportation and/or transformation infrastructures.

3. How Urbanization Is Causing Deforestation (~5%)

The populational shift that is leading people to move from rural areas to urban areas is also contributing to deforestation (5%, according to FAO). This urban growth – in which 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050 – is leading to an exponential growth of housing and consumption sites. And as cities become larger so they can host more people, they challenge the natural boundaries surrounding them, often leading to deforestation. This is one of the reasons why deforestation is happening.

Deforestation Effects – How Does Deforestation Affect The Environment?

Deforestation has many consequences for natural ecosystems and it poses serious problems to the resilience of the planet. Let’s take a look at the main effects of deforestation to better understand why it is bad for the planet.

1 – The Effects of Deforestation on Biodiversity

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The most known consequence of deforestation is its threat to biodiversity. In fact, forests represent some of the most veritable hubs of biodiversity. From mammals to birds, insects, amphibians or plants, the forest is home to many rare and fragile species.
80% of the Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests.

By destroying the forests, human activities are putting entire ecosystems in danger, creating natural imbalances, and putting Life at threat. The natural world is complex, interconnected, and made of thousands of inter-dependencies and among other functions, trees provide shade and colder temperatures for animals and smaller trees or vegetation which may not survive with the heat of direct sunlight. Besides, trees also feeding animals with their fruits while providing them with food and shelter they need to survive.

Aren’t you yet sure about the importance of biodiversity for the planet’s balance and for human life? Then you should find out some examples of how Life is interconnected:

 

 

2 – The Effects of Deforestation on Local People and Their Livelihoods

Healthy forests support the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people globally, one billion of whom are among the world’s poorest. This means there are many people depending on forests for survival and using them to hunt and gather raw products for their small-scale agriculture processes. But in developing countries such as Borneo, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, or Mexico, land tenure systems are weak. This allows big businesses to get these lands and use them for other ends, disrupting local people’s lives.

Locals then have to make one of two choices. They can decide to abandon “their” land and migrate somewhere else, avoiding conflict and embracing the challenge of a new different life. Or they can stay and work for the companies exploring it in remote plantations – often getting unfair wages and working under inhumane conditions. In some countries like Mexico, plantations’ owners are often forced to share their profits with local cartels to keep their families alive and to avoid having their crops burned

Related: Is Avocado Production Sustainable? The Social Impact Of Cartels In Avocado Production

3 – Deforestation for Food May Lead to Food Insecurity in the Future

Today, 52% of all the land used for food production is moderately or severely impacted by soil erosion. In the long term, the lack of healthy, nutritious soil can lead to low yields and food insecurity.

4 – Soil Erosion is One of the Consequences of Deforestation

Deforestation weakens and degrades the soil. Forested soils are usually not only richer on organic matter, but also more resistant to erosion, bad weather, and extreme weather events. This happens mainly because roots help fix trees in the ground and the sun-blocking tree cover helps the soil to slowly dry out. As a result, deforestation will probably mean the soil will become increasingly fragile, leaving the area more vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides and floods.

5 – Deforestation Affects and Contributes to Climate Change

Deforestation also has a very strong contribution to climate change. Why? Let’s remember trees absorb and store CO2 throughout their lives. If we speak about tropical forests, they hold more than 210 gigatons of carbon, according to WWF. And what’s worrying is that the destruction of these trees has two big negative side-effects.

Firstly, taking down trees means they’ll release back into the atmosphere the CO2 they were keeping. Secondly, fewer trees available means reducing the planet’s overall ability to capture and store CO2. Both these effects negatively contribute to the greenhouse effect and to climate change. As a matter of fact, while food and agriculture account for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 10-15% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Understanding Deforestation In Video

To understand the challenges of deforestation, check this National Geographic video.

