Deforestation—Causes, Effects, and Solutions

Learn the causes, effects, and solutions you can contribute to help stop deforestation.

Forests are vital to our Earth. Trees purify our air, filter our water, prevent erosion, and act as a buffer against climate change. They offer a home to plant and animal species while also providing natural resources such as medicine, food, timber, and fuel. 300 million people live in forests worldwide. 60 million of those humans are indigenous who are completely dependent on native woods.

Become informed on man-made and natural causes of deforestation and how and why it is affecting our planet.

What is Deforestation?

Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests in order to utilize the land or trees. Typically, deforestation is clearing a lot of trees without the intention of establishing future growth. Harvesting, forest fires, and insect infestations do not count as deforestation because the affected areas will eventually grow back. In some countries, such as Canada and America, all areas harvested must be reforested either by replanting or through natural regeneration.

The land is then often converted into farms, plantation, roads, housing, and other city uses. Deforestation is most severe in various countries such as the Amazon, Borneo, Congo Basin and the Russian Far East. Over half of the world’s forests have been destroyed over 10,000 years, the majority in just the last 50 years. These immense changes include large-scale extinction events, desertification, climatic changes, topsoil loss, flooding, famine, disease outbreaks, and more.

Deforestation has even been caused by extensive war—throughout history fire has often been used to deprive the enemy of necessary resources. If they’re not reforested, they inevitably end up as wastelands directly from soil erosion and desertification.

Causes of Deforestation

  • Mining. The increase of mining on tropical forests is furthering damage due to the rising demand and high mineral prices. These projects are often accompanied by large infrastructure construction, such as roads, railways, and power systems. This contributor to deforestation is putting additional pressure on our forests and freshwater ecosystems.
  • Paper. America, China, Japan, and Canada make up more than of the world’s paper production—400 million tons a year. Approximately 640 million trees represent the paper that’s thrown away each year, according to the Environment Paper Network. If we recycled, we could save 27.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. By using recycled paper, we allow the forests to remain as an ecosystem and wildlife habitat.
  • Overpopulation. Due to overpopulation, more land is needed to establish housing and settlements. As well as many, many more roads and highways are being built in order to accommodate a larger sum of people driving. With more people that come with a large need for food and farmland to grow on and raise livestock—resulting in deforestation. Logging industries will cut down trees for furniture, paper, building materials, and many more products. These are a direct result of growing human population and is why it’s important to purchase from sustainable companies which actively work against deforestation
  • Logging. Wood-based industries such as paper, matchsticks, and furniture need a substantial quantity of wood. Lumber and charcoal are common examples of trees being used as fuel. Cooking and heating all around the world use these resources, and half of the illegal removal from forests is thought to be used as fuelwood. Large areas are also cleared to construct roads in order for large trucks to have entry to logging sites. Selective logging is where only the most valuable trees are felled, however, this doesn't help our problem as one large tree may bring down surrounding trees and thin the forest canopy. The forest canopy is extremely important to the ecosystem as it houses animals, protects plants and insect population, and protects the forest floor.
  • Agriculture Expansion & Livestock Ranching. A major cause of deforestation is agriculture plantations. An increasing supply-demand for products such as palm oil and soybeans are driving producers to clear forests at an unnerving rate. Farmers often clear the land for cattle by using slash and burn techniques (cutting down trees and burning them). Unfortunately, they will then use the property until the soil is completely degraded and repeat the process on a new patch of woodland. Eventually, it'll reforest, but it will take many years to return to its original condition.
  • Cattle ranching and deforestation are strongest in Latin America. Over the past 40 years, forest area has reduced my almost an astounding 40 percent. During the same period, 40 years, pasture regions and cattle population have grown significantly and rapidly.
  • Climate Change. Forests are essentially the lungs of our planet. All plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Trees are able to convert more carbon dioxide than a regular plant, though. Forest loss is often caused by climate change. Tropical rainforests are extremely humid due to the water vapor released along with the oxygen. But when a forest is cut down, the humidity levels decrease and causes the remaining plants to dry out. For example, drying out our tropical rainforests increases fire damage. Fires can be both accidental and intentional but destroy forests quickly.

Effects of Deforestation

  • Increased Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Trees help to mitigate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, but they become carbon sources once they’re cut, burned, or otherwise removed. It’s estimated that deforestation is responsible for around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and 1.5 billion tons of carbon is released every year by tropical deforestation.
  • Acidic Oceans. The oceans are becoming more acidic with an increased supply of carbon dioxide from deforestation and burning fossil fuels. Oceans are already 30 percent more acidic since the Industrial Revolution, putting ocean species and ecosystems at an extreme risk.
  • Loss of Species. Orangutans, giant pandas, rhinos, and the Asian elephant are just a few of hundreds of endangered species due to deforestation. Removing trees thins the forest canopy which is meant to block sun rays during the day and holds in the heat at night. This damaging disruption leads to extreme temperature swings that are harmful to plants and animals. Many animals, insects, and plants lose their habitats and may become endangered and even go extinct.

Though a few species are killed directly in forest clearances, many will face a slower death sentence due to a lack of food and breeding rates decline. White-cheeked spider monkeys are endangered largely specifically because of the enlargement of farmland and road construction. Because of water pollution from mining operations and agricultural runoff the giant otter is now endangered.

