The big picture on deforestation makes staggering reading. Global Forest Watch calculates that the pre-industrial world was covered by a vast 24 million square miles of forest. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, about half of this forest has been cut down or burned. This trend has increased dramatically over the last fifty years. Even more concerning is the huge reduction in frontier forests – undisturbed primeval woodland. At present, only 5 million square miles of this original high-grade forest remain standing, with 39% described as being at moderate or high risk.
It’s easy to focus on the countries where deforestation is happening at present. But what about the rest of the world? Europe, for instance, has only 5,000 square miles of frontier forest remaining on a continent that was once almost entirely woodland. It was deforestation in Europe, combined with the demand for new types of hardwood, that drove much of Europe’s colonial efforts into west Africa in the nineteenth century.
West Africa, as a result, stands as a historic leader in deforestation. The ancient mahogany forests of equatorial Africa (covering such modern states as Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo) are now severely decimated.
At present, seven countries account for around 60 percent of the world’s total deforestation:
- United States
- Democratic Republic of Congo
According to a 2011 report by Conservation International, some of the at-risk hot spots include Burma, the Philippines, southwest China, California, Madagascar and Sumatra in Indonesia. These forests have all lost 90% or more of their original habitat and each contain more than 1500 plant species found nowhere else on the planet.
According to statistics from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there are several factors driving deforestation:
- subsistence agriculture causes 46% of global deforestation
- commercial agriculture is responsible for another 32%. Cattle rearing, soya production and, more recently, palm oil production are all implicated
- logging for hardwoods remains significant at 14%
- oil and gas extraction account for a further 5% of deforestation
The effects are significant. At a local level, the decrease in biodiversity caused by loss of forests can be dramatic. Simplistically put, this means more cats, dogs and rats, and fewer parrots, puma and orangutans! The loss of forest canopy also results in soil erosion and severe flooding. Haiti and Thailand are two countries which have experienced the effects of this potent combination in recent years. In addition, in warmer regions, desertification is harder to withstand when a region’s trees have been uprooted or burned.
Globally, deforestation leads to greater levels of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Trees are natural capture-and-store sinks, and when they are cut down, this stored gas is released, adding to the greenhouse effect and fueling global warming.
In the end, it is humans who will increasingly suffer for the destruction of our forests. And it is humans alone who can take the necessary action to change it. If we keep chopping down these forests, then we are killing ourselves.