Deforestation is an issue that has consequences for humans and wildlife.
In this guide, we look at what deforestation is, what causes it, where it occurs the most, rates of deforestation, the effects and problems, and potential solutions.
We also look into reforestation and afforestation.
Summary – Deforestation
Deforestation can be described as mainly the clearing of forest land, or land with trees on it – for non forest use (farming, ranches, logging etc.)
The main direct cause of deforestation is the clearing of land for the purposes of agriculture and farming (subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation and commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%). In some parts of the world – temperate rainforests are heavily logged for their timber
Other less direct causes might include the perceived or real economic and social value of rainforests, lax forest management, deficient environmental laws, population growth (and the need to support a growing population with food and other resources), corrupt or incompetent governments, power and income inequalities between countries and communities, + other factors
There can also be natural causes of deforestation, such as forest fires
Some of the main side effects of deforestation are habitat damage, biodiversity loss of animals and plant life, aridity, land degradation and top soil erosion (topsoil takes up to a millenia to naturally replenish), loss of biosequestration of carbon from the atmosphere, and richer countries benefiting whilst people (mainly local populations that depend on the rainforest for their livelihood) from poorer countries and local communities lose out
Interestingly, some sources indicate we have more total tree cover on Earth now than 35 years ago, but tropical rainforests specifically are being depleted – which is an issue, because of how rich the biodiversity is in rainforests. Also, there is a difference between total tree area, and tree density (these two measurements should be distinct from each other)
Tropical tree cover loss has been increasing continuously since 2001
So, tropical rainforest deforestation is a significant issue, and should be a distinction separate to temperate rainforest deforestation. The thing about tropical rainforest deforestation to note is that, some side effects such as species extinction are almost or completely irreversible, and, it takes a very long time to restore rainforests – that’s even if they can be restored at all.
Some of the countries with the most forest area right now might include Russia, Canada, Brazil, United States, China, and Australia
Some of the countries with the highest deforestation rates right now might include Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, The US, Bolivia, Sudan, and Nigeria
Globally, reforestation rates still appear to be lagging (as of right now) behind deforestation rates
Something to note is that there can be challenges and issues with mass tree planting and afforestation projects (as evidenced in China as one example) – so, these challenges and potential problems need to be considered with any future tree planting projects and strategies
Solutions to deforestation might focus on providing an economic incentive to preserve remaining forests as they are, establishing new forest areas (along with tree planting, reforestation and greening of land), as well as considering the impact of population growth and increased consumer needs on the need for new farming land and increased agricultural production. Finding other alternatives to timber (such as bamboo) is another option worth considering
What Is Deforestation?
- Deforestation … is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use
- Examples of deforestation include conversion of forestland to farms, ranches, or urban use.
Why Deforestation Occurs
Deforestation occurs for multiple reasons:
- … trees are cut down to be [be used for products such as] for building or to be sold as fuel (sometimes in the form of charcoal or timber)
- … while cleared land is used [for different land uses such as] pasture for livestock and plantation, [but also mining, and infrastructure like dams]
Disregard of ascribed value, lax forest management, and deficient environmental laws are some of the factors that allow deforestation to occur on a large scale.
There’s also natural reasons for deforestation such as hurricanes, bushfires, floods, and so on.
Causes Of Deforestation
There’s many reasons for deforestation, but one of the main ones is the clearing of land for farming/agriculture.
- Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation; commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%; logging is responsible for 14%, and fuel wood removals make up 5%.
- Other causes of contemporary deforestation may include corruption of government institutions, the inequitable distribution of wealth and power, population growth and overpopulation, and urbanization.
- Globalization is often viewed as another root cause of deforestation, though there are cases in which the impacts of globalization (new flows of labor, capital, commodities, and ideas) have promoted localized forest recovery
- Deforestation has also been used in war to deprive the enemy of vital resources and cover for its forces.
Other reasons for deforestation might include conversion to palm and pulp plantations, construction of roads, urban sprawl, and clearing for mining.
Causes can be human and natural.
Deforestation Effects & Problems
Some of the effects and problems caused by deforestation (with and without reforestation) might include:
Habitat damage – which can lead to extinction, and displacement of wild animal species
Biodiversity loss – of both animals and plant species (More than half of all plant and land animal species in the world live in tropical forests – tropical rainforests are the richest among the terrestrial ecosystems, supporting 15 million species of plants and animals)
Lower amounts of biosequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
Increase in GHG emissions – In the last two decades, various studies estimate that land use change, including deforestation and forest degradation, accounts for 12-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions (wikipedia.org). In addition, when trees are removed, the soil they sit upon is disturbed and releases CO2. Soils are capable of holding three times as much carbon as the atmosphere (theconversation.com)
Lower amounts of oxygen being released into the atmosphere
Local communities in low income or isolated areas can be impacted by the clearing of forests that they depend on for their livelihood
Other social impacts – tropical rainforests are the source of one-fourth of the medicines humans use – so, when they are cleared, we may lose access to some of these medicines
The Wikipedia resource in the resources list has more discussion on effects.
