Lucas Bainbridge, a Sixth Form student from London, explores the causes of deforestation and what global forest loss might mean for us all. Lucas has an interest in conservation and is planning to study geography at University; he is volunteering for Action for Conservation.
The woodland area that is left on this planet is believed to be only half what it was in 1947,[i] an astonishing figure. To be frank, this should be reason enough to take serious action, however, I intend not to focus on why we haven’t and instead on why we should ‘stop chopping’.
There are many reasons why deforestation is still rampant in our forests. A succinct quotation from a recent National Geographic article gives a rather accurate summary:
“The market forces of globalization are invading the Amazon, hastening the demise of the forest and thwarting its most committed stewards”[ii]
This eludes to the fact that the majority of deforestation occurs because of anthropogenic demands, whether for agriculture, materials such as timber or greater living space. That is not to say there are not natural causes as well – wildfires and natural desertification are examples – but that humans are increasingly responsible for the demise of grand tropical rainforests like the Amazon.
The complexities surrounding deforestation make it difficult for policy-makers to deal with the causes. Simple enforcement of the law does not solve the underlying problem, as this can often create ‘networks of corruption’ or further the poverty of local communities that rely on illegal logging. Moreover, an approach that delivers accurate, reasonable legislation is required; a strategy that helps alleviate and rally the support of the local people, as well as protecting forests, is vital.[iii] To my mind, an approach to deforestation that does not take on board the views and issues of the local community is one that is not sustainable; the local populace needs to have a reason to protect the forest, whether that be through education, or simply by helping the community to create an eco-tourism economy. This is key in solving the problem of forest loss.
Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has many ramifications, most with dire consequences. For example, São Paulo – one of the richest cities in South America – is experiencing serious drought. One of its local reservoirs vital to sustaining the 20 million residents of the megacity, the Cantareira system, has seen a reduction to 5% of its capacity due to deforestation.[iv] Furthermore, deforestation in north and northwest China is thought to have decreased annual precipitation by one third between the 1950’s and the 1980’s.
The reason drought occurs in response to deforestation, is because trees and other plants ‘extract’ groundwater and release it into the atmosphere by transpiration. When the trees are removed, and no longer release water, there is a smaller volume of water vapour in the surrounding climate. This has the secondary effect of causing soil erosion, which in turn can lead to landslides. These deforested areas can also increase surface-runoff (that is water travelling along the topsoil/surface), as the trees no longer intercept precipitation, and this can trigger flash flooding on a localised scale; this has happened in all manner of locations, including Barcelona in 1995.[v]
Furthermore, research carried out by Gérard Moss, in his Flying Rivers Project reveals that the evaporation from the Amazon Rainforest creates ‘virtual rivers’ in the atmosphere that release a greater discharge volume than any river in the world.[vi] Therefore, when there has been much deforestation of the Amazon, it is now believed that this can cause drought conditions all over South America, as the levels of water vapour in these ‘flying rivers’ is lower than it would otherwise be.
Moreover, deforestation has an adverse effect on the global economy; it is estimated that deforestation could reduce global GDP by around 7% by 2050.[vii] We also shouldn’t ignore the more obvious impact on wildlife. The impacts on Madagascar, a biodiversity hotspot, are marked. It has lost
“Eight species of giant elephant-birds, two species of hippopotamus, a very large species of Fossa…”[viii]
Many others species have been lost as well. Then we come to the issue of climate change. It is predicted that tropical deforestation contributes 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions. Worse still, removal of flora from the planet decreases biosequestration of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. With these fundamental stores declining, our climate shall continue to heat up.
The extremely diverse ramifications of deforestation mentioned above should help forge a picture of just how vital it is that we control, and indeed, stop deforestation. Personally, I believe deforestation can only be stopped with active, local participation, as well as a top-down approach with strong government commitments. Without the Amazon, and indeed other forests, we lose vital carbon sequestration services that help mitigate climate change, as well as losing a source of beauty; natural forests hold the secrets to so many medicines, animals and mysteries of the world.