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Elizabeth Shields

CAS 138H, Spring 2018

Spielvogel, Section 14

The Deforestation Sensation Stripping the Nation

When we think of wood products, we often think of paper or our expensive hardwood

flooring. Odds are, our perception of how much wood we consume is a little skewed. Wood

products can be found in (or aid in the production of) everything from toothpaste to tires to

cosmetics.1 Aside from the loss of trees to produce wood products, many forests are cut away to

meet needs for expanding agricultural land. Worldwide, about 7 million hectares of forests are

destroyed each year, equivalent to about half the size of England, adding up to about 5 billion

trees.2 As shown in the chart below, timber harvesting accounts for about 37% of the forest loss,

agriculture enables another 28%, and 14% is a result of cutting for roads, pipelines, and power

lines. Only 21% of forest depletion is from naturally occurring events, chiefly forest fires.3 It is

estimated at least 50% of the world’s forests have been hacked away since the beginning of

human civilization without being replaced, with the possibility that even larger percentages of

forest have been removed.4 Deforestation is the sum total of these actions, being the conversion

of forest land to any other use, whether it is to take lumber, expand or establish an urban area, or

use for agriculture.

Figure 1: Land Usage of

deforested areas
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Cutting down trees, to some extent, is a necessity and an eventuality. There are both

direct and indirect causes of deforestation. Direct causes are more obvious, and include

urbanization, stripping land clear for mining, tree damage from pollution or disease, and tourism

expansion. Indirect causes tend to be more historical or hidden: colonialism, land rights transfers,

economic development, and military operations.5 These indirect causes may only play a small

part in deforestation, but are hard to eliminate. The roots of deforestation come from secondary

causes. The biggest historical kick to deforestation was the Industrial Revolution Era. New

technologies, factories, and expansion created a massive need for wood. On top of the wood to

build new industry, acres of the Americas were deforested in the expansion toward the west.

While this removal was necessary for advancement, trees were cut down across Europe and the

expanding America without being replanted for decades. About 175 million square miles of

forests were cut down by 1850.6 The culture of deforestation, that is, cutting down thousands of

trees for our own development, has continued to expand. Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest have

experienced famously extreme deforestation, but countries such as Russia, Canada, and

Indonesia are losing massive amounts of forest acreage as well, proving deforestation is not only

affecting a specific area or region, but a worldwide problem (see Fig. 2).7 Much of the most well-

known deforestation is a bit more recent, beginning in the 1950s when wood products began to

be taken from the rainforests. In the past 70 years, about a third of the Amazon rainforest has

been cleared, with ever increasing amounts being taken.5 Judging from countless “save the

rainforest”-type campaigns, it seems that in recent years, much of the focus of deforestation has

been concentrated on the impact on rainforests, particularly the Amazon.8


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Figure 2: Global forest loss from

2000-2016 (loss shown in red)

Deforestation brings with it a heavy set of baggage. Forests absorb many greenhouse

gases and provide habitats for literally uncountable species.9 Large areas of trees are major

regulators of the water cycle and preventers of soil erosion and flooding.10 Aside from

environmental aspects, deforestation brings with it economic and social upheaval. Vice News

predicts that by 2050, approximately the equivalency of the area of India will be deforested

across the globe, worsening all the aforementioned problems.11 It’s hard to imagine what the

world might look like if we continue to stand by while forests are being depleted, but it is

guaranteed not to improve on the current state of global warming and carbon emissions.

Therefore, excessive deforestation must be stopped by restricting location and type of tree being

removed, pushing for sustainable management of forests, and preventing excessive and

unnecessary logging.

Problem

It isn’t hard to look around and find an averagely “eco-friendly” individual who will tell

you to save the trees. Stopping deforestation to save the planet is an unfortunately general

argument. The total effects of deforestation are much deeper than vague statements of probable

global warming.
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Firstly, and the most recognizable from our part of the world, are the ecological effects of

deforestation. By rough estimates, approximately 110 billion metric tons of carbon is stored in

the Amazon Rainforest alone.12 Burning large areas of land to clear for agriculture releases much

of the carbon stored in forests as the famous greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. While natural fires

are a normal part of the carbon cycle, purposefully burning large areas of forest adds additional

carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In fact, it is estimated about 25% of earth’s greenhouse gas

