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Science & Tech

Deforestation Explained: 3 Causes of Deforestation

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 2 min read

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Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation

When living trees are removed from a forested area and are not replaced by other trees, the result is deforestation.

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Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches ConservationDr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation

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What Is Deforestation?

Deforestation is a process by which groves of living trees are killed and the land is converted to non-forest use. The term deforestation describes human-caused forest destruction. Human activities lead to deforestation on nearly all of Earth's continents, most notably Asia, South America, and North America. Deforestation is particularly destructive in tropical rainforests such as the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and many tropical forests throughout Southeast Asia.

What Causes Deforestation?

The causes of deforestation vary from region to region.

  • Cattle ranching: In Latin America, landowners often clear forests for cattle ranching. These cattle ranches produce both meat and dairy products, but the large-scale deforestation coupled with the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle have become major contributors to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Agriculture: Tropical deforestation in Southeast Asia often occurs as a form of agricultural expansion. Farmers replace natural forest cover with commercially valuable plant species. Particularly common are palm plantations, which produce palm oil, a key product in the global food supply chain.
  • Logging: In the United States, Canada, and western Europe, the primary driver of deforestation is a desire for forest products, particularly via the paper industry. Consumer products from photo paper to toilet paper come from trees, as does the lumber used to build structures, furniture, and toys. In both Asia and Africa, illegal logging for rare tropical wood products like rosewood and mahogany have also contributed to forest degradation.
Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
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3 Environmental Impacts of Deforestation

The conversion of forest land for timber, agriculture, mining, and development has helped accommodate the world's population growth, but it increases global climate change and can even lead to human rights abuses. The deleterious effects of deforestation include:

  1. Increased greenhouse gas emissions: Trees absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide and thus play a vital role in keeping global temperatures in order. The current rate of deforestation has contributed to the rapid increase of carbon dioxide going back into the atmosphere.
  2. Animal and plant extinctions: As forest ecosystems disappear, the world's terrestrial biodiversity falls with it. Many of Earth's land animals and plant species can only live in forests, and forest land degradation is one of the main reasons behind some species' decline.
  3. Upsetting the water cycle: Most of the world's surface area is water, but only a small percentage of that water is potable fresh water. The rate of current deforestation has upset the water cycle by removing trees from the process; ordinarily, trees absorb groundwater from their roots, allowing it to evaporate into the atmosphere and fall elsewhere as rain. With increasing deforestation, fresh water becomes less plentiful.

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3 Ways to Reduce Deforestation

Governments, businesses, and individuals all have a role to play in the battle against deforestation. Some ways that individuals can address the issue include:

  1. Use fewer paper products: Become mindful of your paper consumption—from paper towels to napkins to toilet paper and beyond. Consider shopping for recycled paper products or products made from alternative sources like bamboo or hemp.
  2. Eat less meat: The global demand for meat, particularly beef, has accelerated deforestation rates, including in indigenous territories of South America where ranchers have seized tribal lands.
  3. Focus on sustainability: Become a smart shopper and take care not to purchase products from regions where deforestation is prevalent. Avoid purchasing palm oil, which could very likely come from a deforested part of Malaysia or Thailand.

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