Over 18 million acres of forest are cut down every single year according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This is the same as clearing 20 football fields of forest every single minute. Humans have already cleared half of the planet’s tropical forest area, and National Geographic has estimated the rest will disappear within the next century if the current rate of deforestation continues.
Who Causes Deforestation?
Many activities can cause deforestation, but we’ll focus on main ones: farming and animal agriculture, logging, and palm oil harvesting.
Farming and Animal Agriculture
One study has stated that agriculture is responsible for over 80% of deforestation worldwide. In Latin America, it accounts for two-thirds of the deforestation. Once the land loses its nutrients, farmers abandon it and move to newly cleared lands. Governments heavily subsidize the farming and animal agriculture industries which only encourage more destruction of these lands.
Agriculture has even more impacts than just deforestation, extinction of plants and animals, and reduction of indigenous peoples’ lands. Over 70% of freshwater used each year is used for agricultural purposes. Cows release methane (mostly through burping) which is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than CO2. In addition, pesticides and chemical fertilizers run off from farmland and contaminate surrounding soils and waterways making it much less likely for future fertile production.
Logging (especially illegal logging) is a huge problem for our forests. One study published in the science journal Nature estimates humans cut down 15 billion trees every single year. In the United States, timber production dropped during the 2008 recession, but has been steadily increasing ever since. Over 41,000 board feet of lumber were produced in the U.S. in 2016, which is enough to circle the equator almost twice. And that’s just one country’s production!
The tropical regions in Brazil and Indonesia alone accounted for 75% of illegal logging from 2000 to 2012. These countries’ total timber exports are 25% and 50% illegal timber respectively, and countries like Peru have an export makeup of over 70% illegal timber. People who log illegally are not following rules and restrictions that are in place to protect the forests.
Many times illegal operations are carried out by crime organizations and are even known to authorities. Organizations forge documents to make it look like the logs were taken legally, and oftentimes forced labor is involved.
Logging not only destroys animal habitat, but it also destroys indigenous lands granted to various local tribes. These tribes do sometimes agree to trades by which they receive timber profits or some other benefit by allowing loggers onto their lands, but the destroyed wildlife never receives a benefit.
Palm Oil Harvesting
Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil used in the world. Millions of tons are used annually around the world, and the number is rising, which has led to the development of huge plantations in humid, tropical climates in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Palm oil plantations cover an area the size of New Zealand, and more lands are cleared every day.
Acres of a single species of palm tree replace diverse tropical forests in the name of producing palm oil. The operations force out indigenous people along with native animals on the brink of extinction like orangutans and rhinos. These plantations also sometimes rely on child labor and have poor working conditions.
The Importance Of Forests
Forests are the lungs of our planet. The Amazon alone provides 20% of the world’s oxygen. Microbes on the roots of plants also convert toxins in the air into nutrients for the plant and plant leaves trap particulate matter, taking it out of the air we breathe.
Not only do forests help us breathe, but they are home to 80% of life on Earth. Rainforests are home to half of all animal species, and at least two-thirds of plant species. Hundreds of endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species call rainforests home.
Forests help prevent erosion due to their root systems anchoring soil in place. They also sequester carbon and store nearly 300 billion tons of it.
Consequences Of Deforestation
By removing thousands and thousands of acres of forest, we put the entire planet in jeopardy.
- We will have worse air quality since less plants are creating oxygen and purifying the air.
- Deforestation will increase the rate of global warming because there are less plants to capture and convert CO2, meaning an increase in greenhouse gases that heat up the planet.
- Since forests are home to so many animals and plants (even the hundreds assumed yet to be discovered!), deforestation will lead to massive waves of species extinction.
- Deforestation results in a lower water table. A drier climate is not suitable for native species and could dry up rivers and lakes making it impossible to regrow.
We cannot survive without our forests. We must save them.
What Can You Do?
We can split what you can do to fight deforestation into two categories: voting with your wallet and activism.
Voting With Your Wallet
Buy recycled paper products and look for a high percentage of post-consumer content. Look for the FSC certification seal on products which ensures sustainable forestry practices. Go paperless with your billing. Even though this action is free, it shows companies you do not want paper bills and could potentially lead to their discontinuance in the future.
To combat deforestation due to animal agriculture, you can decrease or eliminate the amount of animal products you consume. If you don’t want to go vegetarian or vegan, you can reduce your meat consumption and choose local meat.
Speaking of local, you should choose local foods as much as possible. Try visiting your community farmers market, natural food store, or co-op, or learn to grow your own produce. Buying local even better for the environment because it cuts out on transportation emissions to ship foods overseas or across the country.
Since palm oil farming is a major cause of deforestation, avoid palm oil as best as you can. Many foods contain palm oil such as margarine, ice cream, cookies, and dough. Palm oil is also used in many household products like soaps, detergents, shampoo, and lipstick, and in some biofuels. Always check the ingredients on products you are thinking of purchasing, but beware! Palm oil is sneaky and hides behind a lot of different names including:
- Vegetable Oil
- Vegetable Fat
- Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Fruit Oil
- Stearic Acid
- And lots more!
If you don’t want to fully give up the items you eat or use with palm oil, look for versions with sustainably sourced palm oil. Look for the RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil seal on the packaging, but know this does NOT necessarily guarantee ethical work practices.
Want to do even more? Write companies about their palm oil use and suggest they use an alternative oil or a more local source. Write your grocery store and suggest they add more local products to their aisles. You can also inform them you will no longer be buying those products because of their impacts on the environment. See this post for some sample letters.
Switch to using Ecosia as your search engine. Ecosia plants trees using the ad revenue generated from people using their search engine. They release monthly reports which fully explain their income and what portion they invest into planting trees around the world.
Get involved by signing petitions, being vocal on social media, and supporting organizations fighting against deforestation. Check out these great organizations leading the charge:
- National Resource Defense Council
- World Wildlife Foundation
- Rainforest Action Network and their Snack Food 20 campaign
- Rainforest Rescue
You can also get involved in politics. This can mean voting for candidates that share your views on the environment or running for office yourself.
I’m curious how others avoid the sneaky palm oil. Have you changed your diet and lineup of personal care items? Do you check ingredient names at the store to make sure they aren’t palm oil in disguise? Do you have any tips for going palm oil-free? Let me know in the comments!