emissions come from deforestation, largely from the burning of forests.13 Trees also majorly

contribute to absorption of gases like CO2.14 Eco-friendly organizations and tacky bumper

stickers around you advertise the power of planting more trees in solving this greenhouse gas

crisis. However, planting more trees is not the solution to climate change. Trees and plants

release carbon dioxide through respiration as well as absorb it during photosynthesis.15 More

trees will not solve the entire climate crisis by absorbing all the atmosphere’s CO2, particularly

as they are releasing quite a bit of CO2 as well. Contrary to this seemingly pro-deforestation

argument, this does not mean we should simply cut away all trees since they release CO2 into the

atmosphere. Ultimately, their benefits outweigh their damages - it only means planting more

trees should not be labeled as the catch-all solution for climate change. With respect to carbon

emissions, in some ways trees help, and in some ways they harm. The key, then, is not in

planting more trees, but avoiding burning them in the first place, as the burning process is the

real fuel of carbon emissions. Despite all this, planting more trees may still be a solution to other

problems caused by deforestation; trees offer a plethora of services aside from absorbing carbon

dioxide.

Deforestation creates a lack of ground surface cover by removing trees and their

surrounding plants. Therefore, sunlight striking the ground is not absorbed by leaves to be used
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as energy for photosynthesis, but is instead reflected back into the atmosphere, causing further

heating of local environments and affecting air currents above the region.16 Deforestation also

disrupts soils and water in a given region. The soil degradation reduces soil fertility and

structure, making it difficult to use for agriculture or replanting of forests in future years. Many

forest soils are fairly acidic, so they are not profitable for agriculture without significant and

expensive remediation.17 As trees and roots hold large amounts of water, removal can lead to

major changes in the soil’s water- holding capacity, leading to surface runoff and possible

flooding. This unfiltered surface runoff is often contaminated, which leads to harmful drinking

water or contamination of water downstream, affecting wildlife.18 Forests (particularly tropical

rainforests) hold numerous animal, bird, and insect species, including many which are

endangered. Most of these species perform necessary functions within the ecosystem, such as

decomposition of dead matter. Upon losing their native habitat, species relocate, often causing

human-animal interactions and problems, such as elephants crashing over cropping systems.

Loss of such biodiversity can eliminate predators of harmful pathogens and pests.19 Without

maintaining the proper balance of flora and fauna, harmful changes to both animals and humans

are bound to occur.

Secondly, deforestation implies economic effects on a given region. In developing

countries, it is usually necessary to experience environmental degradation. Upon reaching

development, the degradation will theoretically be reversed (a phenomenon known as Kuznet’s

Curve, shown below).20


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Figure 3: Kuznet’s Curve

However, only the lower half of Kuznet’s Curve, the part where lower-developed

countries degrade the environment through measures of deforestation, has been observed.18 Each

year, tropical (usually lower developed) countries lose forest capital equal to about $45 billion

dollars.21 Without replenishing the forests, this implies short term gain with ultimate losses. The

countries will later pay the price of aforementioned compromised soil, water, and animal

systems. In a study of nearly 300 villages in the Amazon rainforest and its environs,

deforestation caused a quick boom followed by a bust leaving villages approximately the same

level or worse than before deforestation.22 Deforestation may bring an immediate rush of jobs

and perhaps bring in new workers, but after some time, those jobs will dry up. Additionally,

about 50% of medicines, not including non-traditional methods of healing, rely on wood

products of rainforests.22 Failure in environmental stewardship could later limit supply of these

life-saving drugs. Regardless, an abrupt halt in large-scale forest reduction or installment of new

limitations and regulations will most likely have a negative effect on strongly resource dependent

communities. Therefore, these developing countries and towns need to diversify their

productions to transition from a forest and wood products dependent area.

Finally, deforestation brings a variety of social impacts. Forested regions (particularly in

South America) are often occupied by indigenous peoples. During the process of tree removal,
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the traditional livelihoods relying on the forests (through fishing, agriculture, or other means)

would be disrupted by invasion of new roads, equipment, and people.18 People who traditionally

reside in forest regions could be forced to relocate. They may move to areas occupied or used by

other groups, which could cause resource strain.18 Those forced from their area may ultimately

establish entirely new ways of life, leaving behind their people and culture. Additionally,

deforestation often implies migrant workers, traveling from forest to forest to find work. Work

areas will pop up overnight, stay until the resource is depleted, and move on, leaving the

community to clean up the consequences themselves.

