Deforestation is fast becoming one of the greatest environmental threats in the world. It is currently occurring on such a scale that it is altering global climates, and must be stopped. Forests currently cover around 31% of the land area on the planet, a percentage which is rapidly decreasing . Deforestation refers to the conversion of some forest or wooded area to a non-forest use. Converted areas are extremely hard to restore – it can take decades to restore even a small area of native forest, depending on the complexity of the ecosystem .
Most modern deforestation is occurring in tropical rainforests, as areas are cleared for agriculture, urban expansion, and mining. According to the UN, around 18 million acres of forest are lost every year – this is equal to the loss of 20 football fields every minute . As an area is cleared, there are a number of immediate and long-term effects, including:
- Species Extinction
According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 80% of the world’s species can be found in tropical rainforests. These are areas where deforestation is happening at an uncontrollable rate. Many of these species are endemic to small areas, so even localized deforestation can contribute to the extinction of a number of species. Even if species don’t become extinct immediately, they still could in the near future as habitats are fragmented and they become more accessible to hunters and poachers – this is known as the ‘extinction debt’ .
- Climate Change
Forests act as significant carbon sinks. When they are removed, their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is also removed. This amplifies the effects of climate change. Not only are forests carbon sinks, but their removal also contributes to an estimated 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions . When they are removed, much of the carbon that they had previously absorbed gets released back into the atmosphere through processes such as burning and decomposition.
- Cultural Loss
Despite most of the world becoming modernized and losing its historical roots, there are still communities in more remote places who rely on the forests to live. As these forests are removed, these communities are either destroyed, forced to move, or even worse, enslaved to work on the new plantations or farms. As a result, they lose their traditional culture, often become unhealthy and sick due to the introduction of Western foods and diseases, and become generally miserable .
- Land Erosion
It is estimated that a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion since the 1960’s. Forests anchor fertile land in place and prevent erosion. Without them, soils can be washed into rivers, blown away during dust-storms, and become degraded. Unfortunately, it has become a recurring cycle – when an area becomes too eroded and degraded, the producers simply move on to the next one, clearing more forest and continuing their destruction .
- With the current deforestation rates, there will be no rainforests in 100 years time .
- Rainforests contain hundreds of natural medicines and remedies which could be valuable to modern science – these are being destroyed rapidly, and could soon be lost forever.
- The Amazon basin produces up to 20% of the world’s oxygen .
- Deforestation could halve the quality of life of the world’s poor, and could reduce global GDP by 7% by 2050 .
- Deforestation has been occurring on a small scale for thousands of years. There is evidence of fire being used as early as 8400BC to convert forests to grasslands which were more favorable to game and hunting .