Biodiversity refers to the number of different species of plants and animals in a given area. The greater the diversity – that is, the more different species – the more rich and functional the ecosystem. It may not seem like a very significant matter, but biodiversity is actually vital. For example, an ecosystem that is diverse in plant and animal life is far stronger and able to survive in their environment due to many generations of genetic selection. The species are adapted uniquely and perfectly to their environment, but their genetic diversity enables them to adapt to changes within the environment. (Deforestation, however, is habitat destruction on a massive scale that is too sudden and catastrophic for the survival of many species, no matter how diverse.)
On the other hand, an ecosystem without a lot of biodiversity is more subject to extinction, because there is so little variety in the genetic make-up of the species. Therefore, the species have less ability to adapt and evolve and are more likely to succumb to environmental change. Deforestation destroys many species, leaving only a few survivors. Thus, the deforested ecosystem has less biodiversity and is subsequently weaker. Variety is not only the spice of life; life depends on it!
When a forest is cleared, the landscape changes. The soil, once held together by an intricate network of intertwined roots, is laid bare and subject to harsh sunlight and wind. The soil’s surface then erodes, carried away by winds and water. The bare earth, with no living tree roots to absorb water and with the topsoil gone, sheds rather than retains water. This results in more erosion, flooding, and decreased ground water. Ground water, measured by the height of the water table, provides people with drinking water in many areas of the world.
The terrain, vulnerable to the elements, continues to change and erode. Agriculture may be impossible as the exposed land loses much of its mineral content.
*Climate – Local and Global
When trees take up water from the ground through their roots, much of that water evaporates out from the leaves in a process called transpiration. An enormous quantity of water transpires from trees; during a single growing season, one corn plant transpires more than 50 gallons of water, which is 90% of the water the corn plant took up through the roots. Imagine, then, the water that entire forests put into the atmosphere by transpiration! It is this water in combination with evaporation from the earth’s surface that accounts for the majority of moisture in the atmosphere. Fewer trees means less moisture in the air, which means less rain. And, as noted above, when it does rain the land is subject to flooding.
Have you ever heard that houseplants are good for indoor air? That’s because plants, in their respiratory exchange, take in un-breathable gases and chemicals and produce healthy oxygen. In other words, the trees “inhale” pollution and “exhale” clean air. Rainforests (and all forests and trees) do this job on a grand scale, supplying oxygen and breathable air for the whole planet.
Another way by which the effects of deforestation contributes to pollution is much more direct: sometimes deforestation is done by a method called “slash and burn.” This refers to the cutting down of trees and the subsequent burning of the area. These huge fires put a lot of heat and smoke into the air, while destroying the trees that could clean it. The forest floor becomes scorched, changing its Ph (the amount of acid in the soil), its structural integrity, and its mineral content.
As mentioned before in this report, entire communities have been built in and around forests. When deforestation occurs, the effects of deforestation in peoples’ lifestyle can be wiped out and their communities devastated. The effect on human lives is very real, both with regard to habitat destruction and failed businesses. For example, prospective businesses sometimes find that deforested land can not sustain their agricultural projects. Once the land is cleared of trees, there is more sunlight hitting the ground and less moisture in the air, creating an arid, hot environment where it was once cool and damp. The soil, having formed under a forest canopy, is not structured to withstand the drying effects of direct sunlight. The soil “dies,” leaving a wasteland that will not sustain crops. The once-hopeful businessman is now bankrupt, and will have to abandon the project.
As previously discussed, one of the effects of deforestation decreases the amount of rain and, when it does rain, flooding can occur. Deforestation causes ground water levels to decrease. Naturally, indigenous peoples would have difficulty surviving in these conditions.
Our businessman in the scenario above is also an example of the negative economic effects of deforestation. While many businesses are lured into deforestation by the possibility of big profits, the irony is that, once the forest is gone, so is the product that was sold. Or, if the businessman clears forest land and cultivates a plantation of crops (or even native fruit or nut trees), the economic potential of the other forest products is gone.
Indigenous peoples depend on the forest for their commerce as well. They do not harvest in vast quantities, nor do they destroy massive acreage in their quest for forest products. But they do responsibly harvest forest products that, of course, would disappear if the area is cleared.
