Eight thousand years ago, when humans didnt have an astounding affect on the world ecosystem, trees covered two fifths of the land. Since that time, the human race has burnt and chopped down half of the original forestland. According to Merriam-Websters Dictionary, deforestation is defined as the action or process of clearing of forests (www.m-w.com). The act of deforestation could, in a matter of just a few decades, completely strip the earth of trees. Deforestation not only has a phenomenal effect on the ecological balance of the world, but its economic stability as well.
Tropical rainforests are disappearing faster than ever before. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that in 1980, the rainforests were disappearing at a rate of 114,000 square kilometers each year (Colchester and Lohmann, 1). More recent studies have shown a sharp increase in that number. According to a study completed by Friends for Earth, some 142,000 square kilometers of tropical rainforests were destroyed in 1989, and a further 200,000 square kilometers seriously degraded (Colchester and Lohmann, 1,2).
The Amazon Rain Forest is among the leading places ravaged by deforestation. The first estimates of the damage done in the Amazon were made around 1970, suggesting that little clearing of forest had taken place (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 7). By 1980, it is estimated that over 125,000 square kilometers of forest had been cleared (UNRISD, 8). The most recent deforestation measurements by the INPE (Space Research Institute of Brazil) show that by 1988, some 251,429 square kilometers had been deforested (UNRISD, 8). According to an article published in The Economist in April 2000, an official survey listed the damage of 500,000 hectares (1.24 million acres) were deforested between 1990 and 1995. A new study, the article proclaimed, suggested that 1.7 million hectares 4.2 million acres of the Amazon forest disappeared last year (Brazil- Still Chopping, 2000).
Deforestation has a number of root causes, from agricultural purposes to increasing population. The most significant amount of deforestation is a direct result of agriculture and the need for food from the rising population. Most of the Brazilian Amazon forest, that stretched along the Atlantic coast was hacked down to make room for plantations of sugar, coffee and other crops as well as to make room for sprawling cities (Brazil- Still Chopping, 2000). Throughout history, as the natives moved through the forest, they began to clear small plots of land for cultivation and living. Once the land was no longer fertile, the fields were abandoned and the rainforest quickly grew back. As additional immigrants began to settle in the area, they too began to clear plots of land, much larger plots. It was not uncommon for the new immigrants to clear 10 hectares, and only plant four or five because of inadequate burning or the underestimation of weeding a large field (UNRISD, 14).
Cattle ranching is another one of the highest reasons for deforestation. The UNRISD believes it to be the main land use in deforested areas of the Amazon (15). The ranchers cut and burn vast amounts of land for temporary pasture. After a short amount of time, a year or two at the most, the land is abandoned and another large area of the forest is cleared, repeating the cycle. Once the soil is too poor for farming or grazing, the ranchers move on. Due to the high price of chemical fertilizers, it is more cost-effective for the ranchers to clear new forest than to recuperate the old pastures.
Some people believe that the rising income levels in the developed countries around the world is to blame for the increased farming and cattle ranching within the rainforests. The higher income, the more meat and food is eaten. After all, the rich do eat more than the poor do.
Loggers and miners who are in search of gold, oil and tin are also destroying the tropical rainforests. According to Gallant, in his book Earths Vanishing Forests, an estimated one-half million prospectors are currently removing some 70 tons of gold a year from within Brazilian forests (5).
The environmental effects of deforestation are alarming. Deforestation increases atmospheric carbon levels; is a factor in species extinction; and also increases the frequency of floods and soil relocation. It has been proven scientifically that the earth is warming up, mostly because of the increase of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) in the atmosphere. It is now believed that atmospheric CO2 increases when a forest is burnt. The rate of global warming is estimated to be about one percent per year. If this rise continues, the world will experience a rise of 5F by the year 2100, making the world the warmest it has been in approximately 100,000 years (Parker, 14). A rise of 7F would mean the earth would be exposed to temperatures not experienced in over 40 million years (Parker, 14).
Trees absorb the carbon dioxide and let off the oxygen that humans need to breathe. In essence, trees are the lungs of the world. Burning them releases all of the carbon dioxide stored within the trees infrastructure into the air that we breathe. Scientists have proven that planting new trees for the sake of absorbing the CO2 would not be effective as preserving the existing older trees. That alone is one of the most important reasons to save the rainforests from further destruction.
