WHY ARE RAIN FORESTS BEING DESTROYED?
Every year an area of rain forest the size of New Jersey is cut down and destroyed. The plants and animals that used to live in these forests either die or must find a new forest to call their home. Why are rain forests being destroyed?
Humans are the main cause of rain forest destruction. We are cutting down rain forests for many reasons, including:
- wood for both timber and making fires;
- agriculture for both small and large farms;
- land for poor farmers who don’t have anywhere else to live;
- grazing land for cattle;
- pulp for making paper;
- road construction; and
- extraction of minerals and energy.
Rain forests are also threatened by climate change, which is contributing to droughts in parts of the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Drought causes die-offs of trees and dries out leaf litter, increasing the risk of forest fires, which are often set by land developers, ranchers, plantation owners, and loggers.
In 2005 and 2010 the Amazon experienced the worst droughts ever recorded. Rivers dried up, isolating communities, and millions of acres burned. The smoke caused widespread health problems, interfered with transportation, and blocked the formation of rain clouds, while the burning contributed huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, worsening the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, Indonesia has experienced several severe droughts in recent decades. The worst occurred in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 when millions of acres of forest burned.
LOGGING IN THE RAIN FOREST
One of the leading causes of rain forest destruction is logging. Many types of wood used for furniture, flooring, and construction are harvested from tropical forests in Africa, Asia, and South America. By buying certain wood products, people in places like the United States and Europe are directly contributing to the destruction of rain forests.
While logging can be carried out in a manner that minimizes damage to the environment, most logging in the rain forest is very destructive. Large trees are cut down and dragged through the forest, while access roads open up remote forest areas to agriculture by poor farmers. In Africa logging workers often rely on “bushmeat” for protein. They hunt wildlife like gorillas, deer, and chimpanzees for food.
Research has found that the number of species found in logged rain forest is much lower than the number found in untouched or “primary” rain forest. Many rain forest animals cannot survive in the changed environment.
Local people often rely on harvesting wood from rain forests for firewood and building materials. In the past such practices were not particularly damaging to the ecosystem because there were relatively few people. Today, however, in areas with large human populations the sheer number of people collecting wood from a rain forest can be extremely damaging. In the 1990s, for example, the forests around the refugee camps in Central Africa (Rwanda and Congo) were virtually stripped of all trees in some areas.
AGRICULTURE IN THE RAIN FOREST
Every year thousands of square miles of rain forest are destroyed for agricultural use. The two groups chiefly responsible for converting rain forest into farmland are poor farmers and corporations.
Poor farmers in many parts of the world rely on clearing rain forest to feed their families. Without access to better agricultural lands, these people use slash-and-burn to clear patches of forest for short-term use. Typically, they farm the cleared land for a couple of years before the soil is exhausted of nutrients, and they must move on to clear a new patch of forest.
Agricultural companies are clearing more rain forest than ever before, especially in the Amazon where large tracts of rain forest are being converted into soybean farms. Some experts believe that South America will someday have an area of farmland that rivals that of the American Midwest. But much of this farmland will come at the expense of the Amazon rain forest.
In Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, large areas of rain forest are being cleared for oil palm plantations to produce palm oil, which is used widely in processed food, cosmetics, and soap. Today palm oil is found in some 50 percent of packaged snack foods, a proportion that is growing because palm oil is the cheapest type of vegetable oil. Unfortunately, the forests that are being destroyed for palm oil production are home to many endangered species, including orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, and Javan and Sumatran rhinos.
WHY ARE BIOFUELS BAD FOR RAIN FORESTS?
Recently there has been a lot of interest in using plants to replace fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel that contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, warming the planet.
These plant-based fuels, called biofuels, are typically produced from agricultural crops. There are two main types of biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is typically made from corn and sugar cane, while biodiesel is made from the fruit of palm trees, soybeans, and canola (also called rapeseed).
Although biofuels produced from agricultural crops can generate less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fossil fuels, scientists are finding that most are causing environmental problems. Biofuels may also be hurting the poor. The reason is largely economic.
Now that traditional food crops are being used for the production of energy, there is increased demand for such crops, resulting in higher prices. While higher prices may be good for some farmers who receive more money for the crops they grow, consumers have to pay more for food. In poor countries, where people have very little money, this means that many go hungry. In 2007 and 2008 several countries saw protests and riots by people who could not afford to pay higher prices for food.
Higher prices for crops are also causing other problems. To take advantage of higher prices, farmers all over the world are converting land for crop production. With most of the available land in North America and Europe already used for farming, agriculture is expanding in tropical places, especially in Brazil and Indonesia, where there are still large areas suitable for new agricultural land. The trouble is that some of this land is currently covered by tropical rain forests. When farmers cut down rain forests for farms and ranches, the dead trees release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (just as when fossil fuels are burned). Furthermore, the destruction of rain forests displaces indigenous people and kills wildlife. Biofuels are thus having a significant impact on the environment.
Some biofuels are less bad than others. When crops are grown on abandoned agriculture lands and in areas that are not covered by natural ecosystems, they can have a low impact on the environment, provided that fertilizers and pesticides are not over-used. In the future, new types of biofuels may produce even fewer greenhouse gas emissions and actually help the environment. For example, the use of native grasses for biofuel production in the United States could offer higher biofuel yields and generate less pollution than corn-based ethanol. At the same time, these grasses can enhance soil fertility and do not drain the water table.
