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.
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. Growing 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.
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.
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!