What is Deforestation?

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Critical to our global survival must be an emphasis upon resource depletion and environmental degradation or pollution as crucial areas for student study in the schools of the United States. This emphasis includes renewable and nonrenewable resources, resource dependence, stockpiling critical resources, recycling, and the role of commodity power in international commerce. The critical nature of this problem is related to both population growth, air quality and survival and balance of nature’s creatures in the animal/insect world. While there is general recognition of such present or potential problems, there is not general agreement about what the major issues are, or what possible solutions might be offered and effectuated to solve them.

A general search of the Internet and the resources for information that it affords us can help students to zero in on the condition of the planet. Just in the one area of deforestation the sources and resources are voluminous.

Deforestation involves the permanent destruction of indigenous forests and woodlands. Much of the deforestation that is going on today is in vast areas of Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia.

This means that deforestation includes the destruction of forests, in which the treetops touch each other to form a canopy, as well as woodlands, in which trees are spaced further apart. The term deforestation does not apply to the removal of trees from plantations or industrial forests.

Human beings have always cut down trees. Wood has historically been the most dominant form of heating fuel, as well as one of the most often used building materials for houses and ships. Twenty-five percent of the world’s lumber harvest now goes towards paper production (Bryant).

No one can deny the basic human need for housing. And no one can deny that any advanced culture requires a great deal of paper to transact its daily business. However, one must also recognize the importance of forests in and of themselves.

Forests are important for several reasons. First of all, many would espouse the opinion that they should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. Certainly, the family camping trip is a true hallmark of American culture. Second of all, they provide habitat for many important species. Old growth forest in the northwestern United States is the only suitable habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl, for example. Tropical forests compose only 7% of the earth’s land surface, but are home to more than half of the species on earth! (Bryant). Thirdly, forests perform important ecological functions. As aggregates of plant matter, forests do a great deal of oxygen production and help prevent excessive global warming. Additionally, forests tend to help replenish nutrients in land and thus prevent desertification. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, we need to have forests since we rely on them as a source of timber! If we exhaust our supply of forests, we’ll no longer be able to continue using them as the source of our building materials, heating fuel, and paper.

Nevertheless, deforestation is a very big and important environmental problem which is yet to be effectively addressed. According to Norman Myer, who published a book on the subject in 1979, the main causes of deforestation are excessive logging, slash and burn agriculture, cattle raising and harvesting for fuel.

Don Bragaw is professor emeritus of East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.

Logging is the main threat to old growth forests found in the northwestern United States. Much of this forest land is managed by the United States Forest Service with the intention that they be used in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people and not necessarily the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return.

The Forest Service is obviously heavily influenced by the timber industry, as it actually subsidizes timber companies to the extent of $500 million per year in taxpayers’ money. This makes paper and wood cheaper than they should be, and makes it more difficult for the recycled paper industry to succeed. The forest service apparently does this in order to create jobs within the timber industry. (Bryant)

Logging is also a major problem in other countries. In Brazil, for example, the construction of the Transamazonian Highway in the 1970’s opened up large areas of forest both for logging and for agricultural purposes. It’s estimated that the Brazilian state of Rondonia has lost 20% of its forest through burning.

It is this problem that lumber certification programs are attempting to address. Lumber certification programs would enable consumers of lumber to determine if the lumber they are using was grown in a forest whose managers practice sustainable forestry. If these programs come into effect, though, governments would have to find some way to create alternative jobs for the lumber workers which would be displaced.

A less obvious aspect of logging is habitat fragmentation. According to Elizabeth Brown, president of Laguna Green Belt, certain species may live in a forest but depend on a nearby grassland or wetland for a food source – or the other way around. When logging companies move into a forest area, they build roads through the center of the forest and then perform their logging operations around those roads. If these roads come into common use, they can pose barriers for wildlife. As such, while only a small area may have actually been harvested, a large portion of the forest’s wildlife may lose access to certain essential nearby habitats.

Excessive logging is a serious problem and must be discouraged. While logging is, of course, necessary (since we do still depend on wood), it should be done in a carefully controlled, certified manner in order to ensure that it doesn’t destroy essential wildlife habitats – and, more obviously, in order to ensure that we don’t eventually completely run out of wood to log!

Many developing nations practice slash and burn agriculture. This form of agriculture attempts to take advantage of nutrients stored in forest land to grow crops. Unfortunately, the forest areas in these countries are most often tropical forests, and in tropical forests most of the nutrients are stored in the planet matter itself – and not in the ground.

Slash and burn agriculture therefore generally constitutes an extremely inefficient use of land. Nevertheless, it tends to be sustainable as long as the population density is less than 12 people per square mile. With such low population density, the land is used for 2-3 years and then left fallow for about 10 years, to replenish its nutrients.

The problem is that today, population densities are more than 3 times that much. As such, the land gets used a great deal more extensively. Since there is still a need to let the land lie fallow, new land must be acquired on which to plant crops on a regular basis. This is done by slashing and burning down new forest areas.

While this form of agriculture obviously contributes a great deal to deforestation, it also increases pollution. In November of 1997, thousands of fires (most of which were blamed either on slash-and-burn agriculture or on logging companies) were burning in Southeast Asia, bringing Malaysian air pollution indexes to over 6 times the level considered unhealthy! (Bryant) It is hoped that this problem could be alleviated if more advanced nations provide nations still developing with access to modern agricultural techniques.

Deforestation for cattle raising is especially prominent in South America. In Costa Rica many US companies have purchased tracks of forest in order to raise cattle which is then exported as beef, largely back to the United States.

When used for this purpose, forests are cleared away entirely, then used as grazing land for 6 to 10 years, and then left for scrub growth. Since the cost of raising cattle in South America is cheaper than it is here, though, it allows US companies to sell hamburgers at a cheaper price. Economic and population pressures often encourage farmers into clearing more land than is desirable ecologically. This has often resulted in large scale corporate farming where there is primarily a bottom line rather than a concern for environmental concerns.

The only realistic solutions to this problem would be to convince governments to subsidize cattle raisers who raise their cattle in an environmentally safe manner, or to put enough political pressure on cattle raisers to do so on their own and take a financial loss. It is probably unrealistic to expect the public as a whole to decrease its consumption of beef or to agree to pay substantially higher prices for environmentally-safe beef.

Many less advanced nations still depend on wood as a primary source of fuel and energy. The web from which this article was taken (see source) lists many of the energy sources in use today around the world and rates them by the amount of pollution they produce, how commonly they’re used, and the amount of time it takes for them to replenish themselves. It lists wood fuel as the most polluting, and as one of those which takes the most time to replenish itself.

To the less careful, it may appear that this problem could be easily solved by exporting fossil fuel technology to the nations which currently depend on wood fuel. This is not a good solution, however, as the world’s fossil fuel resources are already so heavily taxed as to warrant large scale wars between nations over them, i.e., the Gulf War in the early 1990’s.

Research is currently being done into more effective use of renewable energy resources, so that hopefully they could be used to alleviate the use of wood as fuel.

<http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/issueguides/TimberCert/deforest/index.html>Peter J. Bryant. Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book. Adapted for use in this publication from 5/7/99