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The 5 W's of Deforestation

What is deforestation?

Deforestation is the permanent removal of large amounts of trees for human use. It typically occurs to clear the land for agricultural/industrial purposes or use the timber for construction and manufacturing. Forests cover 31% of the land area on our planet; although it may seem like a high number, it is quickly decreasing due to deforestation. Forests provide many resources for humans. They support more than a billion people, providing food, medicine, and fuel. Worldwide, forests provide 13.4 million people with jobs in the forestry sector, and another 41 million people have jobs related to forests. Forests are home to more than half of the world's land-based species.

Furthermore, over 1 billion people live in/around forests and rely on them for food, shelter, and livelihoods. Deforestation is a growing issue globally; it contributes to the CO2 emissions heating the world (CO2 emissions in the atmosphere create the enhanced greenhouse effect, which heats the Earth) and fuels the ongoing climate crisis. Forests are one of the largest "storehouses" of carbon. The mass destruction of forests continues to sacrifice the long-term benefits of standing trees for short-term gain. Some consequences of deforestation include "desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and a host of problems for indigenous people."

When is this happening?

Right now, as you are reading this article, trees are being cut down. Since 2016, an average of 28 million hectares of forests is cut down every year. That's one football field of forest lost every single second. Cutting down trees has been happening since the stone age to create shelters, cook food, make tools, etc. In North America, half the forests in the east were cut down for timber and farming between the 1600s and late 1800s, according to National Geographic. In Canada, the increased rate of deforestation correlates to industrial development in the 1800s to the 2000s.

Where is deforestation predominantly occurring?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, "two-thirds of global forest cover loss occurs mainly in the tropics and sub-tropics." This happens in concentrated areas that serve an essential role in the ecosystems. Deforestation occurs all around the world, but the highest rates are among developing countries. In many developing countries such as Chile and Vietnam, forest restoration efforts have been offset by the population's growing demand for timber and agricultural products harvested elsewhere. Timber and agriculture are often among the more popular industries for developing countries from what is available in their land. Some developing countries have a government that may be considered corrupt; they do not enforce any laws limiting deforestation because they see an economic benefit.

One example is the forest fires in the Amazon rainforest. Humans started the fires in 2019 in the mining, logging, and agriculture industries. Some reasons the fires were started are: to help put nutrients in the soil for crops (farmers used a slash and burn technique), to create pastures for cattle ranching, to remove low-level vegetation, to more easily gain access to trees, and, unfortunately, to drive Indigenous people off their land. One of the problems is that the Amazon is the world's largest tropical rainforest, which serves as a habitat for mass amounts of ecosystems and species. The fires could potentially cause multiple species to become endangered and increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Moreover, the Amazon is one of the largest CO2 reservoirs; burning all the trees within a brief period can speed up global warming. There are substantial conflicting interests between individuals, scientists, and the government regarding the best course of action. On the one hand, farmers are burning the forests for the sake of their businesses. For example, Brazil is one of the largest beef exporters globally, and burning the forest means more land for cattle ranching. The Brazilian government has dismantled environmental protection laws and agencies to freely burn the forest and clear the land for their personal use without being held accountable for their destructive actions. Many scientists have expressed their concern on this topic. The Amazon is a significant contributor to the increase of CO2 into the atmosphere, thus speeding up climate change. Some scientists have warned that the Amazon will reach a tipping point—when too much of the forest is lost, it won't have enough vegetation to retain moisture. As a result, it might become a savanna.

What is the leading cause of deforestation? Who is affected?

The human species' actions are the main causes of deforestation, although there are occasionally natural causes, such as natural disasters and parasites. Deforestation occurs mainly due to humans—for "agriculture expansion, cattle breeding, timber extraction, mining, oil extraction, dam construction and infrastructure development." There are also indirect causes for deforestation, such as the lack of political action to protect the environment. This arises from government corruption, wrong public administration investments, or socioeconomic changes like population growth and climate change.

Climate change affects everyone, but those with lower socioeconomic status—such as developing countries—are affected more because they often lack the money and resources needed to combat the aftermath of these disasters. Developing countries have problems like lower crop yields, higher rates of water and food insecurity, lower biodiversity, and more extreme natural disasters, such as major coastal flooding. Thus, they are unable to recover from the effects of climate change. Most of the time, those who face the harshest effects of climate change aren't even the largest contributors to CO2 emissions. Deforestation specifically affects Indigenous people due to their close relationship with the environment and their dependence on resources. According to Brazil's National Space Research Institute, in 2019, "an estimated 3,553 fires were burning on 148 indigenous territories in the region due to the forest fires to clear land."

Why does deforestation negatively affect humans and the environment?

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, taking in greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. As climate change continues, trees play an important role in capturing and storing excess carbon dioxide. According to the World Resources Institute, tropical trees alone are estimated to provide about 23% of the climate regulation needed to offset climate change. Deforestation not only removes vegetation that is important for removing carbon dioxide from the air, but the act of clearing the forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change. Deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. The release of greenhouse gases leads to the greenhouse effect, warming the Earth and increasing average global temperatures. As established already, this has devastating implications for life on Earth.

How can you help?

  • Educate yourself on current events.

  • Recycle paper and cardboard.

  • Try not to purchase products with palm oil.

  • Respect the rights of Indigenous people: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/stories/what-i-learned-from-an-indigenous-communitys-fight-to-save-canadas-boreal-forest/

  • Support organizations that fight against deforestation.

  • Use less paper.

Final word

Although deforestation is an issue that takes place on a massive global scale, there is a way to combat it. People are becoming increasingly aware of the major causes, effects, and implications of deforestation. You can take action in various ways, whether that be volunteering at an environmental non-profit, sending letters to the government, or simply being more mindful of your paper and cardboard consumption. Significant advances are made every day, but we must all collectively continue our efforts to see real change.

Article author: Kelley Liang

Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Edie Whittington