It is estimated that we are losing 137 plant, animal, and insect species every day which equates to 50,000 species a year. It’s also been estimated that 40% of the animal and plant species in Southeast Asia could be wiped out in the 21st century. A recent study of the Brazilian Amazon predicts that up to 90% of extinctions will occur in the next 40 years.

  • Flooding and Erosion. Without trees to secure fertile soil, erosion often occurs and sweeps sacred land into nearby rivers. Erosion also causes contaminants in the soil to leach into the water supply which will greatly decrease the quality of our drinking water. Trees are also crucial for our local water cycles as they assist in returning water vapor to the atmosphere. Forests serve as nature’s water purification plants and as the rain water percolates within the soil and is held in place by intricate root structures of many layers of trees. When the protective forest canopy and roots have been destroyed, the soil will lose its proportions to retain water and is washed away into rivers and streams.
  • Life Quality Decrease. Millions of people in the world depend on forests for hunting, small-scale agriculture, gathering, and medicine. Common materials we use every day such as latex, cork, fruit, nuts, natural oils, and resins are found in the tropical forests. Deforestation disrupts the lives of millions of people. In Southeast Asia, deforestation has contributed to social conflict and migration. Poor people from Brazil have been lured from their villages to soy plantations where they can be abused and forced, at gunpoint, to work under inhumane conditions.

How You Can Help

You’ve already helped by reading this far and educating yourself! Next, there are a few things you can do to help further:

  • Educate Others. Many are completely unaware of this global problem we’re facing. By educating your friends, family, and community of the facts, by cause and effect you’ll increase awareness and make an impact.
  • Use Renewable Wood Resources. We can plant trees as a source of wood or use wood from second-growth forests. Looking for a job? Contact your local tree-planting organization! Sustainable, locally sourced wood can be used and charcoal for cooking or heating homes is a great alternative to fossil fuels—if locally sourced.
  • Eat Less Meat. Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. This one’s hard for some people and may actually be dangerous but even having a meatless Monday or only eating meat for one meal a day will make an extreme impact on the environment.
  • Forest-derived Products. Make sure they’re 100% post-consumer content materials.
  • Reduce Consumption. Palm oil is in absolutely everything but a quick peek at the ingredients is a simple habit to get into. Soybeans are another deforestation hotspot but try finding ways to reduce consumption, avoiding it completely, or opting for organic, local (if possible) soy products.
  • Reduce Paper Consumption. Opt for recycled paper products, including printing paper, notebooks, napkins, toilet paper, etc. Simple habits to try are printing/writing on both sides of the paper, using less toilet paper, avoiding paper plates and napkins.
  • Forest-Friendly Policies. Purchase from companies who are committed to reducing deforestation.
  • Purchase from Sustainable Companies. Loreal, Asian Pulp and Paper, Unilever, Hershey, Disney, Wilmar International are deforestation-free.
  • Forestry Certification. If buying products from virgin forest fiber, make sure it bears a seal from a credible forestry certification system. Such as the Forest Stewardship Council.

Although many will most likely say that their individual purchasing decision will have a minimal impact, it is all of our responsibility to understand and educate others about the environmental effects of deforestation.

Deforestation Facts

28,000 species may go extinct in the next quarter century due to excessive deforestation. Rainforests contain the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, and without a diverse world, life will be unable to thrive. Diversity leads to unique adaptations and evolution and allows organisms to rely on each other to survive.

Soil erosion, floods, and wildlife extinction increase in global warming.

20% of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest.

There are more than 121 natural remedies in the rain forest are used as medicine.

25% of cancer-fighting organisms are found in the Amazon.

4500 acres of forests are cleared hourly by fires, bulldozers, machetes, etc.

It’s estimated in 100 years there will be no rainforests at all.

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. This also can cause infertility in the land due to overgrazing which will prevent the growth of new forests.

Each year forests the size of Panama are lost.

Deforestation is speeding up global warming.

The soil in forests is most but once the trees are cleared the soil has no protection and quickly dries out from sun exposure.

Financial profits are the main reason for deforestation.

Reusing/recycling paper and plastic bags can decrease deforestation.

Buying products with eco-friendly packaging will help prevent deforestation.

Clear-cutting is when one will cut part of a forest down, to help certain wildlife prosper or support a certain ecosystem. While this can be controversial, it can be beneficial and completely different than deforestation.

Agent Orange is a defoliant and herbicide, used in two wars. The British used Agent Orange to clear trees so insurgents were unable to hide behind them. They also killed crops to decrease the enemies’ food supply.

Orchids and Rafflesia are both endangered plants. 

The highest percent of forest loss is Malaysia.

The highest area of forest loss is Brazil.

The 10 most threatened forests include—The Amazon, Atlantic Forest/Gran Chaco, Borneo, Cerrado, Choco-Darien, Congo Basin, Eastern Africa, Eastern Australia, Greater Mekong, New Guinea, and Sumatra.

Palm oil harvesting is directly responsible for endangering the Sumatran Tiger, Orangutan, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros, and Malayan Sun Bear.

Rainforests cover 6% of the Earths surface but are home to 50% of plant and animal species.

Buy certified furniture and wood—this means it was legally cut down.

Buy recycled products—and continue to recycle or reuse your own products. 

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Deforestation—Causes, Effects, and Solutions