Wilderness. We all have an image in mind of what that word means.
Some might picture the majestic mountains, glaciers, and towering conifers of Alaska, while others might imagine the vast expanse of the Amazon, teeming with all sorts of life.
Humans are of course part of nature, but these wilderness areas are places of refuge that remain remote from human cities, infrastructure, and encroachment.
In the 21st century, such refuges are harder to find than ever.
Expanding agriculture, infrastructure, and cities mean the loss of forests and the degradation of wilderness areas worldwide. Yet forests are incredibly important to the continued well-being of everyone on the planet.
In this piece, I’ll cover 3 main topics:
What deforestation is
Why deforestation is a major problem
How we can prevent and reverse deforestation
What Is Deforestation?
Forest degradation is a related term that indicates when a forest is no longer functioning as a healthy ecosystem: A degraded forest can no longer sustain populations the way it used to. For example, it might not offer enough quality habitat or food to animals. In other words, “When a forest is degraded it still exists, but it can no longer function well. It becomes a shell of its former self.”
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that around 31% of the world’s land is covered by forests. But this forest coverage is under severe threat due to factors including agricultural expansion, infrastructure, and logging, According to WWF, “in 2019, the tropics lost close to 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every single minute.”
Both deforestation and forest degradation are serious problems in the 21st century. How and why did we get here? And are our forests really more in jeopardy now than they have been before?
A very, very brief history of deforestation
Humans have been cutting down trees for millennia. Researchers can look into the deep past to explore ecological collapses and climate change, and extinction events to gain insight into how and why these events happened and how they may be prevented or reversed. In addition, gaining historical perspective can help us understand contemporary deforestation better.
So, in this section, we’ll go on a whirlwind tour through history to find out: Has deforestation occurred on a major scale before? How and why have past ecosystems collapsed?
305 million years ago:
Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse. Scientists believe this extinction event occurred due in part to climate changes (a cooler and drier climate that did not support rainforest growth). As a result of the rainforest collapse, many plant and animal species went extinct.
Neolithic Period (end of the Stone Age, ~10,000-4500 BCE):
Growth of agriculture. During this time, humans led increasingly sedentary lives and fed themselves by cultivating crops (instead of more nomadic lifestyles reliant on hunting and gathering). The rise of agriculture led to early deforestation by humans, as settlements grew larger in size and forests were cut to make space for agricultural land. In some cases, this deforestation led to soil erosion and shortages of wood, which then forced populations to relocate.
Throughout the ancient world, these trends of farming and crop cultivation continued, sometimes with negative environmental effects. Just as one example, this article examines “land use and soil erosion in prehistoric and historical Greece,” finding that there is some evidence for soil erosion events in ancient Greece that were correlated with agriculture and human interference.
C. 1200-1500, Europe:
New agricultural technologies lead to surplus food, which supports population growth and in turn fuels the expansion of cities. These developments are again linked to deforestation. Trees were cut to make space for crops and livestock, as well as for use in cooking and hearing. Moreover, by the end of the Middle Ages, lumber was in high demand for shipbuilding.
Deforestation has a long history, as humans have pretty much always relied on forests for resources: food, building materials, firewood, and more. The development of agriculture was a major turning point in our relationship with the natural world. Rather than foraging and hunting, humans increasingly settled in stable locations and cut down forests to cultivate nearby lands.
These activities have historically led to deforestation, forest degradation, extinction, and loss of biodiversity—but typically on a smaller scale. After all, prehistoric and premodern human populations were much smaller and tended to have more local environmental effects.
Rates of deforestation have dramatically risen since around 1850. This comes as no surprise: It corresponds with rising industrialization.
Countless technologies introduced and used in the 19th century had consequences for the environment. For example, the steamboats that plied the waters of the Mississippi River and elsewhere used wood for fuel. According to historian F. Terry Norris, “Throughout the early and mid-nineteenth century, the increasing demand for steamboat fuel resulted in widespread deforestation of river banks within the central Mississippi River valley.”
This deforestation of course had consequences for the animals that relied on the forest for their habitat, as well as for biodiversity in general. And it also had negative effects on human settlements. As Norris continues, “Deforestation, in turn, caused the banklines of the Mississippi River to become unstable, resulting in significant lateral channel movement. That movement, and associated loss of portions of the floodplain, resulted in the destruction and/or significant damage to all but one of the colonial settlements within the central Mississippi River valley prior to 1763.”
