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Newly cut down forest at a deforestation area with trunks and branches lying on the ground, in spring sunlight and blue sky

Forest fires and its resulting deforestation from tree loss are continually in the news. We read about the fires in Australia, the Amazon Rainforest and here in the United States. Unfortunately, as June is rolling into July, look for another busy wildfire season in the West. A relatively dry fall and winter coupled with mountain snowpacks that melted faster than normal, and overall warmer and drier-than-average conditions forecast this summer will keep firefighters busy.

Fact: In 2015, global forest cover fell below ten billion acres for the first time in human history.

Major deforestation is not only caused by forest fires, however. What is deforestation, technically? Deforestation is the permanent removal of trees to make room for something besides forest. This can include clearing the land for agriculture or grazing, or using the timber for fuel, construction or manufacturing.

Fact: Every year, more than 20 million football fields’ worth of forests (15 billion trees!) continue to be cut down.Stacks of trees cut down as the result of deforestation

Forests cover more than 30% of the Earth’s land surface, according to the World Wildlife Fund. These forested areas can provide food, medicine and fuel for more than a billion people. Worldwide, forests provide 13.4 million people with jobs in the forest sector, and another 41 million people have jobs related to forests. Forests are a resource, but they are also large, undeveloped swaths of land that can be converted for purposes such as agriculture and grazing. In North America, about half the forests in the eastern part of the continent were cut down for timber and farming between the 1600s and late 1800s, according to National Geographic.

Fact: At the current rate of deforestation, Earth’s rainforests, including the Amazon, could be completely gone in 100 years.

That’s bad news for everyone, especially for the 1/2 of the world’s terrestrial flora and fauna and 3/4 of all birds that live in and around forests. Additionally, 70% of land animals and plant species live in forests. The trees of the rainforest that provide shelter for some species also provide the canopy that regulates the temperature. Destruction of these forests along with its resulting change in temperature has a devastating effect on the forests’ inhabitants.

Deforestation in tropical regions can also affect the way water vapor is produced over the canopy, which causes reduced rainfall. A 2019 study published in the journal Ecohydrology showed that parts of the Amazon rainforest that were converted to agricultural land had higher soil and air temperatures, which can exacerbate drought conditions. In comparison, forested land had rates of evapotranspiration that were about three times higher, adding more water vapor to the air.

Fact: industrial agriculture accounts for around 73% of deforestation worldwide. The majority of this can be attributed to meat (particularly beef cattle), soy, and palm oil.

Meat producers clear vast swaths of forest to graze their livestock and in turn, the production of livestock feed accounts for 80% of the soybeans grown—and you may be surprised to learn that poultry and pigs eat up almost as much of that soy as cattle does.

Many forests are also cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil and is found in half of all supermarket products. It’s cheap, versatile and can be added to both food and personal products like lipsticks and shampoo. Its popularity has spurred people to clear tropical forests to grow more palm trees. Deforestation to make way for a Palm Oil PlantationGrowing the trees that produce the oil requires the leveling of native forest and the destruction of local peatlands, increasing harmful effects on the ecosystem.

Fact: One mature tree can consume 48 pounds of carbon a year!

Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink—soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere. Trees also absorb carbon dioxide, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity. As climate change continues, trees play an important role in carbon sequestration, or the capture and storage of excess carbon dioxide. Tropical trees alone are estimated to provide about 23% of the climate mitigation that’s needed to offset climate change, according to the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit global research institute.

But once trees are chopped down, all that absorbed carbon gets released right back into the atmosphere.  Deforestation, therefore, not only removes vegetation that is important for removing carbon dioxide from the air, but the act of clearing the forests also produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that deforestation is the second-leading cause of climate change. (The first is the burning of fossil fuels.) In fact, deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Stopping deforestation, then, is absolutely critical if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Solution: Develop alternatives to deforestation, such as sustainable farming, to decrease the need for tree clearing.Earth design with words There Is No Planet "B"

As large amounts of forests are cleared away, allowing exposed earth to whither and die and the habitats of innumerable species to be destroyed, the indigenous communities who live there and depend on the forest to sustain their way of life are also under threat.

