More than ever, we are relying on our planets rainforests to help ease the manmade burden of climate change, yet we are destroying them at alarming rates. Forests absorb up to one-third of the global CO2 released from burning fossil fuels every year, but we are losing them. Between 2015-20 an area of forest the size of 27 football pitches was lost every minute. Since 1990, the world has lost around a billion acres of forest including 17 percent of the Amazonian rainforest over the past 50 years. Human drive for natural resources and farming are the leading causes of forest land clearance, commodities such as mined minerals, soy, palm are harvested whilst land is used to rear cattle. Not only do these activities destroy the forests and permanently damage the land but they also account for a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, much of this forest clearance is illegal, nearly half of all recent tropical deforestation was the result of illegal clearance for commercial agriculture and timber plantations, and this figure is closer to 90% in some key forests.
Mining is one of the leading causes of deforestation across the planet, in order to mine vast amounts of forest is cleared and burned, destroying everything natural in the process. Around 44% of all operational mines lie in forests. This represents 1,539 mines, with another 1,826 in development or currently inactive. Mining in forest land is particularly prevalent in South American, in particular the Amazon. Brazilian mining is a particular problem with the nation having many pollution-intensive mining operations. President Bolsonaro has been ramping up mining activity with worrying speed, being of the belief that the forest is for Brazil not the world he has allowed mining companies to move into previously inaccessible regions of the forest. Mining in other South American nations has also been on the rise in recent years, in particular gold mining which is prevalent in the Guiana Shield which includes Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Venezuela and small parts of Colombia and northern Brazil. An international study led by the University of Leeds into the effects of gold mining in the Guiana Shield found that forest recovery rates on abandoned mining pits and tailing ponds are among the lowest ever recorded for tropical forests. At some sites there was nearly no tree regeneration even after three to four years after mining had stopped. Not only does the mining destroy the land and prevent regrowth but the land clearance needed for mining destroys animal habitats and threatens indigenous people’s livelihoods.
Palm oil production across Southeast Asia is a major cause of deforestation. Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests produce over 85% of the global supply of palm oil, there are fears that at the current rate of production these rainforests could disappear. Over 26 million rainforest acres have been cleared for palm oil production thus far, reducing our planets capacity to produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Habitat destruction is a major devastating result of the palm oil industry, many endangered species rely on the preservation of rainforests. Orangutans, elephants, and rhino numbers are dwindling at alarming rates in part due to the palm oil industry. The destruction of the forests through burning them releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Fires in peat areas are particularly difficult to put out. The smoke and haze from these blazes have health consequences throughout Southeast Asia. Palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity. Aside from harvesting, the production and refining process is equally as damaging. A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. This effluent causes pollution to freshwater areas which heads downstream negatively effecting biodiversity.
Soybean production is yet another driver of deforestation, particularly in South America where it has been on the rise in recent decades. Since the 1950s, global soybean production has increased 15 times over. The United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy. The majority of the increase in soy production in the last decade has been in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, where production has contributed to deforestation in many important biodiversity hotspots. Demand for soy has increased dramatically, interestingly the majority of soy produced is for livestock feed, only 7% of global soy is used for products like tofu and soy milk, while 77% –is used as feed for animals farmed for human consumption. We now produce around 350 million tonnes of soy per year, up from around 20 million tonnes in the 1960’s.
By far, the biggest cause of deforestation, however, is cattle farming which accounts for 91% of deforestation in Amazon countries. Not only is it the largest cause in terms of scale but it is potentially the most destructive and polluting. Cattle produce vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere and cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4% of current global emissions. Around 36 million rainforest acres have been cleared for animal agriculture with 1-2 acres being cleared every second. Once the land has been used it is damaged and reforestation becomes extremely difficult meaning there is no way of reversing this damage. As previously mentioned, crops like soy are also needed to feed the vast number of livestock grazing on forest land meaning that even more rainforest is destroyed in order to rear the cattle.
The rainforests are the lungs of our planet, we need them if we are going to be able to beat the violent effects of climate change. Extreme action is needed, and it is needed urgently to curb the rates of deforestation. If things do not change for the better soon then it may be catastrophic.