This is just one example, but it points to the domino effect that deforestation often has. As forests are cleared for short-term gain, humans and animals alike suffer the longer-term consequences: in this case, flooding, and the forced abandonment of settlements.
Jumping ahead to today, deforestation is only continuing and accelerating, with many of the same negative effects—now on a larger scale.
Where does deforestation occur? It’s a major issue just about everywhere, though the precise drivers and consequences vary by region.
As discussed above, many places in Europe have undergone severe deforestation dating back to the Middle Ages and intensifying during the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars.
Tropical rainforests are among the most affected by deforestation today. Because tropical rainforests contain such biodiversity, their loss is especially harmful.
You may have read recent news stories covering, for example, the thousands of fires burning in the Amazon Rainforest—the smoke can even be seen from space. Over the past couple of years, rates of deforestation in the Amazon have skyrocketed. People first cut and collect timber, then set fires to clear out vegetation and ready the land for agriculture.
In East African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, deforestation is largely driven by the demand for firewood, charcoal, and timber. Conservationists estimate that in the past 25 years, Uganda has lost over 60% of its forest coverage.
In southeast Asia, numerous forests are cleared for palm oil plantations. Cheap and versatile palm oil is found in numerous products, from food to shampoo, animal feed to lipstick. It’s hard to avoid palm oil these days, but the demand for the product is devasting some of the world’s most biodiverse forests and threatening species such as the Orangutan and the Sumatran rhino.
In short, deforestation and forest degradation occur worldwide. You can read more about deforestation by region here.
Deforestation in the United Kingdom
Today, we hear a lot about deforestation in tropical locations, such as the Amazon rainforest or in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, deforestation is also a major problem in Europe and within the United Kingdom in particular.
Extensive deforestation occurred in Britain during World Wars I and II, as trees were chopped down for the purpose of transportation and lodging. In the aftermath of WWI, only around 5% of the nation’s landmass had forest coverage. The Forestry Commission was created in response to this deforestation.
Today, around 12.9% of the UK’s landmass is forested (about 12 million square miles in total). This is certainly an improvement from the 1920s…but continued effort and vigilance is required.
Recently, tree-planting efforts have fallen short of intended targets, and the UK as a whole—and especially England—remains far less forested than many nations in Europe. Tree coverage in the European Union stands at around 38%, significantly higher than the UK’s 12.9% (or England’s 10%).
In sum, conservationists are working hard to reverse the long-term deforestation of Britain that began in the Central Middle Ages and accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries.
What are the main drivers of deforestation?
First of all, we should distinguish between proximate/direct and underlying/indirect drivers of deforestation.
Proximate drivers = human actions that directly affect forests.
Underlying drivers = the complex and multifaceted web of social, cultural, political, technological, military, and economic factors that indirectly affect deforestation.
Ultimately, any comprehensive strategy to stop deforestation must take both into account. Here, I’ll focus on proximate or direct causes of deforestation and forest degradation.
The biggest proximate drivers of deforestation include:
Agricultural expansion, including both commercial and subsistence agriculture.
Infrastructural expansion, especially poorly planned infrastructure projects.
In addition, the following activities are proximate drivers of forest degradation:
Collection of fuel wood and charcoal production.
Livestock grazing in forests.
Uncontrolled forest fires.
The graphs on p. 11 of this report show the relative impacts of these drivers in different regions.
In a nutshell, agricultural expansion is the main driver of deforestation in Africa, Latin America, and (Sub)tropical Asia alike. Agriculture is especially responsible for deforestation in Latin America, where it accounts for over 90% of deforestation (whereas in Africa and subtropical Asia, it accounts for 70 – 75%).
The relative impacts of commercial vs. subsistence agriculture vary by continent. In Latin America, commercial agriculture occupies over a 60% proportion of deforestation drivers, while subsistence agriculture is about half that number. In Africa and Asia, meanwhile, subsistence agriculture is a larger driver of deforestation than commercial agriculture.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the majority of tropical deforestation is caused by only four crops in particular: beef, palm oil, soy, and wood products. Of these four, beef cattle are especially linked to deforestation and environmental degradation.
As for forest degradation, causes again vary widely by region. In Africa, collection of fuelwood for charcoal production is the largest driver. In Latin American and subtropical Asia, timber logging is instead the largest contributor.
These proximate drivers suggest some of the more indirect, underlying causes of forest degradation and deforestation.
