What is Deforestation?

What is Deforestation?

Photo Credit: Toucan


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 a large percentage 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.

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 removed to make room for industries, or to make room 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.

Biodiversity of Tropical Forests.

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. For example, Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform, informs us that although the rainforests cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s surface, they house an estimated 50 percent of all life on the planet’s land masses. The estimates from different scientific organizations on this subject are broad, and differ widely because there are so many species of plants and animals living in the rainforests that haven’t been discovered yet, no one really has any idea what the true number of species actually is!

According to the National Geographic, tropical rainforests are the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystems in the world, and the Amazon rainforest in particular, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, is home to around 40,000 plant species, nearly 1,300 bird species, 3,000 types of fish, 427 species of mammals, and 2.5 million different insects.

One thing the various scientific estimates typically have in common, however, is that they suggest that more than half of all plant and land animal species alive on the planet can be found in tropical forests. This makes the tropical rainforests an ecological treasure trove! But unfortunately, with deforestation occurring at such a high rate all over the planet, it includes losing the biodiversity of the tropical rainforests.

A few of the top threats to forests and especially tropical rainforests,-

There many threats to the tropical rainforests. But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a majority of tropical deforestation occurring today can be traced to just four globally traded commodities: wood products (the timber industry), palm oil, soybeans, and beef (cattle ranching).

Timber Industry

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “the increasing global demand for low-cost timber products supports a multi-billion dollar business of illegal and unsustainable logging in forests worldwide. According to some estimates, logging in violation of national laws accounts for 8-10% of global production and trade in forest products. It also represents 40-50% of all logging in some of the most valuable and threatened forests on earth. Consumption of tropical timber by the U.S. and other industrial countries plays a significant role in tropical deforestation.”

Palm Oil

Photo Credit: Palm Seeds

Palm Tree Plantation

Close up of Palm

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. There is controversy because its popularity and usefulness in a wide array of products has spurred people to clear tropical rainforests simply to just grow palm trees.


Photo Credit: Soybean Pods

Close-up of Soybeans

Soy Field

The cultivation of soybeans is another major driver of deforestation,- especially in the Amazon basin. The seeds from the soybean plant are used to provide food for people, but ironically, this actually only accounts for a small percentage of total soybean production. For the most part, soybeans are grown and harvested to provide feed for livestock. In particular, soybeans are used as feed for cattle.

Cattle Ranching

Photo Credit: Deforestation in Amazon

Cows Grazing

Burning Forest

But there is more. In addition to the demand for soybeans, according to the Yale University Global Forest Atlas, some 80 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon can be attributed directly to cattle ranching. Today, Brazil has become 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, as well as a tragic loss of biodiversity.

And that leads us to our next topic, in which we will continue the discussion about the ways in which agricultural practices can impact the health of our global environment. . .

Photo Credit: Toucan in Costa Rica



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