Deforestation: Humankind and the Global Ecological Crisis

Earth without forests is a picture that most of humankind presently could not conceive. Forests cover much of the planet’s land area. They are extremely important to humans and the natural world. For humans, they have many aesthetic, recreational, economic, historical, cultural and religious values. Timber and other products of forests are important economically both locally and as exports. They provide employment for those who harvest the wood or products of the living forest. Herbalists, rubber tappers, hunters and collectors of fungi, nuts, bamboo and berries are able to utilize such resources. Other non-wood forest products come in the form of medicinal compounds, dyes and fabrics. There are many people who are dependent on forestlands for their livelihoods. One-third of the world’s people depend on wood for fuel as a significant energy source (Dudley et. al. 1995). “Surveys in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Liberia found that forest wildlife accounted for 70 to 90 percent of the total animal protein consumed” (FAO 1993). Some indigenous peoples are completely dependent on forests. As well as providing a home for some people, the forest environment provides a popular setting for ecotourism, which includes hiking, camping, bird watching and other outdoor adventure or nature study activities.

Trees protect the soil against erosion and reduce the risks of landslides and avalanches. They may increase the rate that rainwater recharges groundwater as well as control the rate that water is released in watersheds (FAO 1993). They help to sustain freshwater supplies and therefore are an important factor in the availability of one of life’s basic needs. Forests affect the climate and are an important source of oxygen, although they play a lesser role than was once thought (Anderson 1990). The biological diversity of life is notably much greater in the rainforests. Tropical rainforests may contain over one-half the world’s total species (Dudley et. al. 1995). But today humankind threatens the forests that provide so much. The tropical forests are most affected, but temperate woodlands are also at great risk. About 1,113,000 hectares of forest in Brazil and 989,000 hectares in Canada were destroyed in 1995 (McCrory et. al. 1997). British Columbia has about forty percent of its original forests remaining, while Europe has less than half (Dudley et. al. 1995). The United States have approximately one to two percent of their original forest cover (Dudley et. al. 1995). “Recent reports by the World Resources Institute have shown that more than 80% of the planet’s natural forests have already been destroyed” (Hatch 1997). Humankind is the cause of deforestation. But just as humans are able to create such widespread destruction, they can have a positive effect on the crisis.

Since so many are dependent on the world’s forests, deforestation will have many social, economic and ecological effects. Deforestation results in many negative consequences. The loss of forestlands is connected to desertification, a widespread phenomenon. Fewer trees translate into an insecure future for forest workers. Heavy rainfall and high sunlight quickly damage the topsoil in clearings of the tropical rainforests. In such circumstances, the forest will take much longer to regenerate and the land will not be suitable for agricultural use for quite some time. Where forests are replanted, their replacement can mean a loss of quality. As well there is the possibility that the basic elements of potential medical treatments, cures and vaccines may lie undiscovered within these environments. There may be a loss of future markets for ecotourism. The value of a forest is often higher when it is left standing than it could be worth when it is harvested (Dudley et. al. 1995). Some indigenous peoples’ way of life and survival are threatened by the loss of forests. Among these groups are the Waorani of the Amazon’s tropical rainforest, the Sami of Lapland’s taiga and the Kyuquot of Vancouver Island’s temperate rainforest (Dudley et. al. 1995). Often, the stakeholders associated with forest areas are not always consulted before clearcutting occurs. This has sometimes led to non-violent and violent confrontation and fueled bitter rivalries between area residents, the forest sector and environmentalists. Consequently anti-environmentalism has intensified and environmental activism can be dangerous.

Deforestation can cause the climate to become more extreme in nature; the occurrence and strength of floods and droughts could increase. Forests store large amounts of carbon that are released when trees are cut or burned. It is projected that deforestation and the burning of biomass will be responsible for fifteen percent of the greenhouse effect between 1990 and 2025 (FAO 1993). The ranges of tree species could shift with respect to altitude and latitude as a result of global warming. Furthermore, the stress of such environmental change may make some species more susceptible to the effects if insects, pollution, disease and fire (FAO 1993). In addition, genetic diversity may decrease and areas of trees may be lost. Rising sea levels brought on by global warming have the potential to threaten the locations of many major cities, much fertile agricultural land, the purity of freshwater supplies and the survival of some nations. The clearing of forestland results in increased erosion and landslides. Soil from areas of reduced forest cover can fill reservoirs created by dams. Thus a dam’s ability and future capacity to generate hydroelectricity and provide irrigation would be significantly reduced. Forests play a crucial role in the management of fisheries. Logging has directly and indirectly damaged spawning grounds, blocked river channels, raised water temperatures and caused water levels in streams to fluctuate dangerously. Therefore, the removal of trees can reduce the viability of fish stocks in their watershed and downstream environments. The effects of deforestation discussed are of considerable magnitudes. Still, with all the present and predicted problems, it was estimated that one acre of Canadian forest was logged every 12.9 seconds in 1995 (McCrory et. al. 1997).

People destroy or degrade forests because, for them, the benefits seem to outweigh the costs. Underlying causes include such issues as poverty, unequal land ownership, women’s status, education and population. Immediate causes are often concerned with a search for land and resources, including both commercial timber and fuelwood. The impact of the timber trade is generally greater than has been claimed in the past. The North plays a key role in many of the factors leading to forest decline (Dudley et. al. 1995).

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