Where Is Deforestation Happening? Countries Most Impacted By Deforestation

Around the world, deforestation occurs mostly in the tropics where there are different types of forests are: from wet and hot rainforests to others that lose their leaves in the dry season and become woodlands. Some parts of the world have managed to protect their forests from deforestation while others have seen their forestal area decline.

According to FAO’s report, 6 million hectares of land were lost from forest to agriculture since 1990 in the tropical domain. These changes significantly differ but there are 3 important worldwide examples of deforestation: the Amazon rainforest, Indonesia and Borneo, and Africa.

The Effects Of Deforestation In The Amazon Rainforest

Brazil and the Amazon forest are also important (for the wrong reasons) deforestation areas worldwide. The Amazon Rainforest is one of the world’s largest forest hotspots, with huge biodiversity reserves. Its ability to store carbon and produce oxygen makes it of the “lungs” of the planet.

Since the 1960s, the Amazon forest has been under threat, and nearly 760 000 km2 (around 20% of its original size) of forest area was lost. Before 1980-1990, large industrial projects such as dams, roads, or mines were the main causes of deforestation in the Amazon region, together with subsistence farming. However, for around thirty years, the causes of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest are changing. Why?

According to various reports on the subject (Greenpeace, FAO), livestock farming, including soya production,  is responsible for about 70 to 80% of deforestation in the Amazon region. The development of intensive livestock production, combined with meat consumption increases in developed countries, is thus the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon forest.

The Effects Of Deforestation In Southeast Asia – Indonesia And Borneo

Indonesia and the island of Borneo are emblematic symbols of the global phenomenon of deforestation. This region in Southeast Asia is naturally one of the richest reserves of forest and biodiversity in the world. But at the same time, it is also one of the regions that have been suffering the most deforestation in recent decades. According to FAO, between 1990 and 2012 alone, Indonesia lost about 9 million hectares of its forests, largely due to deforestation caused by palm oil.

One of the most important causes of deforestation in Indonesia and Borneo is unquestionably the production of palm oil. According to FAO, between 1990 and 2000, nearly 6 million hectares of palm oil plantations have gradually replaced Indonesian forests. This makes the palm oil industry one of the biggest contributors to deforestation in Southeast Asia – and it is expected to continue to be so.

Due to pressure from NGOs (such as Greenpeace’s recent report) and new regulations, as well the expectations of consumers, the situation of the palm oil industry is slowly starting to improve. Certifications are starting to appear, including sustainable palm oil labels (that aim to prove it comes from certified forests and workers are fairly paid) like RSPO.

Indonesia now accounts for nearly 35% of the world’s sustainable palm oil production, although the sustainable palm oil market is still small (only 19% is certified). Despite industries still posing serious environmental problems, the media spotlight on this topic is beginning to shift the lines.

Deforestation In Africa

Africa is also a large area suffering from deforestation. In fact, it experiences more deforestation than Asia: about 2 million hectares of forest disappear each year in Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, over 90% of forests were lost because of practices that started in the colonial era. Woodcutting of forest reserves and the development of cocoa and palm oil plantations are among the main causes of deforestation in Africa, together with land cleaning for mining activities.

What Animals Are Affected By Deforestation?

Unconventional production practices that illegally take down trees and use dangerous chemicals threaten forests and wildlife. In this way,  exploiting crops such as palm oil, wood, coffee or avocados has side effects that affect the environment and the surrounding ecosystems. It’s estimated that the Earth’s biodiversity is going extinct 0,1%, or aprox. 200 species per day, every year. Some of the animals under greatest threat are:

How Can We Stop Deforestation? Solutions to Deforestation

How can we stop deforestation? According to OECD, the human population is expected to continue to increase and reach over 9 billion people by 2050. At the current rate of consumption, and with more people inhabiting Earth, the need for more space to grow food and extract natural resources is only likely to increase – depending, of course, on tech development such as artificial foods. As the demand for food or raw materials like cotton or minerals increases, so does the need to turn forests into farmland, pastureland, or mining spots. Under this broader perspective, how can we stop deforestation?

