Deforestation makes up one of the biggest ways in which humanity negatively affects the world today. Left unchecked, it could devastate not just the world, but ironically enough, humanity as well. Learn more about this critical issue facing us all, with these 50 facts about deforestation.
The FAO has a specific definition for deforestation.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines it as either the natural or man-made conversion of the forest to land for other uses. They also differentiate between deforestation, and what they call forest area net change. The latter contrasts with the former in that it involves the total gains and losses of forested areas in a given time period. Net change can have positive or negative values, depending on whether gains exceed losses, or losses exceed gains. Some critics, however, question the FAO on this definition, and by extension, their deforestation findings. In particular, they criticize how the FAO considers areas with as little as 10% original tree cover as forests. These areas would thus include savannahs and would distort any findings as a result.
Forestation Viped out even before humans evolved.
The biggest natural incident of deforestation in Earth’s history took place 300 million years ago. Specifically, the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, which wiped out the tropical rainforests of the supercontinent of Euramerica. Scientists still aren’t sure about its causes, with theories ranging from abrupt climate change to supervolcanic eruptions. Regardless of the cause, the mass death of tropical rainforests led to their remains becoming the coal deposits of modern Europe and North America. This actually gave this period of Earth’s history its name, the Carboniferous Period, referring to the vast carbon content of the coal formed at the time.
Human activity contributed to deforestation even in prehistoric times.
Paleontologists have discovered that during the Middle Stone Age, hunter-gatherers deliberately destroyed forests to give game animals more habitats to live in. This caused their population to grow, and in turn, gave the hunter-gatherers more prey to hunt. The development of agriculture at this time also increased the rate of man-made deforestation, particularly with the adoption of slash and burn farming. The development of advanced stone tools during the New Stone Age also made it easier to chop trees down. This trend would continue in the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages, with the discovery of stronger metals, and the development of better tools.
Deforestation had a direct effect on human history even in pre-industrial times.
Archaeological evidence from Crete shows that the Minoan civilization destroyed their island’s forests to build their city of Knossos. Later on, the Greek cities of Ephesus, Miletus, and Priene had to repeatedly rebuild their harbors over the course of 200 years. This resulted as the clearing of forests inland up the Meander Rivers caused large-scale erosion. Silt deposits flowing down the river increased, which built up in the cities’ harbors over time, eventually leaving them unusable.
Something similar happened to Bruges during the Middle Ages, with the city’s economy suffering as a result. While the city’s harbor never became completely unusable, its reduced utility led to it losing its status as Flanders’ main port to the neighboring city of Antwerp.
European civilization nearly collapsed thanks to deforestation.
This took place from the 12th to 16th centuries, as a side-effect of the large-scale population growth in Europe at the time. As most people built their houses from wood at the time, the increased demand for wood as building material cost Europe’s forests heavily. Europe’s growing economy also contributed to deforestation, with the need for wood to build ships, as well as fuel for both homes and industry.
Deforestation also led to the population collapse of wild animals, which Europeans hunted for meat at the time. By the 16th century, the loss of forests could have collapsed Europe for lack of fuel, building material, and even the loss of a major food supply. Only the replacement of wood by coal as fuel, and the importing of food from the New World, saved Europe from collapse.
People recognized the dangers of deforestation early on.
Unsurprisingly, they only did so after suffering the consequences of letting deforestation get so bad in the first place. As far back as prehistoric times, indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the Caribbean, and Central America, limited development of forested land after overuse caused shortages of wood and other products from the forest.
In the 17th century, settlers in the Americas also limited forest clearing after suffering from heavy floods caused by the loss of tree cover. The expansion of Europe’s navies in the 18th and 19th centuries also forced European nations to adopt reforestation measures. Otherwise, they realized their need to build new ships would destroy their forests and ultimately leave them unable to do so at all. Ironically, by the time reforestation efforts began to show results in the 1850s, steel had replaced wood as a building material for ships.
The Industrial Revolution worsened deforestation.
Early steam engines didn’t need to use coal as fuel, with major American rivers suffering heavy deforestation as a result of the introduction of steamships. In addition to chopping trees down for fuel, ship crews also cleared the riverbanks to keep their ships from snagging on trees. The deforestation of the riverbanks led to worse floods, especially along the Mississippi River. This led to the abandonment of towns like Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and St. Philippe, among others, in the region. The Great Plains of North America also saw complete deforestation at this time, to make way for large-scale agriculture.
