There are those who claim that deforestation is entirely negative and must be stopped; others claim that there are benefits to the responsible exploitation of forest resources. There are valid arguments for both views. Before taking a look at those views, however, let’s look at what, exactly, is meant by “deforestation,” where it occurs, and why it is happening.
What is Deforestation?
The basic definition of deforestation simply refers to the act of clearing a forest by removing the trees. It sounds very simple, but its effects on the ecosystem are profound; in fact, it creates an entirely new habitat and subsequent ecosystem. Even when forests re-grow, as they are doing in the eastern United States, the forest itself is very different from the virgin, ancient woodland (or “primary forest”) that was originally cut. The re-grown forests are called “secondary forests” and differ significantly from primary forests.
Re-planting trees after using the land for mining or other projects is called “reforestation.” Of course, reforestation is not feasible if the cleared land has been paved or used as a building site.
In the past, deforestation took place largely in the United States, Europe, northern Africa and areas of the Middle East. Since approximately the late 1970s, however, the focus shifted to tropical areas, with some deforestation occurring (and set to occur) in Alaska and the Northwest United States.
Why Is It Happening?
There can be no doubt that forests provide humans with important products and raw materials. Deforestation is the harvest of these materials or, in some cases, the obliteration of them. Some examples of forest products include the following.
Beef cattle are farmed on cleared forest land, and crops are grown there. Sometimes, this occurs as a result of other deforestation efforts – the poor people who had lived in the forest are forced to make a living without the trees, and have to engage in their own destructive efforts to clear farmland.
This ubiquitous resource has an enormous number of uses. It is burnt as fuel, cut into logs and planks, and used to construct dwellings and other buildings. Wood is crafted into furniture, toys, and art objects, and is the base for paper. It is an in-demand, natural, non-toxic product that has more uses than can be listed here.
The forests provide the base for allopathic medicine as well as natural or herbal medicines. For example, the inner bark of the White Willow provided the base for first aspirin, and the bark in its whole form is used as a pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory herbal medicine. Other medicinal plants provided by forests include:
*Goldenseal grows in moist woods in the eastern United States. It is a popular antiseptic herb prized by herbalists for its many anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits.
*American Ginseng is a lesser-known but well-loved plant in the herbal community. It is considered a tonic herb and grows in America’s eastern forests.
*Vincristine and vinblastine, which are cancer treatment drugs, are derived from a wild periwinkle that grows in Madagascar forests. Periwinkle species in U.S. forests are being explored as possible anti-cancer medicines as well.
*Tea tree is native to Australia and its essential oil is a popular topical antiseptic and anti-fungal.
Natural rubber is becoming more and more in demand as its use in mattresses and other applications is preferred over chemical-laden, synthetic rubber.
*Resin from various trees is used to make linoleum, countertops, building materials, and many other products.
*Spices and flavorings such as cinnamon have their origins in the forests. Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tropical tree.
Entire communities around the world and in America’s past depended on the fruitfulness of forests. Today, many indigenous peoples in various parts of the world depend on the forests for food, such as wild honey, plants, fruits, nuts, and various animal species. In America, we enjoy maple syrup, nuts, and fruits gleaned from forest trees. Our grocery stores have coconuts, bananas, and mangoes from tropical trees. And don’t forget that chocolate and coffee, American favorites, come from the cocoa bean and the coffee bean trees, respectively.
Ironically, as more and more people are embracing a simpler, more natural lifestyle, the demand for these natural materials is increasing; and as the demand increases, so does deforestation. The problem, of course, is that these resources will disappear if deforestation continues. In other words, if the forests disappear, their products will, too.
Another irony is that areas of forest are being cleared to make way for some of the very trees mentioned above (banana, coconut, mango, etc.). Seeing the potential profit, farmer and plantation owners clear diverse forests and plant one or two species of nut or fruit trees. This has an enormous impact on the forest’s biodiversity. Biodiversity is discussed in more detail below.
There are other reasons why deforestation is happening. In addition to harvesting the above products, the energy, construction, and agriculture industries have a vested interest in deforestation. Hydroelectric and oil extraction projects require the leveling of forests, and the construction of roads involves not only the clearing of trees but often entails changing the landscape and lay of the land significantly.
Effects – Immediate and Potential – of Deforestation
Some of the effects of deforestation are speculative and/or not immediate, making them easy to ignore. Others are quite immediate, such as the loss of a food or known medicine source. And still other effects, such as terrain change, are both immediate and will reverberate for many years.
When people express concern about the effects of deforestation, they often cite environmental ones as being of greatest concern. Here are some of the environmental issues raised by the effects of deforestation.
Ecosystems are complex, interdependent collections of plant and animal life that are enormously varied and largely self-contained. Ecosystems contain populations of living things that coexist with each-other and the non-living environment around them. Ecosystems can be very small or very large; they can consist of bacterial and fungal colonies, or include herds of large animals and many of plant species. A rainforest could house thousands of ecosystems, or could be viewed as one enormous ecosystem. Because all of the species in an ecosystem are interdependent, if one is destroyed or decreased, the other species suffer. In an ecosystem, the waste products of one or more species provide the sustenance for other species, which naturally conserves resources and accounts for the self-contained characteristic of the ecosystem.
In deforestation, the location, nature, and function of the ecosystem(s) is not considered. When massive amounts of forest and, by extension, ecosystems are destroyed, multiple species suffer. One can not help but consider the effects on humans as well as plants and animals. This is of particular concern for indigenous people groups who are, after many generations of living in the forest, part of the ecosystem itself.
We hope that What Are the Effects of Deforestation for the Environment helps you better understand the problems associated with the effects of deforestation for the environment. Stay tuned, more effects of deforestation, continue to Part 2 here