As a nonprofit that plants trees around the world, we talk about deforestation a lot — and with good reason. Deforestation, or the human-driven and natural loss of trees, affects everything from wildlife and ecosystems to weather patterns and the water cycle. And forests, which cover 30% of Earth’s surface, are critically important to just about every aspect of life, especially in the face of climate change.
So what, exactly, is deforestation?
Deforestation is the permanent and intentional clearing of forested land by humans, often for agricultural expansion, timber harvesting for fuel or building materials, mining, and human settlement. Huge areas of forest can also become rapidly deforested during natural disasters like wildfires, tornadoes, and cyclones.
So how does this happen? Often a forest is degraded for a long time before being completely cleared. And once the process has begun, it can be difficult to turn back the ecological clock: after roads and other infrastructure are established, wild areas are very vulnerable to clear cuts. And once an area is deforested, it will take decades (or longer) to return to something resembling its original state. This is why conservation is so important in the fight to protect our global forest resources.
In 2015, global forest cover fell below four billion hectares for the first time in human history. And despite many governmental promises and declarations, we aren’t seeing much sustained improvement when it comes to reducing the rate of deforestation. Every year, more than 20 million football fields’ worth of forests (15 billion trees!) continue to get cut down.
That’s bad news for everyone, but especially for the 1/2 of the world's terrestrial flora and fauna and 3/4 of all birds that live in and around forests.
Besides sheltering biodiversity, one of the most important services forests provide is carbon sequestration. In fact, one mature tree can consume 48 lbs of carbon a year! But once they’re chopped down, all that carbon gets released right back into the atmosphere. Here, it traps solar heat in our atmosphere which, in turn, warms our planet. Because of this, deforestation accounts for 11% of human-caused GHG's. To put that into perspective, transportation accounts for about 14% of global GHGs. Stopping deforestation, then, is absolutely critical if we want to stop climate change.
Look no further than your dinner plate: industrial agriculture accounts for around 73% of deforestation worldwide. The majority of this can be attributed to meat (particularly beef cattle), soy, and palm oil. Meat producers clear vast swaths of forest to graze their livestock and in turn, the production of livestock feed accounts for 80% of the soybeans grown—and you may be surprised to learn that poultry and pigs eat up almost as much of that soy as cattle does.
And thanks to an incredible demand for wood and wood products, illegal logging happens everywhere, leaving behind a legacy of decimated forests, homeless wildlife, distorted trade, and destroyed livelihoods. In Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, demand for packing products drives the clearing and conversion of vast areas of peatlands and lowland forests into industrial timber and wood pulp plantations.
Other major contributors are the cocoa industry, mining, wildfires, and development. And of course, climate change amplifies all of these pressures, weakening forest ecosystems everywhere.
Massive deforestation has been happening in the Brazilian Amazon for decades, with a sharp increase in 2019. Driven primarily by agricultural and industry demands, this incredible region continues to experience deforestation at a rate of 150 acres per minute. Victimized by inconsistent governance and increasing consumer demands, biodiversity and forest cover here are, literally, going up in smoke. Sadly, what began as a promising decade for the Brazilian Amazon ended with a sharp increase in deforestation due to major shifts in political leadership.
Deforestation in Peru has been trending upwards over the last two decades, thanks in large part to infrastructure improvements. While the government has worked to address this by increasing forest monitoring and establishing several new protected areas in the Andes-Amazon region, industrialization is opening up previously inaccessible tracts of forest to conversion, and the lowlands have already seen an uptick in industrial agriculture.
Bolivia, which borders Peru and lays claim to about 7.7% of the Amazon rainforest, has seen a marked increase in deforestation over the last decade due to the large-scale expansion of industrial agriculture. Thanks to this, soy and cattle farms have proceeded dramatically through the eastern lowlands. And last year, while the world watched the Brazilian Amazon burning, the Bolivian Amazon was also ablaze, losing almost 2 million hectares.