The loss of forests has an immediate and direct effect on their lifestyle that we in the highly industrialized parts of the world, despite our own dependency on what the rainforest provides, will never know. The level of immediacy is exponentially greater for indigenous peoples.

If communities in developing nations were able to adopt sustainable farming practices or employed new farming technologies and crops, the need for more land might be diminished, according to the UN’s Sustainable Forest Management Toolbox.  Indigenous people and local forest communities are on the front line of the battle for the forests they call home. When you plant your trees through The Gifted Tree in Africa and Asia, the project not only is replacing trees, but is educating community members, especially the youth, as to the long-term benefits of trees. Areas of education include farmers being trained in best tree planting methods, nursery preparation, farm conservation and finance, and irrigation management. They also learned methods and techniques to protect trees to withstand local climatic conditions and thus help to ensure the newly planted trees’ long-term survival. Most of these individuals have no knowledge of proper land management techniques, but this training will be a significant factor in the fight against deforestation.

Solution: Plant More trees.Replanting trees in deforested areas

Forests can also be restored, through replanting trees in cleared areas or simply allowing the forest ecosystem to regenerate over time. The goal of restoration is to return the forest to its original state, before it was cleared, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The sooner a cleared area is reforested, the quicker the ecosystem can start to repair itself. Afterward, wildlife will return, water systems will reestablish, carbon will be sequestered and soils will be replenished. Remember, trees help control the level of water in the atmosphere by helping to regulate the water cycle. In deforested areas, there is less water in the air to be returned to the soil. This then causes dryer soil and the inability to grow crops.

If done correctly, reforestation can restore damaged ecosystems, stabilize soil and soil erosion, support the water cycle, reduce coastal flooding and slowly recover the vital ecosystem services that depend on. Trees also help the land to retain water and topsoil, which provides the rich nutrients to sustain additional forest life. Planting new trees is, ultimately, an investment in future forests and is the calling and mission of The Gifted Tree!

 

 

Amazon Rainforest Clear-cutting of Trees Causing Deforestation

The Concern

The Amazon Rainforest – the area in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru – is burning at a rate never before seen. The Amazon is regarded as vital in the fight against global warming due to its ability to absorb carbon from the air. It’s often referred to as the “lungs of the Earth,” as more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen is produced there. It is hard to get a handle on the exact number of fires, be it 75,000, 90,000, or over 100,000, but one thing is clear, it is a large number and seems to be growing every day, causing significant Amazon deforestation.

Left to its own devices, the Amazon rainforest rarely burns, and the ecosystem is not adapted to deal with fire. The area has been “fire-resistant” for much of its history because of its natural environment, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While drought can be a factor in Amazon rainforest fires, usually caused by major El Niño droughts, there is nothing abnormal about the climate or rainfall amounts in the Amazon this year. The fires can kill many of the trees they encounter, because the thin-barked Amazonian species are not adapted to deal with fire—unlike many species of trees in the western U.S. or Mediterranean climates, which evolved to deal with frequent fires.


The Cause

“The majority of the fires we’re seeing now are because of deforestation,” according to Ane Alencar, the director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. While the fires themselves are destructive and devastating, she continues that their primary cause and the way they are spreading is cause for more concern.  This year there are 45% more fires in Brazil than there were at this time last year. What is alarming is that many of these fires are deliberately set, not lightening strikes or careless campers, but planned out and propagated by farmers and large corporations for farming, drilling and mining. If you are like me, living in a metropolitan area, I did not understand the reason for the setting of these fires and the deliberate deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. So, I set about trying to learn why and I thought I would relay my findings to help you understand about the Amazon rainforest fires.