While it is speculative, there is great concern that one effect of deforestation is destroying plant species that could provide cures and treatments for human illnesses. After all, we’ve already looked at several valuable, medicinal plants that grow in forests; each of those species had to be discovered. What other ones are growing in the forest? If a species of plant becomes extinct, there would be no way to research it as a potential medicine. Also, any animals, insects, or other plants that depended on the existence of that extinct species will also die out.
Emotional and Spiritual
The forest is a healing place for the spirit and mind as well as the body. For indigenous peoples, the loss of forest land can mean the loss of a sacred site. Some native peoples engage in nature worship, and even though there may not be actual shrines or altars, the woodland itself is a sacred place.
Also, people from around the world travel to pristine, preserved ecosystems such as the Galapagos Islands. These natural refuges are just that – refuges. People find peace and healing in experiencing woodland and forest that is largely untouched by human hands.
There are numbers of people who disagree with the effects of deforestation on ethical grounds. Some consider it to be an example of bad stewardship and exploitation, an unethical practice regardless of the motivation. Interestingly, some counter this argument with the viewpoint that humans are part of nature, and any changes humans affect are simply forces of nature from which the landscape will recover. Even if human intervention results in drastic terrain change, this view holds that nature will take care of itself and the altered landscape will eventually grow something, perhaps an even more valuable ecosystem. These opposing views come down to differing views of humanity’s place on the earth.
Are There Any Positive Effects of Deforestation?
The short answer is yes – which is fitting, because the positive effects are generally short-sighted and short-lived. However, a human lifetime does not seem short-term to someone who is living it, and deforestation can provide life-long employment for an individual or a group. Here are some other potential positives from deforestation.
The harvest and sale of forest products can provide a means of livelihood for the seller and useful items for the buyer. Some of the highest quality wood comes from ancient trees such as redwoods, and artists, wood workers, carpenters, builders, contractors, etc. can offer their customers the best in terms of durability and beauty.
Dairy and beef cattle are raised in the leveled forest areas. People who would otherwise be unable to eat beef or cheese or drink milk can do so if large numbers of these animals are raised. Entire businesses have been built around the availability of animal products from large agribusiness.
Crops that do well on the leveled land provide large quantities of food for people around the globe. The human population has grown, and so has our need for food. Hence the large amounts of forest land being leveled.
Finding a Balance
Is there some way to balance the needs of the ecosystem, indigenous peoples, business, and the worldwide need for food? There are some viable propositions out there that deserve some consideration.
Opening up areas of natural forest to tourists, if done correctly, can generate revenue without destroying anything. In fact, the untouched nature of the area is the attraction. Local people can sell their products to tourists (the harvest and creation of which do not harm the forest), thus boosting the local economy. Eco-tourism is a growing field, with eco-friendly lodges and locally grown food to cater to the green travelers. Care must be taken, however, to prevent large developments, hotels, and other commercial interests from destroying the very area to which they wish to attract tourists.
There are ways and methods by which the harvesting of forest products can be done that do not involve large-scale destruction. For example, combining modern technology with indigenous farming methods can result in productive farmland that does not require massive deforestation. The same methods could be applied toward the harvest of fruits, nuts and medicinal plants.
For example, conventional farming typically uses large amounts of herbicides and pesticides. When the farmer quits or otherwise moves on, the “dead” land will take many years to recover. Some agrichemicals persist in the soil (and in human tissue) for decades. Farmers who use sustainable, organic growing methods, however, will leave behind a richer, stronger landscape that has a better chance of recovery. The same would be true for animal farming. The key is to work with the land rather than against it.
Biodiversity, mentioned above, is another key to the success of agriculture. Genetically strong, adaptable plants are more resistant to insect damage and disease, and thus require much less maintenance in the form of fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides. Under this scenario, the environment is protected, biodiversity is preserved, and the farmer produces fruitful, nutritious, and healthy crops.
Buying products from indigenous people, whose harvesting practices are non-destructive, is another means by which the forest’s resources – particularly rainforests – can be exploited responsibly. This supports the local rainforest community and way of life, and it provides business opportunities and forest products for outsiders. Working with the local people taps into a resource that is already there.
We do need the rainforests and the forests of temperate climates. We need their products, but we also need for them to remain intact. Hopefully, as awareness of the issue grows, people will see that humanity’s needs and the needs of the forest can both be met and we can eleiminate some of the effects of deforestation for the environment.
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.