Humans have a long history of deforestation, clearing areas for agriculture or infrastructure for centuries. However, as time has gone on, a growing human population, rapidly expanding industries and globalization have made deforestation more common. As early as the 17th century, extensive deforestation was the happening across North America and Europe. Colonizers deforested broad swaths of North America from the 1600s to the 1800s as they sought to establish grazing pastures and farmland. By the 1870s, nearly half of the entire Eastern part of North America had already been deforested. By the middle of the twentieth century, deforestation had expanded significantly, skyrocketing in tropical areas like the Brazilian Amazon. By 2013, 18% of the original Amazon rainforest had been deforested – that’s roughly equivalent to an area the size of France.
Tropical deforestation (which includes deforestation in areas of SE Asia, Congo and the Amazon) between 1950 and 2010 cleared over 876,000 mi2 of trees – that’s like clearing trees from one half of the entire European continent. From 2002 to 2020 alone, the world lost 250,000 mi2 (that’s an area larger than the size of Kenya) of tropical forest to deforestation from urbanization, commodification and agriculture, among other factors. The total deforestation over that same period totaled 1.6 million mi2 of trees. Each year, between 3.5 and 7 billion trees are cut down. Since humans began altering the landscape by deforestation generations ago, it is estimated that just shy of half (46%) of the world’s trees have be cut down.
What is causing deforestation?
Some of the major causes behind deforestation include logging, clearing land for agriculture and pastures, and infrastructure expansion. While some level of deforestation helps humans to stay warm with firewood or grow crops, unsustainable and illegal practices cause significant deforestation and cause wide-ranging impacts on our environment.
Logging: Illegal logging comprises the majority of deforestation in tropical forests, with estimates ranging from 50-90% of all logging activities in these areas as being illegal. Between 15 and 30% of all wood on the market is thought to be derived from illegal logging. But whether illegal or not, timber extraction takes a toll on the environment. Across global forests, 37% of all annual deforestation is attributed to logging.
Agriculture and Pastureland: Cropland and pastureland development comprises 28% of all global annual deforestation. Cattle and products like palm oil make up a big part of the deforestation. Cattle ranching requires hundreds of acres, with each cow requiring up to two acres of land per year. Clearing land for cattle expansion is a primary cause (up to 80%) of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which is home to over 86 million cows – more than any other country in the world.
Palm oil is a crop used in hundreds of items like foods, cosmetics, and other toiletries. In fact, palm oil can be found in nearly 50% of all packaged products consumed in the U.S. A resilient and efficient crop, palm oil fields produce nearly four times the amount of product while using less land than other vegetable oils like avocado and sunflower. However, being a universal and productive crop causes massive global deforestation in order to meet the high demand for palm oil, disrupting ecosystems and endangering species.
Infrastructure Expansion: Globally, infrastructure expansion, including highway development, makes up about 14% of annual deforestation. Major infrastructure projects like dams, roads, and mines often consist of clear cutting land to make space. Across the globe, massive infrastructure projects are set to increase deforestation, especially tropical forest deforestation, by 2030. 7,500 miles of roads are set to be built through the Amazon, with another 2,500 miles slated for construction in Indonesia to allow for additional access to mine construction. These projects will result in the loss of millions of acres of forests, with 5.9 million acres estimated to be lost in the Amazon alone.
Why should we care?
Humans are causing massive changes to the environment, and deforestation is just one contributing factor. However, deforestation has cascading effects that are causing long-term damage to ecosystems.
Deforestation begets more pollution. Deforestation reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that is being reduced in our atmosphere by removing that trees that capture it. Further, the space once occupied by vast forests is often being replaced with activities that only cause additional greenhouse gases to be emitted. Cattle ranching and other agriculture are the leading producers of methane gas and the use of transportation infrastructure produces methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. With less trees to remove carbon dioxide from the air, while the newly deforested land is often being used for activities that only cause more pollution, deforestation contributes to global climate change. Further, deforestation causes water pollution, as resulting agricultural runoff and vehicle traffic contaminate nearby water sources.
Deforestation also threatens biodiversity. 80% of land animals live in forests across the globe. In fact, there are over 3 million species living in the Amazon alone. Humans are causing species loss at between 1,000 and 10,000 times natural levels. For example, palm oil production destroys habitats for dozens of endangered species, including the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. At present, nearly one million species are facing extinction.
What can we do?
Addressing the state of our global forests is urgent. There has been some headway in recent years with more awareness around the issue of deforestation and some subsequent reductions in rates of tree clearing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that rates of deforestation have slowed in recent years. While over 46,000 mi2 of forests were being deforested between 2010 and 2015, between 2015 and 2020, that rate had been reduced to around 38,000 mi2.
However, there is still much work to be done. Companies like Cargill and Ikea are contributing to the destruction of global forests by failing to abide by regulations in place to ensure sustainable production. These companies, among countless others, use illegally sourced palm oil and timber to manufacture their products. Major corporations must commit to protecting biodiversity and using sustainable practices when clearing trees.
While significant changes must be made at company and state levels to reduce deforestation and mitigate its effects, there are some things that each of us can do to help reduce our impact on global forests. By doing simple things like buying used furniture, reducing our consumption of beef and other meat, and working to only buy products with sustainably sourced palm oil, we can do our part to protect our trees.