Deforestation: what you need to know

Deforestation is the cutting down and removal of natural forests. It’s one of the biggest threats to wildlife, the natural world and the climate. Here are some key facts about deforestation in forests like the Amazon.


What is deforestation?

Deforestation is the chopping down or removal of trees. It’s one of the biggest threats to wildlife, the natural world and the climate.

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.

Why is deforestation bad?

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.

Amazon deforestation

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’.


Keep exploring

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples often have a close connection with their environment – and essential knowledge of how to prevent biodiversity loss and the worst effects of climate change. Despite this, Indigenous Peoples face violence and discrimination worldwide.

Climate change

Our climate is breaking down. Rising seas and extreme weather events are costing lives and putting tens of millions of people around the world at risk. And younger generations are being robbed of their future on a healthy, liveable planet. But climate change also presents an opportunity to change the way we live so we improve things for us and the planet.

Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest helps regulate the climate and is home to millions of people – many of whom are Indigenous – and a huge percentage of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Despite its importance, the Amazon is under serious threat from rapidly increasing deforestation, mainly due to fires set by farmers for the expansion of industrial meat.

Meat and dairy

Meat and dairy products have been a source of food for millennia. But modern industrial farming practices and the sheer number of animals involved is causing huge environmental damage, squeezing out wild animals and accelerating climate change.

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