Deforestation today has various causes.
Agriculture remains the main cause of deforestation, accounting for 80% of all deforestation activities in the world. Logging for commercial purposes only actually accounts for 14% of deforestation, while chopping trees for fuel only accounts for 5%. Other factors like government corruption, income inequality, and even urbanization, account for the remaining 1%. And these only take into account man-made contributions to deforestation, with natural causes once factored in making up an estimated 23%. That said, natural causes of deforestation can get affected by human activity. Wildfires, for example, have become more common and more powerful in recent years thanks to global warming.
War has also contributed to deforestation.
The Russians deforested the Caucasus region when they conquered it in the mid-19th century. In the aftermath of WWII, the Allies deliberately destroyed forests in Germany as part of their plan to permanently destroy German industry. In that way, they hoped to remove any future possibility of Germany starting another war. This policy only ended as the Cold War began, and Germany became an ally against Communism. Even then, Germany’s forests today have yet to fully recover from the postwar devastation. Okinawa in the Pacific saw all its rainforests destroyed by the fighting in WWII on the island. Similarly, during the Korean War and Vietnam War, the Americans deliberately destroyed forests with chemical agents from the air. They did so to deny Korean and Vietnamese Communists hiding places to attack Allied forces from.
Deforestation has also opened a divide between developed and developing countries.
Man-made deforestation today typically takes place in the Third World, as shown by forests in the First World actually recovering from deforestation in the past. However, this has caused resentment in the Third World when the First World tries to push anti-deforestation agendas. To most Third World countries, deforestation, especially for agricultural purposes, remains an unavoidable consequence of development. In their eyes, they have no other way for their people to survive, much less, prosper. This has led to perceptions of double standards on the part of the First World. To the Third World, why should the First World condemn them for doing something the First World did in the past?
Deforestation statistics also reflect that divide.
Of the ten most endangered forests in the world, nine lie in the Third World, with only one in the First World. Specifically, the California Floristic Province, of which only 10% remains, and even then, primarily faces natural instead of man-made threats, such as wildfires. The other most endangered forests include the Indo-Burma Forest, New Caledonia’s habitat as a whole, and the forests of Sundaland in Sumatra and Southern Borneo. They also include the Philippine habitat as a whole, the Atlantic Forest stretching across the Atlantic side of South America, the forests of East Africa, and the mountain forests of Southwestern China. The habitats of Madagascar and the islands of the Indian Ocean also fall into this category.
Ironically, deforestation could also negatively affect the global economy.
The irony comes from the Third World’s protests against fighting deforestation having economic roots. Critics of inaction argue that any benefits from ongoing deforestation would only last in the short term. In the long-term, deforestation would harm both the Third World and the First World equally. In fact, deforestation already has a negative short-term effect on the Third World’s economy, particularly the lumber industry. As forests shrink, so do lumber harvests, with statistics pointing to the loss of billions of dollars per year for the lumber industry.
Deforestation contributes to global warming.
Shrinking forests also mean a shrinking ability to filter carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere. Rotting plant matter also adds more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and not just carbon dioxide, but methane. In fact, methane has a greater effect on global warming, up to 5 times than that of carbon dioxide. Scientists actually estimate that up to 20% of all greenhouse gases today come directly from deforestation activities. Statistics actually estimate that up to 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year get released from deforestation in the tropics alone. Land stripped of forest cover also heats up faster, and hotter, too, compared to forested land. This, in turn, heats up the air above the land, with atmospheric convection spreading the heat further outwards.
Deforestation also affects the water cycle.
We just mentioned that deforested land heats up faster and hotter, while also spreading that heat to the atmosphere. This could actually affect cloud formation, altering rain patterns, and even changing the weather, if not the climate,for an entire region. In particular, deforestation prevents plants from transpiring water from the ground into the air. This results in dryer air for an entire region, which again could affect the weather or even the climate as a whole. The effects include longer and more common droughts, increased desertification, and stronger storms in other regions, as water builds up in the atmosphere.
Deforestation also affects the local geography.