Given environmental, economic, and social costs of deforestation, what can be done

about this imminent danger?

Solution

A complete ban on deforestation is not the answer; wood products are a necessary part of

day-to-day life. With varying climates and economies of countries experiencing heavy

deforestation, the solutions will vary for different locations. Methods to prevent deforestation to

the point of harm can be broken down into three categories: where and what kind of trees can be

cut down, sustainable management of current forests, and ensuring the minimal necessary

amount of trees are cut.

To prevent too many trees from being removed in a given area, limits must be imposed

on where and what species of trees that can be removed. An easy defender of forests would be to

institute protected areas (whether National Parks and Forests, or simply restrictions on the

region). Implementing protected areas in regions with endangered species, particularly in

developing countries, will ensure minimal preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems. Limiting

the kind of trees allowed to be harvested and where they can be taken from will reduce the
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amount being taken away. Endangered trees and trees in forests used for recreation purposes

should be preserved. With fewer trees on the market, but the same quantity demanded, the price

of lumber will most likely rise. This will encourage companies to search for substitutes of wood

products. Additionally, countries and wood products companies should set aside land specifically

for timber production. Companies will then be in charge of managing their own land and

producing trees to harvest and be incentivized to replant and efficiently and safely manage their

forests. Lands that need to be preserved are buffered from the effects of deforestation and land

area will be used wisely.

Protected areas can’t exist everywhere, so it is better to aim for sustainable management

of forests. The forests should be managed so that when wood products are removed, the

ecosystem, including the biodiversity, soil structure, and water quality, is preserved. There are

several common methods of deforestation. Slash-and-burn is actually considered a method of

agriculture, in which trees and underlying vegetation are, in some combination, cut away and

burnt. Slash-and-burn provides incredibly fertile soil - for several years. The nutrients from the

ash are depleted, forcing the farmers to abandon the land and move elsewhere. Often, the trees

are not replanted, and the land is left abandoned.23 Slash-and burn is most commonly used in

Central and South America, where deforestation is most significant.24 Clear-cutting, the complete

removal of all trees and vegetation on a given area of land, is by far the most destructive method

of deforestation.25 Unfortunately, clear-cutting is the most common method of tree removal by

timber companies.26 In addition to slash-and-burn and clear-cutting, several less drastic removal

methods exist, such as selective logging, which opts to keep some of the vegetation in tact.27

Strip-cutting away of entire forests, even with replanting, needs to end. If the trees are

cut away entirely and then replanted, the ecosystem will take years to bounce back to its original
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form, as wildlife will relocate when their habitat is initially removed and trees and groundcover

will take years to grow back. Thus, companies should be required to switch to selective logging,

in which only some trees from an area are removed, leaving the ecosystem intact. Companies

that have already stripped trees should universally be required to replant. However, clear-cutting

and slash and burn should remain to be permitted in areas where trees are diseased. In line with

sustainable management, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

determined that in many tropical regions, half of the non-renewable deforestation could be

prevented if the governments became involved.28 Considering contribution of environmental

organizations, forest renewal in these less developed countries is theoretically possible if national

governments would be willing to cooperate and impose regulations on logging companies. The

World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility hopes to provide financial incentives to reduce

carbon emissions. For developing countries in Kuznet’s curve, financial incentives will prevent

them from degradation to an irreversible point. Capping carbon emission amounts from forests

specifically as opposed to carbon emissions as a whole could limit techniques such as burning

and encourage areas to harvest trees for wood purposes instead.

Lastly, regulations must be imposed for reasons to cut down trees. National and regional

governments would be best suited to fulfil this duty, as they are most capable of observing,

stopping, and punishing violating groups. Slash-and-burn to clear for agriculture is a destructive

technique ultimately leaving the land infertile. Since this land will not be able to be used after

several years, land should only be permitted to be cleared for agriculture if farmers use methods

such as crop rotation and soil remediation to ensure the land can be used for long term purposes.

