Forests are essential for life on Earth as they provide us clean air, shade, shelter, refuge, refreshment and water. Yet they are disappearing to the chainsaw and encroachment at an alarming rate around the world.
According to the Nature Conservancy group, nearly half of the planet’s original forest cover is gone. Much of what remains is in trouble. Diseases and insects are slowly killing entire species of trees. Illegal and legal logging is destroying the natural habitat, which has a knock-on effect in threatening wildlife. And forest fires are proving more destructive, as the natural cycle of “burn and renewal” has been altered.
Deforestation and degradation of the world’s forests harm communities, economies, plants and animals, and the basic ability of forest ecosystems to function and provide services such as fresh water that benefit people.
In your backyard and the Planet’s densest forests
Each year, approximately 32 million acres – an area nearly equal to the size of Florida – are lost to deforestation. Illegal logging accounts for much of this loss – up to 30 percent of hardwood lumber and plywood traded globally is of suspicious origin. Other forests are cut for conversion to agriculture and development.
We hear the stories of the massive Amazon and Borneo rainforests being under serious threat. But even in people’s back yards or neighborhoods, forests and woods are being cut down for expanding urban development and industrialization, or other forms of exploitation.
Many of the forests that remain are severely fragmented, compromised in their ability to shelter wildlife or to supply fresh water to people. Deforestation is also said to contribute 20 to 25 percent of all carbon pollution causing global climate change, and contributes to the impoverishment of forest-dependent communities.
Biofuel threat to the forests
Ironically, efforts to “go green” have led to the destruction of ancient forests. The recent global interest in biofuels derived from plants, such as soy and palm oil, has led to widespread deforestation. Intended to decrease our reliance on environmentally harmful fossil fuels, biofuels may have the unintended consequence of “burning” the biodiversity of forests. The lure of energy-yielding crops is triggering forest conversion in Brazil, Malaysia, Canada and Colombia as well as in the United States, where an increase in demand for ethanol is driving the plowing of more land for corn.
Cutting down trees to plant corn to power motor vehicles is said by conservationists to be a short-sighted method of seeking alternatives to oil.
Size of the problem matters
Greenpeace claims every two seconds, an area of forest the size of a football pitch is lost due to logging or destructive practices around the world. Seventy two per cent of Indonesia’s intact forest landscapes and 15 per cent of the Amazon’s have already been lost forever. Now the Congo’s forests are said to face the same threat.
Deforestation is happening at a massive rate. And time is running out.
While the causes vary from region to region, they all have one thing in common: human activity. Through agriculture and logging, mining and climate change, humankind is wiping out irreplaceable forests – and the life that depends on them – at a terrifying pace.
Agri-business is responsible for massive rainforest destruction as forests are burned to make way for cattle ranches, or cleared for palm oil or soya plantations. In this way, irreplaceable rainforests are converted into products that are used to make toothpaste, chocolate and animal feed.
Industrial logging for timber, pulp and paper has also devastated much of the world’s rainforests. Not only are ancient trees cut down on a vast scale, but unplanned and inefficient practices lead to enormous additional wastage. And, by building roads into pristine rainforests, the logging industry opens them up to secondary effects like human settlement, hunting, fuel-wood gathering and agriculture.
Today, forests face another threat. Deforestation contributes to climate change (overall, it accounts for one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions – which is why Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter and Brazil the fourth). At the same time, climate change itself threatens forests on a terrifying scale.
Rising global temperatures damage and kill trees, and increase drought and forest fires. Dying trees release still more carbon, which further increases our global temperature. This cycle of forest collapse represents a critical feedback loop that could drive warming for centuries, change life cycles on Earth, and usher in a sweeping transformation of human civilisation. According to Greenpeace, the surest way to stop it is to end deforestation.
Canada’s Boreal Forest Gaining Ground
Pew Charitable Trusts claims progress in protecting some of Canada’s ancient forests.
Sierra Leone: Timber! Al Jazeera
Sources: TreeHugger, UN reports, activists