Trees also bind the soil together, limiting erosion and increasing the amount of water they can hold. Deforestation, thus, contributes to erosion, increasing the danger of floods and landslides. And even if floods don’t occur, the soil’s inability to hold water allows it to wash away and take the soil’s nutrients with it. This, in turn, leads to poorer soil quality, which ironically would have negative effects on agriculture. Erosion could also have negative effects on public infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, among others. They would need increased maintenance to remain safe for use, increasing the cost of operation.
Biodiversity also gets affected by deforestation.
80% of the world’s biodiversity lives in the world’s forests, and the latter’s destruction, thus, has a direct effect on the former. In fact, scientists estimate that up to 137 species go extinct per day, or up to 50,000 species per year, thanks to deforestation. Scientists even warn that deforestation could wipe out up to 40% of all life in Southeast Asia alone by 2200.
It gets worse in other places, such as in the Amazon rainforest, where scientists predict that up to 90% of all life will go extinct within the next 40 years. This could also affect humans directly, as many of our medicines come from forest regions. It could also destroy our ability to breed genetic diversity into our crops, leaving us more vulnerable to crop failures.
Human health also gets affected by deforestation.
We’ve already mentioned how the pharmaceutical sector could suffer from the loss of forest habitats. However, deforestation could also lead to outbreaks of disease, not just of known ones, but also new ones as well. For instance, scientists have linked the increase of schistosomiasis cases in Africa to deforestation. In particular, deforestation led to the extinction of predators and reduced competition for snails that carried the parasite. As their population boomed, so did their ability to infect humans with the parasite.
Cases of Chagas Disease, Ebola, Lyme Disease, and Sleeping Sickness have also risen thanks to deforestation. In South America, deforestation has also reduced capybara predators, allowing them to expand into populated areas. While capybaras don’t currently carry diseases that can affect humans, they do carry diseases that can affect other animals. This has led scientists to fear it’s only a matter of time before a mutation allows them to infect humans as well.
The 1998 Nipah Virus Outbreak in Malaysia directly resulted from deforestation.
The destruction of forests for pig farms caused fruit bats in Malaysia to undergo demographic and habitat shifts. These, in turn, brought fruit bats carrying the Nipah Virus into close contact with the pigs in the farms. The pigs then became infected with the virus, which they then passed onto the humans caring for them.
The virus caused an encephalitis outbreak, with a total of 265 recorded cases before the government finally contained the situation. Of those who suffered from the disease, 105 people ultimately died. Scientists today actually now use the outbreak as an objective example of how deforestation can affect human health.
Scientists theorize that deforestation may have contributed to HIV’s spread to humans.
They admit that it’s only one factor in how HIV first spread to humans, though. Specifically, overpopulation caused people to clear out areas of forest for living space. Overpopulation also increased the demand for food, with bushmeat providing a major source of protein for people in Africa’s rural areas.
Both factors then pushed humans to encounter chimpanzees which carried the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV). Over time, this virus mutated into the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and became passed over by the interactions between humans and chimpanzees. As of 2020, statistics estimate that HIV/AIDS has killed an estimated 25 million people worldwide.
They also think deforestation contributes to rising rates of malarial infection.
Kenya, in particular, has seen malaria become the leading cause of death thanks to deforestation. Lack of trees caused water to pool more often on the ground, and at higher temperatures than normal. Both make them very suitable as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which pick up the malaria parasite from drinking infected blood. They then pass the parasite on when they bite other people or even animals kept by people. These animals then pass on the parasite when they interact with their owners and other people.
A similar situation developed in Brazil, where malaria cases increased by 50% in deforested areas. Deforestation in Peru also worsened malarial infection rates in some areas, from 600 cases per year to 120,000 cases per year, after people began developing forested areas.
Deforestation may also have contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The exact details remain unclear, as the investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus remains ongoing today. However, scientists think the virus most likely originated from bats, which passed to humans in one of two ways. First, the destruction of their natural forest habitats pushed them into contact with humans. And second, the unregulated wildlife trade, either as exotic pets or for meat, also pushed them into contact with humans.
Either way, the COVID-19 virus has infected humans, spreading across the global population and starting the pandemic we struggle against today. This led scientists to again warn the world, not just against deforestation, but against overexploitation of the environment in general. Even once we end the current pandemic, we simply might end up with another issue if we don’t solve the cause of the previous one.
Emissions reductions have a link to controlling deforestation.
