Deforestation – what is it? What are its causes, effects and solutions?

What is the definition of deforestation? It adds more CO2 to the atmosphere than all cars and trucks on the world’s roads. But what are its causes and effects? How to stop deforestation? What animals are affected by deforestation? Let’s find out.

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What is deforestation? A brief definition

Deforestation is the decrease in forest areas. It happens when forest regions are permanently lost (or at least lost in the long term) for other uses such as agriculture, urbanization or mining activities.

Causes of deforestation

Multiple factors, either of human or natural origin, cause deforestation. There are natural factors such as natural forest fires or diseases from parasites that can result in deforestation. Nevertheless, it’s mainly human activities that are responsible for global deforestation. According to the World Forestry State report published by FAO, the expansion of agriculture caused nearly 80% of global deforestation. This phenomenon is remarkably strong in South America, Africa, and Asia. The construction of infrastructures like roads or dams, together with mining activities and urbanization, make up the remaining 20%.

Causes of deforestation – in detail

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization:

  • Agriculture causes around 80% of deforestation
    • 33% of this deforestation is due to subsistence agriculture (such as local peasant agriculture in developing countries)
    • Commercial or industrial agriculture (field crops and livestock) cause around 40% of forest loss
      • Livestock is believed to be responsible for about 14% of global deforestation
  • 10% of deforestation happens because of infrastructure constructions
  • 05-10% is due to mining activities
  • Around 05% of deforestation happens due to urbanization

Did you know? Forest industries are not among the major contributors to deforestation. Why? Because companies from the forest industry most often exploit areas of cultivated forest. This means that these forests that are regularly replanted in order to be exploited in a sustainable way. As these areas are kept as forests, they’re really not accountable when it comes to deforestation math.

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.

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 natural environments that surround forests, human activities are putting these species at danger and it can have significant consequences on natural balances. Why? For example, in some parts of Africa, the gradual reduction of silver gorillas habitat’s, particularly because of deforestation, puts this species in danger.

  • Aren’t you yet sure about the importance of biodiversity for the planet’s balance and for human life? Then you should find out:

How deforestation effects soils

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

Effects of deforestation on people and their livelihoods

There are still many people around the world today depending on forests for survival. They use forests for hunting and for gathering 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 the 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.

Deforestation effects on climate change – how does deforestation affect climate change?

Deforestation also has a very strong contribution to climate change. Why? Let’s remember that 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, it’s estimated that deforestation is responsible for 10-15% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This makes it one of the largest global warming contributors in the world, together with road transport and the energy consumption of buildings.

Understanding deforestation in video

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

Where is deforestation happening?

Around the world, deforestation is not homogeneous. Some parts of the world have managed to protect their forests from deforestation. Others have seen their forests declining. 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 – let’s find out 3 important examples of the global deforestation situation.

The effects of deforestation in Brazil and the Amazon forest

Brazil and the Amazon forest are also important deforestation areas worldwide. The Amazon Rainforest is one of the world’s largest forest hot-spots, 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 has been under threat and nearly 760 000 km2 of forest area were lost – almost 20% of its original area. Before 1980-1990, it was large industrial projects such as dams, roads or mines that caused deforestation. On a small scale, the subsistence farming of small local farmers contributed too. However, for around thirty years, the causes of deforestation are changing. Why?

The effects of deforestation and livestock farming in the Amazon rainforest

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 the increasing consumption of meat in developed countries, is thus the main cause of Amazonian deforestation.

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. Indeed this region of 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 suffered the most deforestation in recent decades. According to FAO, between 1990 and 2012 alone, Indonesia lost about 9 million hectares of its forests. Why?

The effects of deforestation and palm oil

One of the most important causes of deforestation in Indonesia and Borneo is undoubtedly 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’s expected to continue to be so.

But 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 get 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 started in the colonial era. Woodcutting of forest reserves and the development of cocoa and palm oil plantations being among the main causes, together with mining.

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 biodiversity is going extinct at each year 0,1% every year. Some of the animals under greatest threat are:

How to stop deforestation in 5 steps

According to OECD, The human population is expected to continue to increase and reach over 9 billion people by 2050. At the same time, there’s the need for more food. Altogether, products like soy, palm oil or minerals have a huge number of uses in several products. The demand for these products has created incentives to turn forests into farmland, pasture land or mining spots. In this way, how can we stop deforestation?  By changing our behaviors as citizens and as consumers. Let’s dig deeper.

1- Consuming less

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

2- Using less fuel-powered transportation methods

Nearly half of UE’s imports of palm oil are used as biofuels – although proposals to ban subsidies are under debate. Therefore, choosing other transportation methods such as walking, cycling or using electrical transportation is a good way to reduce palm oil importations (and production) and to help stop deforestation.

3- Eating less meat

According to the WWF, It’s estimated that deforestation caused by livestock 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.

4- Shopping sustainably certified products

The steps to stop deforestation don’t mean you need to make radical changes. You can still do your normal life while trying to stop deforestation. If you still want to buy cookies from the supermarket or continue to substantially consume meat do it. But you can still keep in mind the source of the product you’re buying. Try to get fair trade, biological or locally produced products.

5 –  Spreading awareness

You can still teach your family, friends or colleagues about the issues around deforestation. Let them know about the consequences of deforestation and how they can also use their consumer role to make a difference.

How to stop deforestation? A wider perspective

From a political and organizing perspective, apart from people’s individual contributions to stop deforestation, 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 (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 (and start valuing differently products obtained through deforestation and create incentives for the use of sustainable forestry certifications such as FSC).
  • 4 – Educating local communities (to, apart from protecting forests, using them for activities like ecotourism and cooperate for fair trade products)

 

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