Deforestation is the chopping down or removal of trees. But what are the main causes and effects of deforestation? How are people and animals in forests like the Amazon affected? And how can we stop it?
What causes deforestation?
Agriculture is the most common cause of deforestation, with logging, mining and infrastructure projects like road or dam-building also playing a part. Because of the expansion of these industries, deforestation is increasing around the world.
In the forests of South America, farmers and big agricultural businesses clear forested land for cattle farming and soya plantations used for animal feed. This is taking place on such a massive scale that it is the single biggest driver of deforestation in the world.
In Indonesia and the Congo, industrial companies mainly clear land to grow oil palm, to sell palm oil to global food and cosmetics corporations. Logging is also a major cause of deforestation worldwide.
Fire also causes deforestation. Wildfires can be natural, and these are made worse by drought. But in some areas of the world, like the Amazon and other South American forests, farmers use fire as a method of deforestation. Trees that have been cut are even more susceptible to fire.
What are the effects of deforestation?
Deforestation is devastating for people and animals that live in the world’s forests – such as the Amazon in South America, and forests in Indonesia and the Congo.
Forests provide food, shelter, fuel, building materials, medicine and cultural significance for the people who call them home. Forests are particularly important for Indigenous Peoples, many of whom have a spiritual connection to their ancestral lands.
Deforestation also has an impact on the climate. Without the ability to remove carbon dioxide emissions from their atmosphere, the world faces runaway climate change. Trees and other plants store huge amounts of carbon, because they absorb carbon as they grow. When trees are cut down or burned (or both), any carbon stored is released into the atmosphere, worsening the climate emergency.
The Amazon rainforest is particularly badly affected by deforestation – it’s estimated that 17–20% of the Amazon has been destroyed. It’s incredibly important to protect what’s left: the more Amazon we destroy, the harder it becomes for the rainforest to sustain itself.
The overall rate of deforestation in the Amazon dropped between the mid-2000s and mid-2010s, but has now leapt back up by 30% to almost 10,000km2 in 2019 – the largest loss of the South American rainforest in a decade. The Amazon is being destroyed by farmers clearing land for cattle grazing using fire.
Amazon deforestation is particularly dangerous for the world’s climate. This is because it’s the planet’s largest land-based carbon store, which helps in the fight against climate change. Fires not only destroy the trees that absorb carbon, they also release emissions themselves.
If the Amazon continues to face higher and higher rates of deforestation, it could reach a ‘tipping point’. The Amazon rainforest sustains itself through its trees that produce their own rain. Once a certain amount of trees are destroyed, scientists predict the region will turn to dry scrubland.
Two scientists have put the total amount of Amazon deforestation before this tipping point is reached at just 20–25% of the total rainforest, repeating their warning at the end of 2019, calling it the ‘last chance for action’.