Deforestation is the clearing and destruction of forests. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that deforestation accounts for the loss of 13 million hectares of forests annually. At this rate, nearly all of the world’s tropical rain forests will be depleted by the year 2050. Forests are important for a number of reasons, including the production of wood products, soil and water conservation, conservation of biodiversity, and social services such as recreation, tourism, and education. Forests, and the natural resources held within them, are essential for the survival of the human race.
Forests contain a number of advantages for the planet Earth. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, essential for survival of the human race, originates in the Amazonian rain forests. Forests are also a significant source of food for the human species, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and even fish. The number of species of fish in the Amazon, for example, is higher than the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean. In terms of medicine, the benefits of forests are immense. Rain forests provide 25 percent of drugs currently used by Western pharmaceutical companies. Over 70 percent of the plants identified as active in fighting cancer originated in the rain forests, including periwinkle, which has significantly reduced childhood leukemia. Yet scientists have assessed only 1 percent of the trees in the rain forests for potential medicinal purposes, meaning that deforestation may lead to the permanent loss of lifesaving drugs.
Much of the deforestation is due to an increase in population, slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for agriculture and cattle grazing, and logging for paper, wood, and fuel products. More than 11 million acres of forest are cleared annually for commercial and property purposes. In Brazil alone, 70 percent of the tropical rain forests cleared have fallen to medium and large-scale ranches. Large corporations from the United States and other industrialized nations have also cleared land in rain forests for land production. In the United States, 90 percent of the virgin forests have been converted into firewood, shingles, furniture, railroad ties, and paper. Other causes of deforestation are acid rain, pollution, cash crops that require large tracts of land and deplete soil nutrients quickly, and industrialization.
Deforestation threatens the planet Earth in many ways. Tropical forests cover only 2 percent of the world’s surface but account for 90 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The current rate of deforestation has led to the loss of 50 to 100 animal and plant species daily. Of additional concern is the immediate impact of deforestation on our natural resources, including soil erosion, water treatment, fisheries protection, and pollination. The world’s poorest people rely on these natural resources for their survival, and deforestation affects their quality of life and survival. The long-term consequences of deforestation include the decrease in biodiversity and significant increases in climate changes, both of which threaten the human race.
Deforestation has a significant impact on soil erosion. Forests act as a sponge, soaking up rainfall and providing a humid environment for plants and animals. As forests are cleared, water runoff and drought increase. The effects of Hurricane Mitch on Nicaragua and Honduras in 1998 provide a good example of the dangers. The extent of deforestation in Central America led to landslides, flooding, and the destruction of entire villages in areas in which land had been cleared. In many cases this destruction was at the expense of the poorest individuals in the countries with the least number of resources for survival.
Climate change also is a consequence of deforestation. Trees are a natural “sink” for carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to the rise in temperatures on the planet Earth. As forests are depleted, greater concentrations of carbon dioxide are present in the atmosphere and the threat of drought increases. The loss of freshwater can have a serious impact on human consumption, industry, and national security. As countries compete for less freshwater, the risk of global conflicts increases. Deforestation alone accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the world’s global warming.
The habitats and livelihood of people in this world are being lost to deforestation. Indigenous populations in many parts of the world rely on tropical rain forests for cultural, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. Five hundred years ago there were 10 million indigenous people living in Amazonian rain forests. Today, because of deforestation, fewer than 200,000 individuals live there. Often it is the poorest countries that suffer the worst consequences of deforestation.
A correlation exists between a reduction in deforestation and a reduction in poverty. The preservation of forests provides individuals with more capital in terms of natural resources, more opportunities to earn their livelihood through better agroforestry techniques, improved wildlife management, and an increase in levels of fire management. As individuals acquire more wealth, they are less likely to depend on forests for survival.
Conversely, better forest management reduces poverty by increasing income, improving people’s health, and giving them tools to increase protection of their natural resources. In assessing the positive impact of forests on people in poverty, three areas are important: land tenure rights, effective governance of these rights, and the community’s capacity to manage their natural resources.
The rate of deforestation is declining, although the process is still continuing. The FAO reports that from 2000 to 2005 the net loss of forests was 7.3 million hectares per year, down from 8.9 million hectares annually from 1990 to 2000. Contributing to this decrease are greater conservation efforts, reforestation efforts, and the natural growth of forests. Industries such as recreation and ecotourism also contribute to an increase in efforts to preserve forests and biodiversity. The longevity of the human species is dependent on such efforts to halt the rate of deforestation.
- Fearnside, R. 2006. “Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia; History, Rates, and Consequences.” Conservation Biology 19:680.
- Kerr, Suzi, Alexander Pfaff, Romina Cavatassi, Benjamin Davis, Leslie Lipper, Arturo Sanchez, and Jason Timmins. 2004. Effects of Poverty on Deforestation: Distinguishing Behavior from Location. ESA Working Paper No. 04-19.
- Matthews, Christopher. 2006. Deforestation Causes Global Warming. New York: FAO Newsroom. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.fao.org/Newsroom/en/news/2006/1000385/index.html).