The destruction of our planets forest is one of the most important modern environmental issue today. People, 1.6 billion, are dependent on forests for their livelihoods with some 300 million living in them (Lawson). The forest industry is the basis of economic growth and employment (Boucher, Elias and Lininger). Global forest products are estimated to be worth $327 billion (Chakravarty, Ghosh and Suresh). U.S., Japanese, and European companies destroy more rain forest than other companies (Boucher, Elias and Lininger). These companies’ countries are rich. There is a high demand in these countries for more forest products. Their willingness to pay for rain forest products adds to the problem of deforestation. Forests cover almost a third of the earth’s land surface providing many “environmental benefits including a major role in the hydrologic cycle, soil conservation, prevention of climate change and preservation of biodiversity” (Kissinger, Herold and De Sy). The problem is that the planet has lost 30% of its forests over the past 25 years, which is the size of South Africa (Scientific American). If the current rate of deforestation, “the conversion of forest to an alternative permanent non-forested land (Chakravarty, Ghosh and Suresh),” continues, forests will vanish within 100 years causing unknown effects on global climate and eliminating the majority of plant and animal species on the planet (Urquhart, Chomentowski and Skole). This is demonstrated by the change of forestland to other uses such as agriculture, infrastructure, urban development, industry and others.
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Deforestation “began from the formation of early civilizations. The Laws of Manu is replete with passages referring to the formation of human habitat by clearing the jungle” (Mahbub Uddin Ahmed). Michael Williams in his journal article, Dark ages and dark areas: global deforestation in the deep past, discuss how humans have cleared forest since man first discovered fire. Williams discusses that archaeology is showing that the clearing of the forests in Europe during the middle ages was reversed when the bubonic plague reduced the population. William describes the impact that the ancient Mayans, Inca and Aztec had on the forest of Central and South America. During the colonization of the United States and Canada, millions of Native Americans died because of the introduction of diseases letting forest reclaim their land (Williams). Even though history has seen the destruction and regrowth of forests, it has not been on the global scale we are seeing now. In fact, in the continental United States, 90% of indigenous forests have been removed since 1600. In 1839, a young man named Frederick Engels wrote letters home to Germany describing what life was like in the industrializing United States at the time. He writes of the ruthless destruction of the environment and the misery that resulted on the working class (Mahbub Uddin Ahmed).
Deforestation occurs in many ways. One of the first step in the process of deforestation is to clear the land for logging or mining. Usually roads are cut through forest to open the area (Steinfeld). Roads into the forest are cleared for the large equipment needed such as bulldozers, road graders and log skidders (Urquhart, Chomentowski and Skole). The area where the roads cut through may not even be in the areas designated for logging or mining, but just the clearing of trees for these roads starts the process of deforestation for the areas the roads run through. Once the roads are completed most of the forests around the logging and mining areas are lost to agriculture, the planting of crops and the pasturing of cattle (Steinfeld). Forests are also lost to poor farmers in poverty areas especially those who live by tropical rain forests (Boucher, Elias and Lininger). In a tropical rain forest, nearly all of the nutrients are found in the plants and trees, not in the ground as in a northern, or temperate forest. When the plants and trees are cut down to plant crops. farmers usually burn the tree trunks to release the nutrients necessary for a fertile soil (Urquhart, Chomentowski and Skole). When the rains come, they wash away most of the nutrients, leaving the soil much less fertile. In as little as 3 years, the ground is no longer capable of supporting crops (Boucher, Elias and Lininger). When the fertility of the ground decreases, farmers seek other areas to clear and plant, abandoning the nutrient-deficient soil. The area previously farmed is left to grow back to a rain forest. However, just as the crops did not grow well because of low nutrients, the forest will grow back just as slow because of poor nutrients. After the land is abandoned, the forest may take up to 50 years to grow back (Boucher, Elias and Lininger).
Agriculture is estimated to be the main driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide. Commercial agriculture has deforested around 2/3 of the forest in Latin America (Kissinger, Herold and De Sy). “The findings on global patterns of destruction show that timber extraction and logging activities account for more than 70% of total deforestation in Latin America where cattle and soy are important” (Scientific American). In Africa and Asia, agriculture accounts for around 1/3 of deforestation. The timber industry has played a significant role in the deforestation of Southeast Asia where logging is followed by the creation of large palm oil and pulpwood plantations. “Mining, infrastructure and urban expansion are important but less prominent” (Kissinger, Herold and De Sy). In Africa, the main deforestation drivers are chopping trees for firewood or making charcoal, which opens the land up to farming and livestock grazing.