Most of the Amazon fires causing deforestation are due to the growth of industrial agriculture in the area. As the world’s population grows, demands for agricultural products also grow. Harvested crops are not just consumed by people in the area, but as cultivation and transportation system get more advanced and sophisticated, production in these areas can be exported, a lot of it to China and its growing middle-class population. Brazil, now the world’s largest soybean producer, has converted 18% of its forest ecosystem since 1970 through clear-cutting and fire to aid livestock, soybean and oil palm cultivation.

Inspecting trees planted in the Amazon Rain Forest after fires

Inspecting trees planted after Amazon Rain Forest fires

The Factors

A number of factors contribute to the Amazon deforestation. Cattle farmers start fires deliberately to clear forests to make way for ranching. Additionally, the agro-economic model of the local populations is based on slash and burn farming, a temporary soil fertilization technique that consists of clear-cutting large numbers of trees and leaving the felled trees to dry out. Once the fallen trees have desiccated, they set them on fire providing the plot of soil with nitrogen, leaving behind an open swath of land ready for agricultural activity. While the soil is nutrient rich, it is planted with soybeans. After exhausting exploited land, local farmers abandon it and replicate the process on other nearby land, a circle of endless deforestation.

There is never enough time for reforestation as any regrowth is burned again the next season to plant more product, provided cattle grazing areas, or just never replanted. It is hard to place blame on the local small farmer as this is what they have been taught and they do not understand agroforestry and the techniques available to restore areas of degraded forests without ruining their livelihood. The Gifted Tree’s projects are attempting to reverse this vicious cycle, but more on that later.


The History

Believe it or not, a few decades ago there use to be more fires in the Amazon rain forest. Amazon deforestation peaked in late 1990s and early 2000s. In the worst phases of those peak deforestation periods, over 10,000 square miles of forest could be cut down in a year, much of that cleared area converted directly to cropland for planting soybeans or grazing for cattle. In some years, like in 1998 and 2005, that deforestation activity coincided with major El Niño droughts, and fires were abundant and widespread.

A concerted effort from the Brazilian government after the mid-2000s, as well as coordinated international pressures, led to changes in the management of the forest and agricultural land. The efforts were largely successful: By 2012, the annual deforestation rate bottomed out at about 80 percent lower than the average rate between 1995 and 2006.

Amazon Fire Smoke Plunging Cities Into Darkness

Amazon Fire Smoke Plunging Cities Into Darkness


The Politics

Now there is the question of whether the policies of new president Jair Bolsonaro are a reason for the increase in the current number of fires. As part of his election campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to increase agricultural activity in the Amazon and smooth the way for more development in the region, ignoring international concern over deforestation and climate change. Under his new administration, many scientists, indigenous leaders, and environmental advocates worry that deforestation rates were likely to shoot up again. That fear seems to be playing out. Under Bolsonaro, forest protections have been weakened and enforcement of illegal logging has diminished. The fires burning across the region and choking downwind communities are an all too visible result of this shift in policy.  Furthermore, national policies are causing economic contraction in the cities, chasing workers into the rural areas. This swelling of the rural population is increasing agricultural activity further exacerbating the deforestation problem. As Doug Morton, the chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center exclaims, “These fires are ecologically devastating.”

 

Brazil Amazon Rain Forest

The Gifted Tree Replanting Project in Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest


The Answer?

While there is no single answer and reversing this destructive behavior will take a concerted global effort, The Gifted Tree is trying to do its part. Planting your gift tree in the Amazon Rain Forest will have wide-ranging community benefits; restore burned areas, conservation of tropical biodiversity, improvement of the water cycle, diversify forest fruit production, ensure food and nutritional security, and store carbon to fight climate change. Besides tree planting, our program teaches local farmers to integrate agroforestry into their farming practices allowing them to earn more income per acre than before. Thus, they are becoming aware of the importance of forest cover for their food crops, and of the ability of trees planted in and around their fields to enrich cultivated soils. As a result, slash-and-burn farming loses its interest. Your gift tree thus makes it possible to mobilize local populations towards a sustainable agricultural production method and thus break the vicious circle of Amazon deforestation by the rain forest fires.