How Much Of Earth’s Land Is Forest?
- About 30 percent of Earth’s land surface is covered by forests.
Countries With The Most Total Forest Area
You can read more about countries with the most forests at:
- List of countries by forest area (wikipedia.org)
- The world’s most forested countries (worldatlas.com)
A summarized top 6 list includes:
- United States
Countries With the Highest Deforestation Rates (Total Woodland Area Lost)
You can read more about deforestation rates at:
- Worst countries for deforestation by woodland area loss (worldatlas.com)
- Deforestation by region (wikipedia.org)
- General Deforestation Guide (wikipedia.org)
A top 10 list includes:
- Papua New Guinea
- The US
- As of 2005, net deforestation rates have ceased to increase in countries with a per capita GDP of at least US$4,600
Is Deforestation Increasing Or Decreasing Based On Annual Stats & Numbers?
There’s two things to know about deforestation up until this point in time:
- We have more total tree cover (tropical areas + subtropical, temperate, boreal, and polar regions) on Earth than 35 years ago
- … Earth may presently have more trees than 35 years ago … but, some of its most productive and biodiverse biomes—especially tropical forests and savannas—are significantly more damaged and degraded, reducing their resilience and capacity to afford ecosystem services.
- … tropical tree cover loss has been increasing continuously since 2001 (this is important to note because tropical rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth)
You can read more about deforestation stats year by year at:
Although there some uncertainties around the rates of deforestation and the stats provided, there is an agreement that destruction of rainforests remains a significant environmental problem.
Some effects are irreversible, such as wildlife species loss.
It takes time to bring life back to forests once trees are replanted.
There is a difference between total tree area, and tree density in forests – so these indicators should be measured separately with reforestation.
- Between 2000 and 2012, 2.3 million square kilometres (890,000 sq mi) of forests around the world were cut down.
- As a result of deforestation, only 6.2 million square kilometres (2.4 million square miles) remain of the original 16 million square kilometres (6 million square miles) of forest that formerly covered the Earth.
- An area the size of a football pitch is cleared from the Amazon rainforest every minute, with 136 million acres (55 million hectares) of rainforest cleared for animal agriculture overall.
Potential Deforestation Solutions, Management & Control
To control and reduce deforestation, there are several strategies that might be considered:
- … use direct monetary incentives (or other types of incentives) to encourage developing countries to limit and/or roll back deforestation. This is done through several different types of programs …
- Transferring land rights from the public domain to indigenous communities
- New more sustainable methods of farming and agriculture such as food forests in permaculture
- Monitoring deforestation via visual interpretation of aerial photos or satellite imagery, and hot spot analysis. Deforestation rate and total area deforested are two key stats used for example
- Designing forest management policies to consider the short term and long term effects of deforestation
- Having global certification systems … which contributes to tackling deforestation by creating market demand for timber from sustainably managed forests
- Having world tree planting days like China has to replenish tree numbers [and maintaining these trees]
- Using bamboo and other alternatives instead of wood
- Reforestation and afforestation large scale projects
- Increasing the number of planted forests (search engines like Ecosia are helping with these efforts)
- [Establishing new forests in areas that are protected and we know won’t be cleared or disturbed/destroyed]
- The most concentrated deforestation occurs in tropical rainforests.
- [So, it makes sense to focus on tropical rainforests in particular if we want to decrease deforestation]
Reforestation & Afforestation Rates & Information
It can be hard to find accurate reforestation rates.
Recently (over the last few years), there’s been some significant tree planting projects in various countries undertaken that have been individually reported.
Some stats on reforestation are:
- By one measure the global reforestation rate between 1990 and 2005 was 2.5 million hectares a year, compared to 7 million to 8 million hectares a year destroyed by deforestation in that period.
- In the 1990s, in another estimate, 14 millions hectares were lost a year to deforestation but 5.2 million hectares was gained through replanting for a net loss of 9.4 million hectares.
You can read more about reforestation and afforestation rates and numbers in these resources:
- Top reforestation countries (statista.com)
- India plants 50 million trees (nationalgeographic.com)
- The largest ever tropical reforestation (fastcompany.com)
- Reforestation guide (wikipedia.org)
- Afforestation guide (wikipedia.org)
Potential Issues With Tree Planting & Afforestation
Tree planting and afforestation sounds good in theory, but in practice, there are some challenges that need to be considered.
Potential problems and challenges to consider with tree planting are:
- Whether monocultures are being planted, or mixed forests (be aware of ecological dead zones)
- Whether native or non native species are being planted (non native species can become invasive)
- Whether you are partnering with locals who are committed to the long term existence of trees and greenery (someone needs to ensure the trees survive)
- Whether there is enough water in the areas to sustainably support tree growth and tree life – trees must compete with the water needs of humans and other plant and animal life. [An example of this issue popping up is in China where Black locust plantations use up a significant portion of the available rainfall]
- [So, water scarcity can become an issue]