Along with absorbing the CO2 , the trees also absorb much of the rain, softening its destructive power. When large areas of land are turned into pasture, the run-off into the rivers increases, and thus increases the likelihood of flooding. The forest also plays a large role in the recycling of water. After the trees absorb the rain, they emit water vapor, which is absorbed into the clouds. The clouds in turn let off the water, in the form of rain and repeats the cycle. The less water absorbed by fewer trees is already influencing the rainfall within the nearby towns, damaging harvests.
Logging of the rainforests can also have disastrous effects on the forests. Logging is the systematic removal of choice trees, as opposed to the clearing of an entire area. The tropical rainforest forms different layers of vegetation, each layer creating a separate habitat for the plants and animals that live there. The trees of the rainforests form a canopy, often as tall as 100-200 feet tall, with thick growth of light-loving trees and plants at top. The understory, as underneath the canopy is commonly called, consists of low-light plants and shrubs that thrive on the damp, dark environment. When only a few choice trees are removed, the canopy is opened up, drying out the forest floor and increasing the risk of fire (Monastersky, 1999).
The animals of the rainforest are beginning to be as endangered as the trees. An estimated 50 percent of the entire worlds population of plants and animals live within the confines of the tropical rainforest, although those forests only cover two percent of the globe (Gallant, 4). The Tamarin is an example of an endangered rainforest animal. The Golden Lion Tamarin has only 100 animals of that species left, due to the destruction of its habitat- the rainforest. The Cotton-Top Tamarin has an extremely small estimated population, also due to the destruction of the rainforest. Both breeds of monkeys are in captive breeding programs and on reserves (Banks, 16). The monkeys are only one example close to extinction.
The invertebrate life within the rainforest is only recently began to be studied and already over 40,000 different species have been discovered to live within the same patch of rainforest (Banks, 24). Over 150 different species of butterflies were found in one piece of the forest (Banks, 24). Scientists admit that there are thousands of species of plants and animals that have yet to be discovered, how do we know for sure that hundreds of un-known species of plants havent been killed completely off by the inhumane and selfish actions of the human race?
Economically, the effects of deforestation are astounding. Think about it. The price of wood has undoubtedly gone up, since that resource is almost wiped out. It is extremely hard (and expensive) to find anything made of solid wood today. The future generations had better become accustom to furniture and homes made of plastics and veneers, since that is what will be left by the time the current generation has used up the available resources. Most household items, in some way, are derived from the rainforest.
Over 7,000 medicines have been derived from the rainforests, and with only one percent of the plants of the rainforest documented, whos to say that there isnt a cure for cancer or AIDS in there somewhere? We may never know at the current rate of destruction (Gallant).
Many people living within the immediate area of the rainforests have lost homes due to uncontrollable fires, almost all of them directly related to illegal logging. There have been complete villages that have been swept away in torrential downpours and flooding, attributed to the lack of trees and roots absorbing water. There have even been documented cases where villages were erased in landslides, due to a lack of root systems to keep the soil intact.
On the flip side, some areas are now in drought due to the interruption in the hydrological cycle and lack of rainfall. The lack of water has a direct result on the crop yield, sometimes completely killing the crop and leading to starvation. Can you imagine all of this destruction and economic hardship because of deforestation? If these effects were more widely known twenty years ago, the rainforests might not be in as much danger.
Forests have provided essential resources throughout history. Currently, they provide the industrial world with numerous raw materials such as gums, nuts, fruits, wood pulp and timber, and probably most important of all- medicinal plants. Knowing that over a quarter of the worlds pharmaceutical medicines are derived from the rainforest, mankind could very well be placing the yet-to-be-discovered cure for cancer on the extinction list too. Half of the worlds rainforests have already been destroyed. Rainforests conserve water, prevent drought and flooding and regulate local climates. When they are cut and burnt, a significant amount of CO2 is added to the atmosphere, contributing to the global warming, essentially the greenhouse effect. The biological diversity of these forests is amazing- and with all of this, they are still being destroyed. Why?