What Is Deforestation & How Can We Stop It?

Deforestation in action, with a patch of trees being destroyed and animals fleeing the scene.

Even if you live nowhere near a natural forest, they contribute more to your life than you may realize.

These ecosystems may be our most important resource, and the consequences of deforestation affect us all.

But why exactly is it so bad to cut down trees?

Forests happen to be home to a majority of land animals, a variety of human cultures, and an incredibly diverse range of plant, fungi, and microbial species – many of which have yet to be discovered.

Before we talk about how you can help prevent the destruction of forests, let’s talk about the main causes of deforestation.

What is deforestation?

Forests aren’t just a home for animals and plants; they provide us with clean water and breathable air, facilitate global weather, and even provide us with lots of products and goods we use everyday.

We’ve also managed to come up with a surprising variety of ways of destroying forests – even with the knowledge of all the benefits they bring.

A beautiful forest, now reduced to logs on the ground as a result of deforestation.

Here’s a quick rundown on the different types of deforestation:

Slash-and-burn deforestation. This is a combination of cutting down and burning trees, with forests being razed to the ground primarily to make room for farms and land to grow crops on.

Clear-cutting deforestation. Exactly what it sounds like, cutting down an entire section of forest is the preferred method for most timber operations – especially if the plan afterwards is to plant a new, loggable forest in its place.

Selective-cutting deforestation. A bit more complicated than clear-cutting, this method of deforestation is used to remove the most valuable trees from a forest, common in rainforests where rare and exotic tree species are found.

What are the causes of deforestation?

In addition to directly logging trees, there are a few other primary causes of deforestation. Most of these are complicated issues to tackle, even with plenty of brilliant minds working on the conservation of important forests and their surrounding ecosystems.

So, what are these drivers of global deforestation?

Large-scale monoculture farming. Out of all threats to forests, commercial monoculture farming is one of the most significant. Monocrop palm oil plantations, soy grown within rainforests, these are just two examples of crops commonly grown on deforested land – and they’re not only grown to feed us.

Animal agriculture and cattle ranching. Directly related to these farming techniques destroying forests is the husbandry of animals themselves. It’s estimated that 80% of deforestation within Brazil’s Amazon region is due to cattle ranching, and like mentioned before, a lot of soy and other crops are grown specifically to feed animals, not humans.

A rancher herding his stock of cattle along a dusty road in Brazil on land which was previously forest.
Image by Bernard D. via Flickr

When land that was previously forest is grazed on by cattle, it transforms into a compacted, permanently damaged landscape often incapable of regenerating.

Tree loss due to forest fires. Forest fires happen naturally all around the world, but we’re starting to see massive fires more often due to rising temperatures and drought – symptoms of climate change.

A forest fire in Arizona, USA lights up a mountainside with flames.

Climate-related fires are spreading northward, like the 2023 Canadian wildfires which have led to losses of over 20 million acres of forest. But man-made fires are also present, part of the technique used by those who slash and burn forests to make room for industry.

Mining operations and satellite industries. Companies and bootleg operations looking to extract precious minerals from forested areas first need to clear land in order to operate, and bring about a number of other problems as well.

As if the environmental impacts of mining weren’t bad enough, these groups often violently clash with and displace indigenous communities, resulting in the loss of valuable traditional ecological knowledge. On top of that, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are also common side-hustles of miners in these areas.

Logging and the illegal timber trade. Legitimate logging operations do exist, and many are at least attempting to implement more sustainable forestry practices. But corruption, greed, and desperation often lead to the illegal harvesting of timber, which is where the selective-cutting of particularly valuable trees comes into play.

Legally harvested timber before being processed and shipped around the world.

Huge timber shipments can be entirely made up of illegally harvested wood, although timber harvesting data is often sparse or nonexistent. And this isn’t only an issue within tropical rainforest regions, as illegal timber logging is common all over the world – even in areas with substantial regulations in place.

Countless other products, foods, and ingredients. Most people are unaware of just how much they rely on products and foods from the rainforest to get through their daily routines. This isn’t limited to tropical forests, but the emissions that come along with shipping things across the globe can’t be ignored.

In order to make changes in your life, you’re going to need to know how your choices affect our world’s forests – so let’s go over some of the effects of deforestation.

What are the effects of deforestation?

Deforestation doesn’t just affect the trees, it directly contributes to a worsening climate for us all. And the negative environmental effects of deforestation are starting to become more obvious, on both a local and global scale:

Atmospheric CO2 levels are increasing. Cutting down forests directly leads to more carbon in our atmosphere, as forests are much better at storing carbon than their replacements, whether it’s crops, cattle, or houses.

A chart showing the annual global atmospheric CO₂ concentrations between 1979 and 2023.

In fact, the mass reduction of trees within the Amazon is actually considered a climate tipping point of its own, and it’s thought that a 20-25% loss of Amazon tree cover may lead to negative feedback loops that are impossible to fix.