Banning the use of techniques failing to comply with sustainable deforestation will prevent the

regions from being environmentally compromised. Legal removal of trees also entails solving
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illegal logging. National and local governments need to further monitor illegal logging. Illegal

logging is undercutting government regulations and taxes, losing about $10 billion per year and

falsely lowering the price of wood products by about 10%.29 In Peru, about 80% of logging

occurs illegally. To prevent further illegal logging, the world needs expansions of groups such as

Eyes on the Forest, a group of Non-Governmental Organizations monitoring roads and groups

working in forests. Meanwhile, trade agreements to prevent foreign shipping of illegal logging

should be made. Finally, the Forest Stewardship Council is currently labeling wood products that

have met the environmental standard. Companies should be encouraged to only purchase wood

that as this label.30

Deforestation impacts our world in a number of ways, from well-known issues of climate

change to lesser-known, but equally impactful problems such as soil structure and water quality.

Aside from environmental issues, social and economic issues become prevalent with increased

deforestation. Given the problems it creates, our world must implement changes in how we are

protecting our forests, methods and amounts of trees permitted to be removed, and how we

regulate permission to remove trees from an area. This is a perfectly fixable problem, as long as

countries and companies cooperate to change the way we look at forests from an infinite

resource to a limited quantity that needs to be protected and preserved.


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Image Citations

Figure 1: Land Usage of Deforested Areas. Produced by Elizabeth Shields from data collected at:
Rainforest Action Network Blog. “How many trees are cut down every year?” The Understory, 6
March 2016, https://www.ran.org/how_many_trees_are_cut_down_every_year

Figure 2: Global Forest Loss from 2000-2016. Retrieved from


http://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest

Figure 3: Kuznet’s Curve. Image from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuznets_curve

Works Cited

1. Conners, Terry. “Products Made from Wood.” UK cooperative extension service, July,
2002, https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/woodproducts.pdf
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https://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html
3. Rainforest Action Network Blog. “How many trees are cut down every year?” The
Understory, 6 March 2016,
https://www.ran.org/how_many_trees_are_cut_down_every_year
4. Connor, Steve. “Earth has lost more than half its trees since humans first started cutting
them down.” The Independent, 2 Sept. 2015.
https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/earth-has-lost-more-than-half-its-trees-
since-humans-first-started-cutting-them-down-10483189.html
5. Chakravarty, Sumit, Ghosh, S.K., Suresh, C.P., Deyl, A.N., and Shukla, Gopal.
“Deforestation: Causes, Effects and Control Strategies.” Global Perspectives on
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_strategies.pdf
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https://bizfluent.com/about-5389808-history-deforestation.html
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7. “Countries with greatest tree cover loss.” Global Forest Watch, n.d.
http://www.globalforestwatch.org/countries/overview
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forests-could-vanish-by-2050
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2017, https://sciencing.com/deforestation-affect-weather-23869.html
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urban-soil-and-forest-soil
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“Deforestation: Causes, Effects and Control Strategies.” Global Perspectives on
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https://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/36125/InTechDeforestation_causes_effects_and_control
_strategies.pdf
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19. Giam, Xingli. “Global Biodiversity Loss from Tropical Deforestation.” PNAS. vol 114,
no. 23, June 2017, pp 5575-5577.
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deforestation-leads-to-economic-boom-and-bust/
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23. Stief, Colin. “Slash and Burn Agriculture.” ThoughtCo, 1 Feb. 2018,
https://www.thoughtco.com/slash-and-burn-agriculture-p2-1435798 (same as 9)
24. See citation 9
25. Nix, Steve. “The Debate over Clearcutting.” ThoughtCo, 4 June 2017,
https://www.thoughtco.com/clearcutting-the-debate-over-clearcutting-1343027
26. “Clearcutting.” Earthroots, n.d., https://earthroots.org/index.php/clearcutting-item
27. Stief, Colin. “Slash and Burn Agriculture.” ThoughtCo, 1 Feb. 2018,
https://www.thoughtco.com/slash-and-burn-agriculture-p2-1435798
28. Radford, Tim. “Planting Trees Will Not Slow Global Warming.” Climate News Network,
26 May 2017, https://climatenewsnetwork.net/planting-trees-not-slow-global-warming/
29. “Illegal Logging.” World Wildlife Fund, n.d.,
http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/deforestation/deforestation_causes/illegal_logging
30. “Stopping Illegal Logging.” World Wildlife Fund, n.d.,
https://www.worldwildlife.org/initiatives/stopping-illegal-logging