Reliance on firewood or charcoal for fuel, heating, and energy in much of Africa poses a challenge to conservation efforts. Yet merely discouraging or even penalizing use of charcoal won’t solve the problem unless underlying needs are met: People need access to sustainable, affordable alternatives such as electricity or eco-stoves.
Another underlying challenge: the ability of a given national government to enforce new policies and ensure that the population’s needs are met.
The case of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo provides one example of the complex political factors in play. Virunga is an incredibly biodiverse wilderness, home to endangered mountain gorillas. Yet its stability is threatened by the activities of rebel groups, involved in charcoal trafficking (as well as smuggling and poaching), as well as by the high demand for charcoal in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Why Is Deforestation a Problem?
Deforestation and forest degradation are major problems for multiple reasons. Responsible and sustainable forest management is crucial for the continued flourishing of life on Earth.
In this section, I’ll discuss some of the main effects that deforestation has on the environment and on public health.
Carbon emissions and climate change
Trees are important carbon sinks: In absorbing carbon dioxide, forests are crucial in regulating the climate. According to the World Wildlife Fund, tropical forests hold over 200 gigatons of carbon, a huge amount that is far greater than a year’s worth of human activity.
Deforestation, however, contributes to carbon emissions and is therefore a major driver of global climate change. Cutting or burning down trees releases all that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
It’s hard to calculate the exact impact that deforestation has on greenhouse gas emissions—but we do know that it’s significant. Researchers have estimated that deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for around 10-30% of human-caused carbon emissions.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions lead in turn to changes in weather and precipitation patterns and a greater frequency of extreme weather events.
Soil erosion and loss of arable land
For centuries now, deforestation has resulted in demonstrable cases of soil erosion. As noted above, historians have detected evidence of human-caused erosion even in ancient Greece. And this remains an issue today.
Tree roots provide essential anchors for holding soil in place. In some cases, trees are replaced with crops such as cotton, coffee, soybeans, or wheat. Unfortunately, these plants don’t serve the same purpose and in fact can make soil erosion worse. Without trees, it’s all too easy for land to be eroded or swept into rivers.
Some researchers have indicated that since the 1960s, as much as 1/3 of the planet’s arable land has been lost through a combination of soil erosion and various forms of degradation.
What does the loss of all this fertile soil mean, in practical terms? It means that farmers will clear out more forests to find more land to cultivate, only perpetuating the deforestation cycle.
Impacts on the water cycle
Trees play a crucial role in the water cycle. The total amount of water on the planet remains basically stable over time, but it goes through various forms: ice, liquid water, water vapor. Trees pull in groundwater through their roots and then release it up as water vapor into the atmosphere (a process called transpiration). Condensed water vapor then falls to the ground again as rain or snow. And the cycle continues.
Deforestation disrupts this basic cycle. Without tree coverage, ground water is no longer transpired into the air and the overall climate becomes much drier. Deforested areas are also much more prone to surface water runoff: Rain is no longer trapped and circulated by trees but instead is lost as surface run-off, putting the area at higher risk of flooding.
And, these disruptions to the water cycle also make the land more prone to soil erosion, as outlined above.
Endangerment and extinction of wild animals
Deforestation is a death sentence for countless wild animals, due to lost and damaged habitat space, which in some cases leads to extinction. Approximately 80% of land animals inhabit forests and rely on forests to provide their food and shelter. As forests shrink or are cut away entirely, they can no longer survive in the same numbers but instead subsist in smaller forest fragments—if any remain.
Moreover, human encroachment leads to increased contact between humans and wildlife. These interactions often have dire consequences, as the wild animals become more vulnerable to poachers or hunters. Animals may also be killed if they are seen as a threat to a nearby town or livestock.
Even relatively small-scale, local deforestation can pose a major threat to some species. Many rare species only exist in particular geographic regions and can become endangered or extinct if their few habitats are degraded.
Loss of biodiversity
In addition to animals, plants and fungi also face the risks of deforestation. Overall, lost and degraded forests cause often irreparable reductions in biodiversity.
Tropical rainforests rank among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Scientists estimate that around 80% of the world’s known diversity exists in tropical rainforests. Unfortunately, deforestation is heavily affecting these tropical ecosystems.
Negative effects on human health
For generations, we’ve lived (more or less) in balance with the rest of our natural environment. But as we gain new technologies and expand our cities and populations, our effect on the world has exponentially grown. Moreover, human activities have negative effects not only on plant and animal life, but also on our own health and well-being.
