Deforestation is when a wooded area like part of a rainforest is cleared to make way for a different type of land use – usually for human activities such as livestock grazing, crop farming and commercial logging.
Such environmental destruction has been going on throughout history; in the 19th century, for example, much of the eastern area of North America was cleared for colonisation and agriculture. When we think of deforestation today, however, the world’s tropical rainforests immediately spring to mind. As well as remarkable biodiversity rainforests are important because they preserve the delicate balance of life on Earth.
Everybody knows that trees capture energy from the Sun to make their own food – a process called photosynthesis – and a by-product of this is the release of oxygen into the atmosphere for us to breathe.
The Amazon actually produces 20 per cent of Earth’s oxygen. Such forests are also referred to as carbon sinks as they soak up around 18 per cent of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.
The Amazon rainforest absorbs nearly 2 billion tons of carbon each year, making this forest essential to continued and successful life on our planet.
Logging and burning releases carbon sequestered by the trees and other plants back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In fact, the action of deforestation now contributes about 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than all planes, trains and automobiles put together! By absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rainforests also in turn perform a significant role as climate moderators, and in the long term – if mass deforestation continues – it will have a profound effect on not just day-to-day weather but also seasonal climate worldwide.
As land is cleared, roads are often built illegally which enable tractors and bulldozers to venture deeper into the heart of the rainforest, facilitating the spread of deforestation. As machines move in to fell thousands of trees every day, the forests’ inhabitants – like jaguars, golden lion tamarins and toucans to name just three – are fast running out of places to hide. The clearing of trees doesn’t only mean the loss of precious habitats – it’s often a prelude to the imminent extinction of entire species.
The impact of palm oil
A huge cause for concern is the ever-rising demand for palm oil. Many areas of Africa and south-east Asia are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. This product, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is extremely useful to a variety of industries, including the processed-food industry due to its versatility and low price. It’s also used widely in the cosmetics world as a cheap alternative to expensive natural oils used in soaps and moisturisers and it even has uses natively as a fuel for heating, cooking and lighting.
Spotlight on the Amazon
The forests of South America have been particularly ravaged by deforestation. In the Eighties it was discovered that vast tracts of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest were being cleared for such human activities as cattle ranching (70 per cent), commercial agriculture (25 per cent) and logging (five per cent). Indeed, until 2011 Brazil was the world’s largest exporter of beef. The land was very flat and therefore easy to farm which was an attractive proposition for big businesses. While wildlife habitats were replaced by cattle ranches, the intensive destruction of exotic plant life also made way for mass-produced crops such as soy.
Huge soybean plantations yielded this cheap protein substitute as a valuable export commodity. It was also discovered that some of the biggest multinational companies, supermarkets and fast-food chains in the world had been sourcing soy from the illegal destruction of the Amazon. This exposé on deforestation saw many corporations re-evaluate their practices and suppliers, moving to use only sustainable sources of soy.