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What is Deforestation?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 3 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Deforestation Deforestation Effects

Deforestation occurs when trees are permanently destroyed and removed from a naturally forested area and the land is converted for use as either arable land or pasture for grazing animals, for urban development or simply into wasteland, as the trees are consumed by the logging industry.

Unfortunately, deforestation inevitably leads to environmental damage and decline, loss of habitat and reduced species diversity - and it is also believed to play a serious role in the dangerous climate changes affecting the Earth. It also means the eventual loss of fuel, building materials and paper.

Several countries around the world have experienced severe deforestation, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Laos, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, the Philippines, Central America and Brazil and many of these countries have actually declared their deforestation as a national emergency.

Why are Forests so Important?

Forests and woodland play a vital role in the balance of life on earth and in maintaining our quality of life. Firstly, they have been described as “the lungs of the planet” with the Amazon Forest, in particular, supplying more then 20% of the world’s oxygen needs. One acre of forests can absorb 6 tonnes of carbon dioxide and without trees to provide the essential service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide in the world, we would all literally suffocate. This reduction in this carbon recycling, due to reduced trees, is also the reason for the worrying phenomenon of global warming.

Secondly, forests, especially the tropical rainforests, are the habitats for countless important species – species which still aid in important scientific and medical discoveries - and the destruction of trees means a severe reduction of biodiversity on the planet. Although tropical forests only about 7% of the Earth’s land surface, they provide a habitat for over 50% of the species on earth. With their destruction, these species are lost forever.

Thirdly, trees help to replenish nutrients in the soil and to prevent soil erosion, leading to desertification. Fourthly, forests are the only source of timber which provides not only fuel but also building materials, wood products and paper – all essential resources which will permanently disappear if all forests are eventually destroyed. And lastly, forests should also be preserved simply as an ecological feature for future generations to enjoy.

How does Deforestation Occur?

While deforestation is generally deliberate, it can also result from the gradual degradation of the environment, due to things like acid rain, wildfires, pollution, invasive pests and damage from urban development, agriculture or grazing livestock. When forests are deliberately removed, it is due to logging (the provision of timber for use as building materials and fuel), for cattle-raising (beef) and commercial farming, and of course, simply to provide living space for the rapidly increasing human population (land conversion.

Deliberate deforestation is usually done in one of the following ways:

Slash and burn – as the name suggests, this is the cutting down and burning of trees, usually to create fields for agriculture or grazing pasture for livestock. Many developing countries engage in this practice, hoping to take advantage of the nutrients in forest land to grow crops.

However, in many places, the forests are of the “tropical type” where the nutrients are stored within the plant matter itself and not in the ground, therefore slash-and-burn techniques actually lead to very inefficient use of land.

It can be sustainable if the land is only used for 2-3 years and then left fallow for 10 years to replenish itself with nutrients. Unfortunately, with the high population densities in the world today, the land is not given a chance to replenish and even if it is left to rest for a period of time, other new land will be slashed-and-burned in order to meet the population’s continuing demands.

Clearcutting – also known as clearfelling, this is where all the trees within a defined area are felled. If planned carefully and done correctly, clearcutting can help in regenerating a certain area and in fact, it is a technique used in forestry to facilitate the regeneration of certain species that require specific light and soil factors.

Unfortunately, though, clear-cutting is often used in logging, an activity heavily dictated by the timber industry, which often puts profit before sustainability. Timber certification programmes have been developed to enable consumers to determine where a certain source of timber comes from and to choose only those extracted from sustainable forests.

How Can we Limit the Damage?

While it cannot be denied that humans need wood for fuel and paper and land for agriculture, our needs must be balanced with environmental responsibility, through careful long-term planning and management of resource use which focuses on sustainability. For example, while continued logging is necessary, it should be carried out in a carefully controlled and certified manner so that we not only do not destroy important habitats but we also ensure that we do not deplete all our sources of wood for good.

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