Earlier, we mentioned how deforestation makes up as a major contributor to greenhouse gases. This led to the launch of REDD+, an international program aimed at reducing deforestation and its emission of greenhouse gases. As part of the program, starting in 2010 participants received a total of $30 billion to launch forest recovery programs, develop forest monitoring capabilities, as well as to develop regulatory institutions. Today, 46 countries participate in REDD+, while in 2018, the world’s largest palm oil producer, Wilmar, also joined the program.
Countries pay to stop deforestation.
Brazil led the way in this program, regularly paying landowners in forested areas $20 per day not to develop their property. They also receive another $30 if they choose to participate in bee farming for a 5-year period. Fundacion Natura Bolivia oversees the program, alongside Rare Conservation, with support from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.
Indigenous rights also share a link with forest conservation.
While indigenous peoples do exploit forests, they usually do so within the limits of the needs of their community. This actually has resulted in forested areas controlled by indigenous peoples having higher rates of conservation. In fact, statistics point to indigenous forests as enjoying better health compared to those in national parks. In particular, one of China’s biggest land reform initiatives involved the return of large areas of natural forest to indigenous peoples. Brazil and India have launched similar programs, with the dual goal of reducing deforestation and promoting indigenous rights.
Modern farming methods may help control deforestation.
These include methods like aeroponics, greenhouse farming, hydroponics, and vertical farming. They all have the advantage of not needing larger areas of clear land for growing crops, which would remove the need to cut forests down to make way for farms. Scientific growing methods and even synthetic sunlight also have the potential to allow modern farming to simply outproduce traditional farming. This, too, would also remove the need to clear more forests for farmland.
Another benefit modern farming has involves no longer needing to release synthetic fertilizers, as well as toxins like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, into the environment. Modern farming could thus not only give humanity food security, but even effectively end deforestation and greatly reduce pollution.
Scientists and governments have various ways to monitor deforestation.
The most common method involves taking pictures of forested areas by air or by satellite. Pictures from different times then get compared to see how far deforestation has progressed. Other methods include not just measuring how far a forest has suffered, but also the effect on the surrounding environment. This includes measuring the soil quality, the effects on the local biodiversity, and even recording what development has taken place on the cleared land.
Forest management goes back to long before the Industrial Revolution.
16th century Germany developed silviculture to control deforestation, which involved careful but quick cultivation of forests for economic purposes. This method, though, suffers from serious limitations, such as dependence on regular rainfall and very fertile soil. Most soil, however, proves not fertile enough for silviculture, along with the natural unpredictability of the weather. Japan during the Tokugawa Era practiced timber substitution to limit deforestation, and to encourage environmental recovery.
Countries around the world support sustainable practices to help control deforestation.
A surprising example of this involves a slight change from the traditional slash and burn method, to the slash and char method. As the name implies, it calls for charring, if not, outright burning any cut plant matter. This reduces the smoke produced, doesn’t scorch the ground as badly, and introduces less toxic byproducts into the ground. This method has all the benefits of slash and burn, but with less damage to the environment.
Another example of sustainable practice involves the movement to replace traditional lumber with bamboo. Bamboo has all the properties of traditional lumber, while also having the advantage of growing much faster than other trees. Bamboo as fuel also burns much more cleanly than other wood, with less smoke and ash produced.
East Asia leads the way in reforestation and afforestation.
Reforestation involves letting forests grow back, while afforestation involves introducing and letting forests grow where they didn’t grow before. Afforestation proves especially popular in Japan, while Chinese reforestation efforts have seen the recovery of 470,000 km² of forested land since the 1970s. In fact, current trends of reforestation and afforestation for Asia, as a whole, predict the recovery of a full 10% of forested land by 2050.
Scientists, however, consider protection as better than reforestation.
Simply put, even if forests recover and reclaim land lost to development, any biodiversity lost in the first place remains lost forever. Damaged soil may also never recover, depending on the degree and kind of damage involved. Recovery also takes place over a very long time, given the long and slow growth rates for trees. Any greenhouse gases released by deforestation also take the longest to remove from the environment.
In fact, scientists predict that even if we reduced all man-made greenhouse gas emissions to zero today, it could take at least 300 years for the atmosphere to return to pre-industrial levels. And that makes up the most optimistic predictions, with the average prediction actually estimating up to 1000 years for the atmosphere to fully recover.