COVID-19 is only the latest in a long line of diseases that is possibly linked to human encroachment upon and destruction of the natural world.
Zoonotic diseases become more likely as humans increasingly move into wildlife habitats and come into contact with wild animals. Activities such as mining, infrastructure construction, logging, urban expansion, and road building not only devastate forests, but also bring humans and animals into closer contact, increasing the odds of disease transmission.
Moreover, animals such as bats and rats are more adaptable to the pressures of human encroachment. Incidentally, they’re also some of the species that carry the most zoonotic diseases. So, as biodiversity plummets and bats and rats multiply, the chances of disease and pandemic proliferate.
Disruption to human communities, lifestyles, and livelihoods
We all rely—indirectly or directly—on forests. But some communities feel the effects of deforestation more acutely. Over 1 billion people worldwide depend on forests for water, fuel, food security, shelter, and economic stability. Many people—including around 60 million Indigenous people—live in or near forests; their well-being is directly intertwined with the forest’s health.
Sustainable use of the forest is essential for the continued flourishing of these communities—and ultimately, for every community on earth.
How to Prevent and Reverse Deforestation
There are many initiatives underway to stop deforestation. This section outlines some of those initiatives, which have been taken by international organizations such as the United Nations, national governments, charitable organizations, and local communities around the world. Then, I’ll discuss what we as individuals can do to help.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)
This broad term—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+ for short—covers a whole range of strategies. If you want an overview, you can view the REDD+ webpage maintained by the United Nations or check out this 2012 report by Gabrielle Kissinger, Martin Herold, and Veronique de Sy: “Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policy Makers.”
The REDD+ umbrella encompasses things like:
Regulations (such as import controls)
National policies and incentives (such as taxes or fees)
Establishment of a forest monitoring system
Land rights and Indigenous communities
Many conservationists believe that transferring land rights to Indigenous communities is an effective way of conserving forests.
A recent report backed by the United Nations suggests that lands under Indigenous stewardship have suffered significantly less environmental degradation. According to human ecology professor Pamela McElwee, “On average, [Indigenous communities] are doing a better job of managing natural resources and environmental hazards like species decline and pollution.”
Simply shifting lands from public domain to Indigenous authority is a cost-effective conservation method.
In addition, the report indicates that land fares better when under the authority of local communities in general—that is, people who live on the land in question and rely on it for their livelihoods and well-being.
This is pretty common sense: If land is managed by people who have a stake in its sustainable use, then the land will be used more sustainably.
Payment to conserve forests
Another strategy involves paying people and communities to conserve forests. Studies suggest that cash incentives for conservation can be effective.
Based on his studies in over 50 villages in Tanzania, Uganda, Peru, Indonesia, and Bolivia, researcher Krister Andersson made the following suggestions: “If policymakers really want to be effective in the use of these Payments for Ecosystem Services, I would advise them to structure payments so that they reward cooperative behaviour, pay attention to how much trust there is among the groups they are working with, and so what they can to foster communication.”
In addition to direct payments to local residents, there are other ways of providing financial incentives in favour of conservation. For instance, tourism fees in national parks or protected areas may be directed to sustain the area’s long-term well-being.
You can learn more about financial efforts to support forest conservation on this Yale webpage: “Finance for Forest Conservation & Payment for Ecosystem Services.”
Because agriculture is such a major driver of deforestation, the development of more sustainable farming techniques is crucial.
As we have seen above, unsustainable agriculture often damages the land’s fertility over time, leading to erosion or nutrient depleted soil. Once an area of land is depleted, new forest is cut to make room for more crops. Proponents of sustainable agriculture hope to stop this harmful cycle.
“integrate biological and ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration…predation and parasitism into food production processes”
“minimize the use of those non-renewable inputs that cause harm to the environment or to the health of farmers and consumers”
“make productive use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, thus improving their self-reliance”
“make productive use of people’s collective capacities to work together to solve common agricultural and natural resource problems, such as for pest, watershed, irrigation, forest and credit management.”
In short, sustainable farming seeks to balance shorter-term needs (profit margins for the farmers) with longer-term ones (the continuing health of the ecosystem).
Improved forest management and monitoring
It’s important to have good data on forest coverage: We don’t know where or how to focus our efforts without information on the problem. Forest monitoring facilitates more effective conservation. Some governments and organizations are using aerial photography and satellite imagery to keep better tabs on forests.
