Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. An area of tropical forests equivalent to the state of South Carolina is being destroyed each year. That’s about 36 football fields’ worth of trees are lost every minute due to deforestation. Every day, an area nearly 14 times the size of Manhattan is burned around the world. Despite their immense value, since the 1960s, nearly half of the world’s rainforests have been lost.
The main culprit in this story is agriculture, accounting for 80% of all deforestation worldwide. More than 90% of all Amazon rainforest cleared since 1970 is used for cattle ranching and farms, particularly plantations that grow soy for the purpose of feeding livestock. An area equivalent to France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands combined is dedicated to growing soy worldwide, and 75% of that soy goes to feed animals.
In the Amazon, commercial agriculture has both a direct and indirect impact on deforestation. In addition to the forests felled for crop fields, commercial agriculture creates a necessity for new highways, drives up land prices, which, in turn, promotes land speculation, and encourages ranchers and small farmers to move deeper into rainforest areas.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, forests are cut down to make way for producing palm oil, the most common vegetable oil in the world, which can be found in everything from shampoo to saltines. Over the past few decades, palm oil use has exploded for various reasons, including the versatility and creamy texture of the oil, the productivity of the trees, the health concerns over trans fats, and the rising demand for biodiesel. Palm oil is now the world’s most popular vegetable oil, accounting for one-third of global consumption.
Today, palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. In Indonesia, one of the world’s most important wildlife havens, around 24 million hectares of rainforest were razed between 1990 and 2015 – an area almost the size of the UK . The country’s endangered orangutan population, which depends on the rainforest, has dwindled by as much as 50% in recent years. And it’s only getting worse. The Indonesian government has announced plans to convert approximately 18 million more hectares of rainforests, an area the size of Missouri, into palm oil plantations by 2020.
Why Should We Care?
At current rates of deforestation, the Earth’s rainforests could be completely gone in 100 years. Forests are vital for food, water and livelihoods — and they affect you, whether you know it or not.
Deforestation’s impact on climate change is a double whammy. Not only does it reduce our best weapon against climate change, it adds fuel to the fire. You see, when plants grow, they absorb the greenhouse gases that fuel climate change. Fewer forests mean larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and increase speed and severity of climate change. When trees are cut down or burned, they release the stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it the 2nd leading cause of global warming.
The production of palm oil requires draining and burning of carbon-rich swamps known as peatlands. Peatlands hold more carbon than the forests above them; when they are drained and burned, both carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere—and unless the water table is restored, peatlands continue to decay and release global warming emissions for decades. As if that wasn't bad enough, the burning of peatlands releases a dangerous haze into the air, resulting in severe health impacts and significant economic losses.
This is why it’s not surprising to learn that deforestation accounts for ¼ of global greenhouse gas emissions and adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than all of the vehicles in the world. In Brazil and Indonesia, deforestation and forest degradation are by far the main sources of national greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, trees also convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20% of the world’s breathable oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest alone. As the biggest rainforest on the planet, the Amazon is also a critical reservoir and sponge for CO2.
Deforestation threatens the livelihood 1.6 BILLION people
Approximately 350 million people worldwide live inside or close to forests and rely on them for food. Nearly 60 million people, particularly those living in indigenous communities, are entirely dependent on forests.
Forests are also home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. It is estimated that 4 to 6 thousand rainforest species go extinct each year. Only about 15% of native animal species can survive the transition from primary forest to plantation.
Among the species vulnerable to palm oil expansion are orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants. Palm oil growers have also been accused of using forced labor, seizing land from local populations, and other human rights abuses.
– Forest products account for more than US$ 200 billion of the world’s annual GDP
– In addition to mitigating climate change, stopping deforestation and forest degradation and supporting sustainable forest management would conserve water resources, prevent flooding, reduce run-off, control soil erosion, reduce river siltation, protect fisheries, preserve biodiversity, cultures and traditions
– Forests next to rivers and streams act as “living filters” by absorbing sediments and storing and transforming excess nutrients and pollutants
– Several prescription drugs sold worldwide have been derived directly from plants found in rainforests, from the cancer drug vincristine to theophylline, which is used to treat asthma
The global demand for food is expected to double by 2050, meaning that we need to focus on utilizing existing farmland more efficiently rather than cutting down our remaining forests
What We Can Do
Most of the world’s deforestation is caused by surging demand for commodities like beef, soy, sugar, and palm oil. The good news is that as consumers, we can directly reduce this demand by being more diligent with our choices.
Look for sustainably produced sources when you can
Consider consuming less animal products
Avoid products that include palm oil
The World Wildlife Fund has a palm oil scorecard for consumer brands
Reduce your use of products made from trees including paper and cardboard
Choose recycled when you do buy products made from the forest
Recycle the forest products that you use
Purchase a piece from the Reforestation Collection
Forests are worth more standing than cut down. By identifying the full values of forests, we can create powerful incentives to ensure that they remain standing and can continue to support us