Climate change has many faces. Probably one of the most dramatic of them is deforestation. Human unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources has led to the loss of a large portion of the original forest cover on our planet. That process has been accelerated during the last 50 years. Even though the current trend shows a lower pace of deforestation, the magnitude of its environmental impact is increasing, since lost forests are not being properly replaced by new ones and most threatened forests nowadays are tropical forests, home of 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.
What Is Deforestation?
Deforestation is defined as the conversion of forests into other types of land, usually for agriculture, stock-breeding and urban expansion. A similar concept is forest degradation, consisting in changes in a forest that result in negative effects such as a loss of resilience or productivity of the forest. Many times forest degradation is the first step towards deforestation.
What Are the Causes of Deforestation?
The causes of deforestation are varied, but all of them have something in common: they stem from a vicious mindset that regards all sort of life on planet Earth as mere economic inputs into a system that is, by definition, impossible to sustain. In the first place, and regardless of the subsequent use of the land cleared, half of the trees illegally removed are employed as fuel. Other main use of trees removed from forests is timber production.
Among the land uses of areas where forests have been eliminated, agriculture is the most important one. As part of the intensive farming functioning, large areas of land are used for single-crop farming, to feed a growing population whose diet is based on the consumption of cereals and meat. Cattle ranching is, therefore, also putting pressure on forests. Tree plantation (palm trees are a good example of this) is another manifestation of the industrial farming system that is threatening very sensitive ecosystems, such as tropical forests. The enlargement of cities, with their housing facilities and transport infrastructure, play a key role in deforestation as well.
What Are the Consequences of Deforestation?
The environmental consequences of deforestation are not innocuous. The loss of these rich ecosystems affects different natural processes that regulate life, both on a local and on a global scale. Forests help to maintain a balance between the amount of water on land and in the atmosphere locally. Their disappearance inevitably terminates with that equilibrium, creating soil erosion, that is, the perfect conditions for desertification and floods.
Forest are also home to a vast variety of species, of both animals and plants. These species can face dramatic changes, leading even to extinction, when their habitats are altered or even destroyed. This situation doesn’t only generate a local imbalance, but a global one, given the fragile interrelationships between ecological regions throughout the globe.
Another worrying effect of deforestation is the impact it has on the carbon cycle. Forests store a large amount of CO2, necessary for photosynthesis (they are carbon sinks, that is, they absorb more carbon than they release). Their loss not only releases the carbon stored. It also prevents the future capture of more CO2. Not to mention the release of greenhouse gases produced by the activities that take place during the deforestation process and, especially, afterwards.
What Areas Are Currently Suffering from Deforestation?
As mentioned above, tropical forests are currently being exposed to a more destructive and extensive deforestation than any other type of forest.The Amazon rainforest is suffering clear cutting with mainly agricultural (soya plantations) and ranching purposes (in fact, Brazilian cattle business occupies the largest land expansion in the country).
Rainforests in South-east Asia are also being cleared at a staggering pace. The palm oil industry is, to a large extent, responsible for it. Palm trees are replacing vast extensions of Indonesian forests in Sumatra and Borneo, and it seems unlikely this trend will be reversed in the near future.
Is There a Way to Counteract Deforestation?
Despite the seriousness of the situation, there are some good news. Many ecological organizations are working in reforestation and forest management, helping local communities to preserve biodiversity without compromising economic and social progress. Even some governments are becoming aware of the importance of taking care of forests and are passing legislation in order to protect them and regulate their use.