What Drives Deforestation?

Trees are amazing. They filter harmful dust and pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide from the air and give off the oxygen we need to breathe. They also reduce the urban heat island effect through evaporative cooling and reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches parking lots and buildings. 

They reduce the amount of storm-water runoff, which reduces erosion and pollution in our waterways and reduces the effects of flooding. As well as this, many species of wildlife depend on trees for habitat. Trees provide food, protection, and homes for many birds and mammals. 

The list of the benefits trees bring to our planet goes on and on, which is why deforestation has such a negative for our environment and, if it continues at the current rate, poses a critical threat to the world and everything that lives here.

Almost one third of the world’s land area is covered by trees, but this is changing fast. Between 15 and 18 million hectares of forest, an area the size of The Netherlands is destroyed every year, on average 2,400 trees are cut down each minute.

There are many causes of deforestation, both natural and human. Here, we’re going to run through the 10 major drivers of deforestation and what impact they’re having.

1. Commercial Agriculture

With an increasing global population, more food is needed to be produced. As more and more people around the world are lifted out of poverty, their diets are also changing, leading to an increased demand for certain crops and food. Every year, large areas of forests are cleared for pastoral farming. Arable farming is also responsible for the loss of tropical rainforests as many farmers are clearing land to grow cash crops , such as soya beans, often in monoculture plantations.

A report, by the Washington-based NGO Forest Trends, concluded that 71% of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was due to commercial cultivation. Of that deforestation, 49% was caused by illegal clearing to make way for agricultural products.

According to the study, the deforestation for commercial exploitation releases an estimated 1.47 gigatonnes of carbon each year. That’s the equivalent to a quarter of the EU’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions.

2. Cattle Ranching

Extensive cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in virtually every Amazon country, and it accounts for 80% of current deforestation.

Amazon Fires Three Times More Likely in Cattle Ranching Zones – Intelligent  Living

Not only does this activity account for a huge amount of deforestation, it usually occurs by burning forest areas down, releasing high levels of carbon sorted in the trees. Further still, the cattle ranching on cleared land is responsible for producing large amounts of methane released by the cattle.

3. Palm Oil Production

Palm oil is a very productive crop, however its production is very destructive for the environment. It’s used in food products, detergents, cosmetics, biofuel, lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream. Amazingly, more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil. There’s no doubt it’s a very versatile crop and in high demand throughout the world.

Palm oil: Guatemala's newest, biggest cash crop? -

Global production of and demand for palm oil is increasing rapidly. Plantations are spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America, in the areas where it’s able to grow – the tropics, containing the world’s most biodiverse forests. It’s production is a major driver of deforestation and threatens endangered species, such as orangutans, by destroying their habitats. 

4. Subsistence Farming

Usually, subsistence farming is where poor farmers occupy plots of the forest to grow food to feed themselves and their families. They clear forest and then burn it, then grow crops until the soil is exhausted and then move on. This is also known as “slash and burn” and while it has a much smaller impact on the environment than commercial agriculture, it still damages ecosystems and leaves them unsuitable for new trees and plants to grow afterwards. 

The fight against deforestation: Why are Congolese farmers clearing forest?

While no one is wanting to criticise or penalise farmers in third world countries just trying to grow enough food to live on, more responsible initiatives and practices should be encouraged as much as possible. At Kinsume, our tree planting pledge aims to do just that, by planting trees in “forest garden” setups, allowing local communities to have a sustainable source of food and income, as well as adding more trees to our environment.

5. Logging For Timber

As a primary drive of deforestation, logging involves the cutting down trees in a forest to harvest timber for wood, products or fuel. We all need wood as a resource for furniture, construction, paper, and many other products, but when done irresponsibly and at scale, it can be extremely damaging for our environment. 

Bird's Eye View of Woodpile

Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, especially in tropical rainforests where over 50% of all of the world’s documented animal and plant species are found. Logging also directly impacts soil and hydrological cycles, as the reduction in tree cover leads to increases in water runoff and soil erosion. At the macro level, deforestation by logging results in a reduction of carbon sequestration capacity, which in turn contributes to climate change. Deforestation from logging and timber conversion in the tropics accounts for approximately 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. 

