Deforestation is the permanent removal of trees to make room for something besides forest. This can include clearing the land for agriculture or grazing, or using the timber for fuel, construction or manufacturing. 

Deforestation occurs for a number of reasons, including farming, with 80% of deforestation resulting from extensive cattle ranching and logging for materials and development. It has been happening for thousands of years, arguably since man began converting from hunter/gatherer to agricultural based societies, and required larger, unobstructed tracks of land to accommodate cattle, crops, and housing. It was only after the onset of the modern era that it became an epidemic.

Increased Greenhouse Gases

In addition to the loss of habitat, the lack of trees also allows a greater amount of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. Healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, acting as valuable carbon sinks. Deforested areas lose that ability and release more carbon.

Soil Erosion and Flooding

Further effects of deforestation include soil erosion and coastal flooding. Trees help the land to retain water and topsoil, which provides the rich nutrients to sustain additional forest life.

Without forests, the soil erodes and washes away, causing farmers to move on and perpetuate the cycle. The barren land which is left behind in the wake of these unsustainable agricultural practices is then more susceptible to flooding, specifically in coastal regions.

Here are some basic facts about deforestation. These facts are explored in greater depth below.

  • Forests are cut down to clear land for agriculture, livestock grazing, and settlement; for timber; to produce charcoal; and to establish tree plantations.
  • Deforestation occurs across all forest types, but is concentrated in the tropics and boreal regions. Temperate regions are experiencing a net increase in forest cover due to natural regeneration.
  • While deforestation produces food, fiber, and fuel, it can also pose risks to climate, biodiversity, and food security by degrading the ecosystem services normally afforded by healthy and productive forests
  • Scientists estimate that 80% of the planet’s terrestrial species live in forests. Deforestation is therefore one of the biggest extinction risks to many species.

Types of deforestation

The “causes of deforestation” section above focuses on direct drivers of deforestation, but indirect drivers are also important to consider. For example, logging is a major indirect driver of deforestation in the tropics. Logging in tropical rainforests is typically selective, meaning only a few trees are harvested per hectare. But successive logging cycles degrade the perceived economic value of the forest, increasing pressure to convert the forest for intensive use, like agricultural or an industrial plantation (e.g. oil palm, wood pulp, or timber are the most common tropical tree plantations). Logging also usually involves road construction, which facilitates access to remote areas, greatly boosting the likelihood that an area of forest will eventually be cleared or burned.

Drivers of deforestation can be even farther removed however. For example, corruption, governance, and land rights can all be important factors in whether a forest gets destroyed. Corruption can enable companies to circumvent environmental regulations, while poor governance can allow illegal actors to clear forests with impunity since there isn’t any law enforcement. Insecure land rights can spur a free-for-all where forests get cleared because no one has clear stake to maintain them for the public good. Research has shown that forests are more likely to be maintained in indigenous communities that have secure land titles.

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