What is Deforestation?

What is Deforestation?

Forests cover more than 30 percent of the land area on our planet. They help people thrive by purifying the air we breath and the water we drink, and they provide a home to 80 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity, providing habitat for a vast array of trees, plants, animals, and insects. Forests also play a critical role in preventing climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that would otherwise be left free to contribute to the greenhouse effect, resulting in climate change.

Unfortunately, the forests of the world, and especially the tropical rainforests, are under threat. Deforestation is what occurs when large strands of forest are burned or cut down so that the wood can be used as construction materials. They are also cut down to make room for industries, for crops, and for animals to graze. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that an area approximately the size of Switzerland is lost to deforestation each and every year.

Scientists inform us that terrestrial biodiversity is usually greater in the warmer climate near the equator. And for this reason, the tropical rainforests are a notable hotspot for biodiversity. While tropical forest ecosystems cover less than 10 percent of earth’s surface, they are estimated to contain an astonishing 60 to 90 percent of the world’s species. Since there are so many species of plants and animals that haven’t even been discovered yet, no one really knows the true number of species for sure!

These estimates say that more than half of all plant and land animal species in the world live in tropical forests. This biodiversity makes the rainforests an ecological treasure trove! But unfortunately, with deforestation occurring at such a high rate all over the world, it includes losing the biodiversity of the tropical rainforests. Some of the most important factors responsible for tropical deforestation include the production of palm oil, the production of soybeans, and cattle ranching, just to name a few.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is a commonly produced vegetable oil and it is found in a staggering amount (approximately half) of all supermarket products. It is cheap to produce, versatile, and it can be added to a number of both food and personal products like lipsticks and shampoo. Its popularity and usefulness in a wide array of products has spurred people to clear tropical rainforests simply to just grow palm trees.


Cultivation of soybeans is another major driver of deforestation, especially in the Amazon basin. The seeds from the soybean plant are used to directly feed humans, but this is only a small percentage of total soybean production. For the most part, the cultivation of soybeans is done primarily to provide feed for livestock. In particular, for cattle.

Cattle Ranching

More importantly, however, is the fact that some 80 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon can be attributed directly to cattle ranching. In particular, Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world, spurring rampant deforestation in the Amazon region for cattle grazing. The result of this deforestation is soil erosion, loss of habitat, and a tragic loss of biodiversity. And most importantly of all, agriculture has been implicated in a number of additional ways as an impact on global warming, which will be the topic in the next section.

Next up: What is the link between agriculture and climate change?