In addition, sustainable forest management ensures that our forests survive intact for generations to come. For example, this might involve educating politicians and landowners alike on responsible forest management to ensure that both official policies and on-the-ground practices sustain forest health.
Finally, reforestation reverses much of the harm done by deforestation. Planting new trees in a depleted area helps restore the space, renewing benefits such as absorption of air pollution, biosequestration, and habitat creation.
Numerous countries have committed to reforestation initiatives. For example, the Great Green Wall is a pan-African movement that aims to grow a tree belt across the width of the African continent.
Costa Rica is a well-known success story in reforestation, having doubled its tropical rainforest coverage in the past few decades.
Additional tree replanting programs are underway in countries including India, Ireland, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United States, and more.
What can I do to stop deforestation?
In the above sections, I’ve covered larger-scale initiatives taken by international bodies, national governments, charitable organizations, and local and regional associations to put an end to deforestation. But what can any one of us do? What are the steps an individual can take to join the effort against deforestation?
These are the steps I’m taking in my own life to work against deforestation:
Altering my diet to reduce meat (especially beef) consumption
Reducing my consumption in general to avoid waste
Opting for ethically-sourced products when feasible
Supporting Indigenous land rights
Sharing conservation news with my family, friends, and social networks
Volunteering my time
Donating on a monthly basis
Alter your diet
Studies suggest that beef cattle are a huge driver of global deforestation. Personally, I love hamburgers and steaks…but I’ve reduced my consumption to more moderate levels.
Beef plays an especially outsized role in deforestation in Latin America, accounting for around 71% of deforestation in the region between 1990 and 2005.
If you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint and contribution to deforestation, one of the biggest lifestyle changes you can make is to reduce how much beef you consume.
Reduce your consumption
Reducing our consumption in general is essential for restoring the human relationship with the environment. I’ve been making a conscious effort lately to buy only what I truly need or will use.
In past years, I’ve been appalled to find how many excess products I purchase—and often don’t even use. There’s something really depressing about throwing out bags of expired food or makeup, for example. All of these products consume resources and energy; the least we can do is reduce our consumption only to what we will actually use.
Choose ethically-made products
Whenever possible, I buy items second-hand from charity shops. It’s also a good idea to do research on where the ingredients in your common purchases come from and choose ethical and fair trade companies.
The more that consumers demand transparency and environmental ethics from corporations, the more those corporations will feel compelled to improve their business practices.
Support Indigenous rights
As I mentioned above, transferring land rights to Indigenous communities has been shown to be a cost-effective and successful way of supporting conservation. Consider purchasing fair trade products made by Indigenous workers and artisans, signing petitions, or donating in support of communities that have a personal stake in sustainable stewardship of their land.
It may sound simple, but chatting with your friends and family about deforestation can help! Stopping deforestation is a huge undertaking, and we need all the help we can get. You can also share rainforest or conservation news on social media or write to your local newspapers or favourite online magazines.
Many opportunities to volunteer your time are somewhat suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. But in general, it’s a great idea to get involved locally in conservation initiatives!
For instance, there are multiple organizations in the United Kingdom where you can get involved in practical local conservation by performing tasks such as maintaining walking trails, volunteering at a visitor centre, making Wikipedia pages, managing social media, or doing wildlife surveys.
Check out the following organizations:
There are many organizations doing valuable work to prevent and reverse deforestation. Take a look at some charities on a website like Charity Navigator to select a reputable environmental charity. I recommend organizations such as Rainforest Alliance, Rainforest Trust, Amazon Conservation Association, Coalition for Rainforest Nations, or Cool Earth.
Any donation you can afford is great! If you have the resources, I recommend setting up a monthly or annual donation; I have to donate on a subscription basis or I tend to forget.
The steps outlined above will all move us toward a better world: one with healthy forests, clean air and water, thriving wildlife populations, and flourishing human communities.
Of course, it’s hard to make numerous changes all at once: We might start out with great intentions and a plan to cut back on beef, shop local and second-hand, boycott palm oil, volunteer every week, and donate every month. But I suggest starting slow and choosing just one or two changes to focus on at first. Once a new behaviour becomes habit, then you can move on to adding another step.
There’s no denying that preserving our world’s forests will take sustained time, effort, and sometimes even sacrifice. But our forests are too important to lose: Trees mitigate carbon emissions, regulate the water cycle, shelter countless species, and provide numerous goods and services for us all.