Local and global temperatures are rising. Not only does deforestation affect our global climate; our cities, towns, and local ecosystems are all suffering due to a reduction in tree cover. Local temperatures are higher in deforested areas, compared to those with standing, healthy forests.

You can already see this in effect, as workers in areas where deforestation still occurs often are having to shift their working hours to avoid extreme temperatures and humidity.

The global water cycle depends on trees. In addition to helping regulate carbon levels and temperatures, forests also play a major role in our planet’s water cycle.

A misty forest filled with clouds, an essential step in the water cycle.

For non-coastal regions this is particularly true, as forests are responsible for rainfall in many areas even thousands of miles away – without them, droughts will only worsen.

Soil erosion and flooding are now commonplace. The risk of floods and soil erosion increase when deforested land is converted into agricultural plots. A lack of trees means less substantial, compacted soil and no barriers against sudden floods and creeping shorelines.

Biodiversity is being reduced worldwide. Another impact of deforestation is a general trend of biodiversity loss – which means fewer unique, thriving species of animals as well as the complex animal cultures they form.

A red ruffed lemur gazing into the camera, a species threatened by forest loss.

Rainforest destruction in particular leads to a substantial loss of species richness, as these regions are home to a much more varied assortment of amazing creatures compared to other areas.

Indigenous groups, activists, and locals suffer. Local people who rely on forest resources often have no say in whether or not their livelihoods are kept safe – and both indigenous communities and climate activists, hailed as defenders of land and the environment, are being snuffed out.

Climate activists protesting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
Image by John Englart via Flickr

As companies move into new areas, they tend to steamroll over anyone who gets in the way. Activists and indigenous individuals are routinely murdered over territorial disputes, with the highest concentration of violence found in South America.

How do degraded forests lead to desertification?

All this talk about farming replacing forests, and lands being stripped bare – but is any of this reversible, or will desertification be commonplace in the future?

Modern farms are usually quite tough on soils, and cattle eat a lot of grass. Over time, soils found on these farms or rangelands simply become less fertile, and those who rely on productive crops and animals look elsewhere for greener pastures.

A landscape of creeping desertification in Brazil, where lush forest once stood.
Image by A. Duarte via Flickr

Forests once teeming with life lose their lush foliage, giving way to dry woodlands and sandy soils following the footsteps of those responsible for cutting down so many trees.

Insects who would normally be responsible for much of the maintenance of these soils cannot survive without plants, which won’t take root in high-salinity soils poisoned by pesticides – and without bugs or plants, local ecosystems collapse.

A man observing a dry field of eroded topsoil, next to a field of irrigated crops.

Forests are self-sufficient ecosystems that rely on a complex network of organisms and climate elements working together. As we encroach further within their borders, it’s reasonable to expect desertification to follow in our wake.

Trees being cut down may in fact signal a permanent change from a fertile ecosystem to an infertile, deserted parcel of land that won’t ever recover.

How can we stop deforestation?

Our agricultural system needs an overall. It’s true that eating meat is bad for the environment, but even the way we grow our vegetables and grains is problematic. A future filled with widespread sustainable agriculture infrastructure that can leverage GMOs would do wonders to reduce deforestation, and these ideas are picking up momentum.

Local communities need to be involved with reforestation. Reforestation efforts that focus on more than just planting trees are effective at reducing deforestation. By involving local communities and financially supporting them through things like ecotourism, more attention can be placed on planting the correct species and properly caring for them.

A group of USDA forest service workers hiking with tree seedlings ready to be planted.

Plenty of environmental organizations are already taking part in this. For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) supports local communities by offering grants that fund the restoration of native forest ecosystems, aiming to reverse degradation.

The legal protections of forests should be expanded. Forest protected areas (PAs) already exist all over the world, but are often hamstrung by loosely enforced laws, making them ineffective. When properly set up, these protected areas reduce overall deforestation, and for that reason should be expanded as much as possible.

Roads are a major reason for forest habitat fragmentation, and future infrastructure projects desperately need to minimize their intrusion upon natural ecosystems.

By making simple, effective lifestyle changes. Your life can be lived in a way that minimizes your impact on forests. You’re living in the midst of a plant-based revolution where learning how to go vegan has never been easier – and it’s the most effective way you can help reduce deforestation on an individual level.

Spread the word and educate others about deforestation. Educating yourself on topics like this is fantastic, and letting those around you know about these issues takes that one step further. Most people want to change how we impact the natural environment, but some lack the motivation to start themselves, so help them out!

Final thoughts

Despite deforestation feeling a million miles away for some of us, we all have a responsibility to live in a way that encourages forests to grow old and comfortable, so they can provide us with everything we need them for.

Forest loss is a global tragedy, but it’s also a problem that is most effectively handled by environmentalists uniting and taking action.

Is deforestation a major problem where you live?

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