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Deforestation: Facts, Causes and Effects

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North Zone of Imiría, Ucayali. (Photo: MAAP)

Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests to make land available for other uses. An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Some other stats:


Deforestation occurs throughout the world, although tropical rainforests are particularly vulnerable. If current levels of deforestation continue, the world’s rainforests could be completely gone in as little as 100 years, according to National Geographic. Countries with significant deforestation in 2016 include Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other regions in Africa and Eastern Europe, according to GRID-Arendal , a United Nations Environment Program collaborating center. The country with the highest deforestation is Indonesia. Since the last century, Indonesia has lost at least 39 million acres (15.79 million hectares) of forest land, according to a study by the University of Maryland and the World Resource Institute .

Although deforestation has increased rapidly in the last 50 years, it has been practiced throughout history. For example, 90 percent of the continental United States’ indigenous forest has been removed since 1600, according to the University of Michigan. The World Resources Institute estimates that most of the remaining indigenous forest is found in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and the northwestern Amazon basin.
There are many causes of deforestation. The WWF and reports that half of the trees illegally removed from forests are used for fuel.

Some other common reasons are:

  • To create more land available for housing and development
  • To harvest wood to create trade items like paper, furniture, and houses
  • To create ingredients that are highly prized consumer items, such as palm oil.
  • To create space for livestock

Common methods of deforestation are burning trees and clear felling. These tactics leave the land completely barren and are controversial practices.

Clearcutting is when large tracts of land are cleared all at once. A forestry expert quoted by the Natural Resources Defense Council describes clearcutting as “an ecological trauma that is unprecedented in nature except for a major volcanic eruption.”

Burning can be done quickly, on large swathes of land, or more slowly with slash-and-burn techniques. Slash- and-burn agriculture involves cutting down an area of ​​trees, burning them, and growing crops on the land . The ash from the burned trees provides some food for the plants and the land is free of weeds from the burning. When the soil becomes less nutritious and weeds start to reappear with years of use, farmers move to new land and start the process all over again.

Deforestation and climate change

Deforestation is considered one of the contributing factors to global climate change. According to Michael Daley, associate professor of environmental sciences at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts, the No. 1 problem caused by deforestation is the impact on the global carbon cycle. Gas molecules that absorb thermal infrared radiation are called greenhouse gases . If the greenhouse gases are large enough, they can force climate change, according to Daley. While oxygen (O 2 ) is the second most abundant gas in our atmosphere, it does not absorb thermal infrared radiation, as greenhouse gases do. Carbon dioxide ( CO2 ) is the most prevalent greenhouse gas. CO 2 accounts for approximately 82.2 percent of all greenhouse gases in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Trees can help, however. About 300 billion tons of carbon, 40 times the annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, are stored in trees, according to Greenpeace .

Deforestation for trees not only decreases the amount of carbon stored, but also releases carbon dioxide into the air. This is because when trees die, they release stored carbon. According to the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment , deforestation releases almost a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, although the numbers are not as high as those recorded in the previous decade. Deforestation is the second- largest anthropogenic (human-caused) source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (after the combustion of fossil fuels), ranging from 6 to 17 percent, according to a study published in 2009 in Nature. .

Carbon is not the only greenhouse gas affected by deforestation. Water vapor is also considered a greenhouse gas. “The impact of deforestation on the exchange of water vapor and carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface is the biggest concern with respect to the climate system,” Daley said. Changes in its atmospheric concentration will have a direct effect on the climate.

According to an article published by the journal National Academy of Sciences, deforestation has reduced global terrestrial vapor flows by 4 percent. Even this slight change in vapor flows can disrupt natural weather patterns and change current climate models.

Other effects of deforestation

Forests are complex ecosystems that affect almost all species on the planet. When they degrade, it can trigger a devastating chain of events both locally and around the world.

Species loss – Seventy percent of the world’s plants and animals live in forests and are losing their habitats due to deforestation, according to National Geographic. Habitat loss can lead to species extinction . It also has negative consequences for medical research and local populations that depend on animals and plants in the forests for hunting and medicine.

Water Cycle – Trees are important to the water cycle. They absorb falling rain and produce water vapor that is released into the atmosphere. Trees also decrease pollution in the water, according to North Carolina State University, by stopping polluted runoff. In the Amazon, more than half of the ecosystem’s water is held within plants, according to the National Geographic Society.

Soil erosion : the roots of the tree anchor the ground. Without trees, the soil can be freely washed or blown away, which can lead to vegetation growth problems. The WWF states that scientists estimate that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to deforestation since 1960. After clearcutting, cash crops such as coffee, soybeans and palm oil are planted. Planting these types of trees can cause more soil erosion because their roots cannot hold on to the ground. “The situation in Haiti compared to the Dominican Republic is a great example of the important role that forests play in the water cycle,” said Daley. Both countries share the same island, but Haiti has much less forest cover than the Dominican Republic. 

Quality of Life – Soil erosion can also lead to silt entering lakes, streams, and other water sources. This can lower local water quality and contribute to poor health in populations in the area.

The disturbance of the natives: Many native tribes live in the tropical forests of the world, and their destruction is the destruction of the homes and way of life of these people. For example, the movie “Under the Canopy” takes a look at the Amazon rainforest and the people who live there, including an indigenous guide named Kamanja Panashekung. “The Kamanja community is one of more than 350 indigenous communities in the Amazon who depend on the rainforest, like all of us, for the air we breathe and the water we drink,” said M. Sanjayan, executive vice president and chief scientist. of Conservation International. [ Explore the Amazon Rainforest with a New VR Movie ]

Fighting back against deforestation

Many believe that to counteract deforestation, people simply need to plant more trees. Although a massive replanting effort would help alleviate the problems caused by deforestation, it would not solve all of them.

Reforestation would facilitate:

  • Restore ecosystem services provided by forests, including carbon storage, the water cycle, and wildlife habitat
  • Reduce the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  • Reconstruction of wildlife habitats

However, reforestation will not completely fix the damage. For example, Daley points out that forests cannot isolate all of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and a reduction in fossil fuel emissions. It is still necessary to prevent their accumulation in the atmosphere. Reforestation will also not help with extinction due to deforestation. “Unfortunately, we have already depleted the population of many species to such an extent that they may not recover, even with a massive reforestation effort,” Daley told Live Science.

In addition to reforestation, a few other tactics are being taken to counteract or slow down deforestation. Some of them include the shift of the human population to a plant-based diet. This would reduce the need to clear land to raise livestock.
Global Forest Watch has also started a project to counteract deforestation through awareness. The organization uses satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to detect and alert others to deforestation. Their online community is also encouraged to share their personal experiences and the negative effects of deforestation.
Source: Alina Bradford, livescience
Video is in Spanish, with footge showing area deforestation.



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