While Brazil and Bolivia burned, Columbia continued to experience massive deforestation, particularly in protected areas and indigenous lands. Unfortunately, much of these were primary forests and released massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. This was fueled by a lack of governmental presence and enforcement in these regions, which opened them up to illegal land grabbers and other threats.
Argentina and Paraguay are also seeing some of the highest global deforestation rates and human rights abuses due to agribusiness—particularly soy.
Indonesia has been experiencing incredible rates of deforestation for many years now. Driven primarily by the palm oil industry, which receives 85% of its supply from Malaysia and Indonesia, this has profoundly stressed some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Wildfires have also played a role in the tremendous scale of deforestation seen here, with fires in 2019 destroying almost 900,000 ha of peat forest. Additional deforestation pressure comes from the wood pulp industry, with vast tracts of forest cleared to make way for eucalyptus and acacia tree plantations.
To the west, Malaysia has also been experiencing some of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. Here as in Indonesia, most of the deforestation is committed to establish plantations—especially palm oil. Major highway development projects also loom large, threatening to open previously pristine areas to industry.
Over the last decade, deforestation in the Congo Basin has accelerated at a faster rate than in any other region on the planet. This is due in part to infrastructure improvements, which opened it up to major industrial agriculture operations. In particular, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which trails only Brazil in sheer size of forest cover, saw the highest increases. Some of this deforestation was also caused by smaller agriculture operations, along with conflict-induced displacement, which created increased demand for fuelwood. What is particularly concerning here is that the rate of primary forest loss has been increasing dramatically over the last few years.
In 2017, Ghana experienced a 60% rise in primary forest loss, which is more than any other tropical country in the world. This is, again, due largely to industrial agriculture—by chocolate and cocoa companies (although illegal mining also contributed to the issue). During the same timeframe, Côte d’Ivoire experienced a 26% increase in primary forest loss, trailing only Ghana. Unfortunately, in both cases, 70% of the deforestation took place in protected areas, which indicates that enforcement is seriously lacking.
In 2018, Madagascar lost 2% of its primary rainforest, which is a higher percentage than any other tropical country. This was largely caused by agricultural clearing and illegal mining.
Russia, which is home to 1/5th of the world’s forests (including the Tiaga boreal forest, which is the largest tract of forest on Earth) has seen their forests increasingly threatened by wildfires. In 2019, fires spread across over 2.5 million ha of Siberia and investigations have been launched amidst concerns that these fires were deliberately started by illegal logging operations to cover their tracks.
Because it is clear that many governments aren’t consistently enforcing their own laws, we have to call on the private sector to step up. To this end, we can exercise our power as consumers and urge corporations to shift their supply chains and adopt strict “zero deforestation” policies. If they hold their suppliers accountable, they can dramatically reduce deforestation.
We can call on our governments to pass laws that forbid the sale of any products linked to deforestation. We can invest in civil advocacy campaigns in Brazil and other South American countries that are working to expand the Cattle Moratorium, which would lessen the political pressure on vital rainforest ecosystems.
And we can join campaigns that support indigenous rights everywhere, because indigenous people and local forest communities are on the frontline of the battle for the forests they call home.
In our day-to-day lives, we can spread awareness, go paperless, recycle, read ingredient labels, and do our own research.
We can also vote with our wallets by only purchasing FSC certified wood, sustainable palm oil, ethical chocolate, and rainforest safe meats (and by cutting down on our meat consumption).
And of course, reforestation plays a vital role in addressing deforestation and its impacts. If done correctly, reforestation can restore damaged ecosystems, stabilize soil, support the water cycle, and slowly recover the vital ecosystem services that we depend on. And while we certainly don’t ever advocate for cutting down any forests—primary or not—there is evidence that proximity to secondary forests reduces the deforestation pressure on primary ones. Planting new trees is, ultimately, an investment in future forests!
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