1 – Eating Less Meat Helps Stop Deforestation

How can we stop deforestation? According to the WWF, livestock-caused deforestation is responsible for the discharge of 3.4% of current global emissions of carbon to the atmosphere every year. That’s why the late 2018 IPCC report stood out that reducing meat consumption by 90% is the single biggest way to reduce global warming.

Some studies also show that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75%. In this way, reducing your meat consumption is also a big step to stop not only deforestation but also global warming on a larger scale. Remember: a lot of space is needed to grow both animals and the food they consume, while other nutritious foods could be grown and result in larger food quantities using the same space. Why not saving meat for important occasions only?

2 – Consuming Less and More Consciously Helps Stop Deforestation

As consumers we can choose to buy less industrial and transformed products such as cookies, crips, noodles or cosmetics that use plenty of palm oil. Instead, we can go for a home-made approach with fewer chemicals and food preservatives which is better for both the planet and our health.

However, if you are not willing to make such changes – because they are time consuming – you can still consume more responsibly while keeping your lifestyle. To this regard, you can buy products from brands adopting eco-friendly business practices. When it comes to food, buying directly to small farmers using agroforestry practices is the best choice for the planet.

3 – To Stop Deforestation, When You Consume: Use, Use, Use

Your smartphone, your laptop or your car, to name a few, are all made of aluminium, plastic and rare Earth minerals, among other materials. To get these, (just like foods like coffee or cacao) land was clear to build mining sites, roads and factories and where built to transport and transform them, powerplants provide them with energy…

The longer we use our products for, the higher the changes that demand doesn’t grow (it won’t likely decrease either – there are more people in the planet every day). Economically-speaking, if the demand doesn’t grow, production won’t grow either and it it is not necessary to clear more space to extract natural resources and build human infrastructures might, deforestation (and carbon emissions from the industry) might just not increase.

4 – Leaving Fossil Fuels and Palm Oil Behind

Nearly half of UE’s imports of palm oil are used as biofuels – although proposals to ban subsidies are currently under debate. Since diesel and petrol are mixed with biofuels, choosing other transportation methods such as walking, cycling or car-sharing can be good ways of reducing palm oil importations (and production) and to help stop deforestation.

5 – Lead by Example and Spread Awareness

If you start adopting the behaviors mentioned above to help stop deforestation you can lead by your example. Teach your family, friends or colleagues what deforestation is and why it is happening, the causes and consequences of deforestation, and what solutions individuals, consumers and organizations can adopt.

A Broader Perspective: How Can We Stop Deforestation?

Apart from people’s individual contributions to stop deforestation, from a political and systemic perspective, other more direct and hands-on actions approaches can be taken:

1 – Fighting illegal logging and limiting logging in old-growth forests;

2 – Protecting forested areas by creating laws and policies that ensure forests are kept protected and restored and betting on land practices such as wildfire corridors;

3 – Reforming trade agreements, starting to value differently products obtained through deforestation, and creating incentives for the use of sustainable forestry certifications such as FSC;

4 – Educating local communities and tourists about the need to protect forests and develop and enroll in ecotourism activities.

What Are People Doing to Stop Deforestation?

What is being currently done do stop deforestation? Efforts to replant deforested areas are taking place every day. Unfortunately, some replanting is done with the goal of quickly growing trees to be exploited in the short-term by the logging industry. These often consist of monotypic plantations (less resilient, more appealing to harmful environmental management practices) such as eucalyptus or pines. This is no small effort: there are 1.3 million km2 of these plantations on Earth, according to FAO.

At the same time, efforts to stop deforestation using more ecological management practices are also underway thanks to forest protection NGOs, eco-villages, UN initiatives and workgroups, and national governments such as New Zealand’s.

Image credits to deforestation on Shutterstock, trees deforestation on Shutterstock and palm oil deforestation on Shutterstock

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