6. Infrastructure Building

Although much publicity regarding deforestation drivers is focused on land use activities such as farming or logging, such activities are made possible by infrastructure, such as roads for transportation. Not only is forest land cleared to build new transport and logistical links, it then opens up the area for further deforestation facilitated by the new increased access to remote areas. As much as 95% of deforestation occurs within 5 km of a road or navigable river.

Roads also have significant biophysical impacts, such as dust production, which has been shown to  negatively impact vegetation growth and animal population movement. The increased sediment deposition from roads can lead to physical alterations of aquatic ecosystems.Roads also have effects on hydrologic cycles by increasing water runoff and reducing evapotranspiration, leading to increased erosion, reduced percolation and aquifer recharge rates, and increased peak discharge levels and frequency of downstream flooding. Transportation and use of chemical products on roads also increases pollution from herbicides, chemical fertilizers, deicing salt and heavy metals (e.g. lead, zinc, nickel) into roadside environments.

7. Mining

Large-scale mining operations, especially those using open-pit mining techniques, can result in significant deforestation through forest clearing and the construction of roads which open remote forest areas

Birds Eye Photography of Mine

In order to mine, trees and vegetation are cleared and burned. With the ground completely bare, large scale mining operations use huge bulldozers and excavators to extract the metals and minerals from the soil. As well as clearing forest areas to build mines, the activity also causes erosion, sinkholes and water pollution, which poses a heavy cost to biodiversity in the surrounding areas.

8. Fire

Each year, fires burn millions of hectares of forest worldwide. Of course, fires are a part of nature but degraded forests are particularly vulnerable. The consequences of deforestation can compound the problem of forest fires by exacerbating the potential for them to spread and destroy larger areas of forested land. 

These include heavily logged rainforests, forests on peat soils, or where forest fires have been suppressed for years allowing unnatural accumulation of vegetation that makes the fire burn more intensely. The resulting loss has wide-reaching consequences on biodiversity, climate, and the economy.

9. Charcoal Production

Charcoal consumption is growing faster than firewood consumption and its use is becoming a much larger part of the wood energy’s total in Africa and South America. While this activity only accounts for 7% of deforestation in the tropics, it’s production still has a significant negative impact on our environment. 

Charcoal costs hit new record as demand for gas dwindles in Kenya -  BizAfricaDaily

Much of the charcoal in tropical countries is commonly made in traditional earth and pit kilns, releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. 

10. Firewood Collection

In many parts of the world, fuel wood is the main source of energy. This is especially the case where rural communities depend on wood and charcoal to cook meals, boil bathwater and heat their homes. Often, protected areas are under threat from the collection of firewood, which when burned contributes further to greenhouse gas emissions.

For Zimbabweans, 'Firewood is Easy Money,' But Environmental Impact Raises  Concerns

Again, while no one would condemn populations of rural areas collecting firewood, most likely the only fuel source available, better efforts should be made to ensure more environmentally friendly systems can be put in place to provide those who need access to fuel and limit the impact it has on our planet.

Wrap up

Of course, deforestation will always occur and continue to pose a dangerous threat to our planet. Through the destruction of one of our greatest resources, trees, deforestation is responsible for vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing the amount of carbon our forests can absorb. 

Humans and animals alike have their habitats damaged or destroyed and removing trees can make the surrounding land unstable and more susceptible to natural disasters.

The act of burning trees to clear land is dangerous in itself, but the activities conducted on the cleared land areas can be even worse for the environment.

Green Forest

Luckily, with greater awareness and more information available, efforts have, and are being made to monitor, regulate and reverse the impacts of deforestation. Areas of vital rainforest and woodland areas are increasingly put under protection, albeit with sometimes limited effectiveness. Collectively, people around the world, both at governmental and individual level, our common cause for preserving and protecting trees is taking an active role in decisions of policy to achieve this.

At Kinsume, we hope to play our part in this struggle by planting as many trees as possible via our tree planting initiative on our platform. 

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