CATTLE IN THE RAIN FOREST
Clearing for cattle pasture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon, with Brazil now producing more beef than ever before. Besides raising cattle for food, many landowners use cattle to expand their land holdings. By simply placing cattle on an area of forest land, landowners can gain ownership rights to that land.
Most of the beef produced by Brazil is consumed by Brazilians, but some is exported to overseas markets.
PULP AND PAPER PRODUCTION FROM THE RAIN FOREST
The production of pulp for the paper industry has been one of the biggest causes of deforestation in parts of Indonesia over the past 20 years. Vast areas of rain forest in Sumatra have been logged and converted into fast-growing plantations consisting of only a single species. These plantations are used to produce fiber for wood-pulp and paper, which is turned into cardboard packaging, fast-food wrappers, printer paper, and junk mail. Just think about how much paper we use on a daily basis: paper, in one form or another, comes with almost every product we buy. In some cases that paper is produced directly through the destruction of rain forests.
Consequently, pulp and paper production is now one of the biggest threats to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.
ROAD CONSTRUCTION IN THE RAIN FOREST
Road and highway construction in the rain forest opens up large areas to deforestation. In Brazil, the Trans-Amazonian highway resulted in the destruction of huge areas of forest by colonists, loggers, and land speculators. In Africa, logging roads give access to poachers who hunt endangered wildlife as “bushmeat” or meat sold to city dwellers. Some of the poached wildlife—especially rhinos, pangolin, and tigers—goes to Asia where it is used for traditional Chinese medicine.
Therefore it is very important that when new roads are built in rain forest areas, they are carefully planned to minimize the environmental impacts. One way to reduce deforestation from road construction is to create protected areas on either side of the road.
EXTRACTION OF MINERALS AND ENERGY FROM THE RAIN FOREST
Gold, copper, diamonds, and other precious metals and gemstones are important resources that are found in rain forests around the world. Extracting these natural resources is frequently a destructive activity that damages the rain forest ecosystem and causes problems for people living nearby and downstream from mining operations, especially from toxic runoff into river systems. There have been cases of mining companies—sometimes working with local police or authorities—forcibly displacing forest people from their lands in order to exploit mineral riches. Examples are gold mining in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, rare earth mining in the Congo, and gold and copper mining in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Some of the world’s most promising oil and gas deposits lie deep in tropical rain forests. Unfortunately oil and gas development often takes a heavy toll on the environment and local people. Oil and gas development in rain forest areas causes displacement of local people, air and water pollution, deforestation, and construction of roads that open previously inaccessible areas to deforestation. High energy prices in recent years have spurred increased exploration of rain forests for oil and gas. The western Amazon—including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil—has seen a lot of activity. More than 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon—including indigenous territories and conservation areas—is now under concession for oil and gas.
Dams are also a big threat to rain forests, particularly in the Amazon, the Mekong (Laos and Burma or Myanmar), and Malaysia. Dams disrupt river systems, flood rain forest, displace forest people, and support activities that cause more deforestation. In Sarawak, which is part of Malaysian Borneo, more than a dozen dams are being planned. These will force thousands of forest-dependent people to move and will inundate important rain forest areas. The power generated by the dams will be used for large-scale mining activities, causing further destruction. Similarly, in Brazil, Belo Monte dam will block the Xingu river, a tributary of the Amazon, flooding more than 100,000 acres of rain forest and displacing more than 15,000 people. Electricity from the project will power mining activities and industrial agriculture that will destroy yet more rain forest. Indigenous people, scientists, and environmentalists strongly oppose the project.
THE ROLE OF POVERTY IN DEFORESTATION
Poverty plays a major role in deforestation. The world’s rain forests are found in the poorest areas on the planet. The people who live in and around rain forests rely on these ecosystems for their survival. They collect fruit and wood, hunt wildlife to put meat on the table, and are paid by companies that extract resources from forest lands.
Most rural poor never have the options that we in Western countries take for granted. These people almost never have a choice to go to college or become a doctor, factory worker, or secretary. They must live off the land that surrounds them and make use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty costs the entire world through the loss of tropical rain forests and wildlife. Without providing for these people, rain forests cannot be saved.
However, people in the wealthier world, such as the U.S. and Europe, also play a large role in the destruction of rain forests, even if the forests are very far away.
POPULATION AND CONSUMPTION
The underlying cause of most environmental problems is human population and over-consumption: both the population in the temperate region that relies on resources derived from tropical rain forests, and the expanding population of developing tropical nations, who exploit the rain forest for survival.
While it may seem hard to believe, people in rich countries like the United States have a disproportionate impact on the environment through our consumption patterns. We use far more resources than poor farmers in tropical countries. For example, the food we buy in grocery stores may be produced through deforestation for soy in the Amazon or palm oil in Indonesia. The materials and energy to build and power our mobile phones and laptops may come from the destruction of rain forests in the Congo and Colombia. The paper we use for printing, packaging, hygiene products and the books we read may be produced from the logging of rain forests in Indonesia. Only by reducing our environmental footprint at home can we ever hope to save rain forests and other wilderness areas.
Overpopulation is a major concern. As more people are added to the planet, there are fewer resources to share. Crowded conditions and scarcity of resources often lead to conflict or other problems. Animals lose habitat to cities and expanding farm lands.