Deforestation is when a wooded area like part of a rainforest is cleared to make way for a different type of land use – usually for human activities such as livestock grazing, crop farming and commercial logging. Such environmental destruction has been going on throughout history; in the 19th century, for example, much of the eastern area of North America was cleared for colonisation and agriculture. When we think of deforestation today, however, the world’s tropical rainforests immediately spring to mind. As well as remarkable biodiversity rainforests are important because they preserve the delicate balance of life on Earth.
Everybody knows that trees capture energy from the Sun to make their own food – a process called photosynthesis – and a by-product of this is the release of oxygen into the atmosphere for us to breathe. The Amazon actually produces 20 per cent of Earth’s oxygen. Such forests are also referred to as carbon sinks as they soak up around 18 per cent of the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. The Amazon rainforest absorbs nearly 2 billion tons of carbon each year, making this forest essential to continued and successful life on our planet. Logging and burning releases carbon sequestered by the trees and other plants back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In fact, the action of deforestation now contributes about 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than all planes, trains and automobiles put together! By absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rainforests also in turn perform a significant role as climate moderators, and in the long term – if mass deforestation continues – it will have a profound effect on not just day-to-day weather but also seasonal climate worldwide.
As land is cleared, roads are often built illegally which enable tractors and bulldozers to venture deeper into the heart of the rainforest, facilitating the spread of deforestation. As machines move in to fell thousands of trees every day, the forests’ inhabitants – like jaguars, golden lion tamarins and toucans to name just three – are fast running out of places to hide. The clearing of trees doesn’t only mean the loss of precious habitats – it’s often a prelude to the imminent extinction of entire species.