Forests cover about thirty percent of the Earth’s lands, so it’s not surprising that many modern industries have been built around profiting off them. Logging companies cut down the trees and sell the wood, which then gets processed into different products like wood furniture or fuelwood. Agricultural industries clear out forests to make way for the planting of nonnative but lucrative plants, such as palm oil or rubber trees, or to provide grazing lands for farm animals. Urbanizing areas also requires large amounts of clear space to construct buildings and transportation systems, so wildlife in that space gets destroyed.
The loss of a few trees and plants is inevitable, but these operations don’t exist on a small scale. What’s going on today is a mass destruction of forests, also called deforestation. If nothing is done, rainforests won’t exist in a century. This is a global concern since forests play a crucial role in not only our survival as a species but as a planet.
Deforestation is the clearing of a forest. Some environmentalists make the distinction that deforestation must be intentional destruction so that we can distinguish between man-made clearings and those caused by wildfires, but others argue that this distinction isn’t as clear-cut as we would like to believe. Interestingly enough, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) doesn’t distinguish between intentional and unintentional clearing, but it does specify that for this destruction to be considered deforestation, the cleared land must then be converted to other uses.
How It Works
Expanding agriculture is the largest contributor to deforestation. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that the major contributor to deforestation was the production of beef, soy, palm oil, and wood materials, estimating that they drive the destruction of almost four million hectares of forests every year. To make matters worse, land set aside for agriculture is usually set aside for good, meaning that landowners won’t consider reforesting the area.
Clearcutting, a logging practice where all the trees in an area are felled, or cut down, is still common. While some companies may make an effort to replant trees in logged areas, it’s usually done so that the logging process can continue. The trees planted are rarely native to the region but always contain lucrative wood types. Even if lands are protected, the industry is so profitable that logging may still occur illegally.
Fires are also playing a part in forest destruction. A 2018 study by the World Resources Institute found that wildfires contributed to twenty-three percent of the global loss of tree cover from 2001 to 2015. While fires can naturally occur and play a vital role in maintaining ecosystems, an increasing number are being caused, both directly and indirectly, by humans. Slash-and-burn agriculture is frequently used by small-scale farmers and has recently been criticized since its overuse can actually kill rather than revitalize soils. Fires are also used to clear land in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas when clearcutting is deemed too slow or otherwise impractical. Messing with the local ecosystem, such as by felling trees, can also make more areas susceptible to wildfires.
Our forests are disappearing rapidly, and we’re already reaping the effects of this mass destruction. Trees store carbon dioxide, so burning, cutting, or otherwise destroying them releases that CO2 back into the atmosphere. With fewer trees to take in that carbon dioxide and eventually convert it, we end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions, which means raising the global temperature, altering weather and water patterns, and increasing the severity of extreme weather events.
That’s just one effect of deforestation. About eighty percent of documented land species live in forests. Destroying their homes directly contributes to dwindling their numbers, potentially leading to their extinction. Replanting foreign trees won’t help these animals survive since they don’t have the same properties as native ones, and even if they did, it can take years for wildlife to adapt to using them. In that time, local species can easily become endangered or go extinct. Furthermore, getting rid of forests changes the soil composition, which can lead to soil degradation and erosion. This can wipe out ecosystems, sweeping lands into rivers.
Forests play a vital role in our planet’s survival as we know it. We can’t allow deforestation to continue. Do your research before getting involved in replanting efforts, and volunteer or donate to ones that are planting native trees to help the local wildlife and ecosystem. Look into green policies and measures that effectively limit how much harm companies and individuals can do to forests. Try to limit your consumption of products that incentivize deforestation, and support local businesses with ethical practices. There’s a lot of work to do, but if we all lend a helping hand, we can help sustain the planet that’s been sustaining us for centuries.