To get a better understanding of deforestation, we first need to examine the driving force behind it. Specifically, human beings’ role in deforestation. The competition is between humans and other species. This is because of a growing global population and increased demand for food and other natural resources. Many studies confirm that commercial agriculture is the largest direct driver of deforestation in most tropical countries worldwide (Scientific American). “Indeed, the growth of commercial agriculture is cited as an important driver of deforestation by nearly all tropical countries” (Lawson). The human impact on deforestation varies a great deal between continents. These demands are causing the loss of not only huge areas of forest but also having a major impact on the climate.
Deforestation has caused other environmental problems such as increasing soil erosion, landslides, and floods. Erosion occurs a very slow rate, but because of deforestation, the rate has sped up by an estimated 10 to 40 times globally (Moutinho, Paulo and Schwartzman, Stephan). Normally, trees and plant roots slow down erosion because they hold and anchor the soil in place, which prevents its washing away. Forest also control the speed at which the rain moves through the canopy. This allows the water to trickle to the ground and absorb slowly, rather than flow over the surface and wash away the soil. Recent research suggests that about half of the precipitation that falls in a tropical rain forest is a result of its moist green canopy (Moutinho, Paulo and Schwartzman, Stephan) Deforestation of lands for agriculture and development has left large regions of the world infertile. In areas used for urban development, where the ground is covered with a layer of asphalt or concrete it is difficult for water to penetrate the ground and this increases the amount of runoff. . In addition, the surface runoff from urban areas is polluted with fuel, oil and other chemicals. “Evaporation and evapotranspiration processes from the trees and plants return large quantities of water to the local atmosphere, promoting the formation of clouds and precipitation” (Moutinho, Paulo and Schwartzman, Stephan). Scientists predict that increased rainfall intensity and quantity will lead to greater rates of erosion (Akais Okia, Clement). “Rising sea levels have also increased the rate of coastal erosion, which has been increasingly problematic for low lying developed areas along the coast, such as in Florida and Hawaii” (Akais Okia, Clement). Less evaporation means that more of the Sun’s energy is able to warm the surface, which is one of the causes heating up the atmosphere. This heating up of the atmosphere and surface of the planet is causing a global climate change that is affecting weather patterns.
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The warming affects wind patterns and ocean currents, and these changes alter regional weather conditions. In some regions, the weather is becoming drier, leading to droughts and wildfires. In other regions, rainfall is increasing, leading to flooding. The ice sheets surrounding the North Pole and South Pole are slowly disappearing which can also lead to flooding because of the rising ocean levels (Scientific American). Polar ice melt raises ocean levels, which threatens flooding in coastal areas. Some of the world’s smaller islands might disappear completely. According to the United Nations, up to two thousand islands in Indonesia might vanish beneath the rising ocean (United Nations). Global warming is also melting mountain glaciers. Water from the melted ice causes rivers to overflow and flood places where people and animals live. Vanishing glaciers and snow packs pose another problem too. Glaciers and snow packs provide millions of people around the world with freshwater to drink (United Nations). Without those stores of water, people will need to find other sources of fresh water. Studies also suggest that global warming is probably making hurricanes stronger (United Nations)
Deforestation not only contributes to global warming because of the forests’ interaction with water, forests absorb and store huge amounts of CO2, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The loss of forests “generates nearly 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the 25 percent of emissions contributed to the combustion of fossil fuels” (Urquhart, Chomentowski and Skole). A plant stores huge amounts of CO2 which it uses during the process of photosynthesis. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air used to be stable (Boucher, Elias and Lininger). For more than half a million years, it held steady at about “280 parts per million (280 parts of carbon dioxide per one million parts of atmosphere)” (United Nations). Since, the 1800s, it has increased by about one-third (Williams). Our modern atmosphere contains about 382 parts per million of carbon dioxide-and this level is continuing to rise (Kissinger, Herold and De Sy). Scientists have evidence to suggest that just tropical deforestation is responsible for about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Scientific American). When a tree is cut down or burned, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere.This growing amount of carbon dioxide is trapping more and more heat in our atmosphere. A stable amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere keeps Earth’s temperature stable (Scientific American). Deforestation releases that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroys a resource that can store carbon dioxide humans produce in the future.
At least half of Earth’s ten million species live in tropical rain forests even though tropical rain forests cover only 7% of the total dry surface of the Earth (Moutinho, Paulo and Schwartzman, Stephan). Scientists’ estimates indicate that up to 137 species disappear worldwide each day (United Nations). If rain forest loss continues at its current rate, up to one-third of rain forest species could go extinct by 2040 (Scientific American). That means deforestation could wipe out about one-sixth of Earth’s species.
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