Why is Deforestation an Issue?

Forests are useful to life on earth, including humans, in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important of these is in the way in which they absorb carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis, producing oxygen as a natural waste product. What is a waste product to the trees is a source of life for us and the millions of other species that occupy the planet with us.


As well as acting as the ‘lungs of the planet’ forests also sustain an incredible variety of species and help control and regulate weather systems in many parts of the world, especially South America. Deforestation has also displaced thousands of species (tragically, causing many to become extinct before we’ve even ever discovered then) and causes soil beds to become unstable which can result in increased flooding.

Rainforests also help us produce medicines, with 121 natural remedies found in these habitats. Many of these are extremely difficult or expensive to synthesise in a lab.

The Scale of the Problem

Cutting down trees isn’t a bad thing per se. Humans have been felling trees and using them for building materials, furniture, tools and fuel for thousands of years. The problem comes with the scale and speed with which we are now doing it. Deforestation, on the scale we see today,
is the result of urbanisation, mining, agriculture and industrial logging. Much of this is taking place in South America, but Africa, South East Asia and even Europe are all significant contributors to the problem too.

Here are some facts to give some perspective to the scale of the problem:

  • Deforestation contributes between 12 and 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year
  • At the current rate of deforestation all rainforests will have been eradicated within 100 years
  • The Amazon rainforest produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen
  • 4,500 hectares of forest are cleared every hour
  • 13 million hectares of rainforest per year is cleared in South America, South East Asia and Africa to make way for agricultural land
  • Interpol estimate that illegal logging contributes around 30 percent of all timber in the global market (£13bn per year)
  • Each of us consumes just under a tonne of timber per year

Unsustainable Woods

Of course wood isn’t need be without. In fact, eschewing wood in favour of other man-made materials isn’t really addressing the
problem at all and may even be exacerbating it (many plastics contain palm oil, a highly profitable cash crop that has fuelled much of the deforestation in South East Asia).

Despite the problem, there is still a powerful demand for rare and luxurious woods. Mahogany is a case in point. A very popular timer, due to its deep reddy brown grain, the wood has more or less been wiped out in Peru due to high demand.

Rosewood is another timber that has witnessed a tragically rapid decline.

The problem isn’t just confined to the tropics either. Much European beech, ash and oak has been illegally taken from ancient forests in Romania, Estonia and Latvia; protected areas of natural beauty. Sweden, Finland and Portugal all appear in the top ten countries losing the most trees between 2000 and 2012, with 6.2, 6.4 and 5.6 percent respectively.

The growth of the Chinese market has fuelled a lot of the increased demand for illegal timber but the EU still accounts for 35 percent of the world’s timber consumption and is still a significant importer of illegal wood, despite attempts to crack down on it with EU regulation

What can we do to Help?

There is no single solution to the problem and continued and increased government pressures on countries where the practice of illegal logging are rife will only go so far. The real solutions need to come from the market and in that way there are small but significant things we can all do to help cut the demand for unsustainable woods.

The first thing we can all do to address the problem as consumers is to make sure that the wood and paper we buy is sourced from sustainable forests by looking for the familiar Forest Stewardship Council logo. This ensures the wood isn’t just legal but sourced sustainably as well (the two are not mutually exclusive).

If you run a business then you could sign up to the WWF’s campaign to make businesses shift to 100 percent sustainable wood by 2020.

Of course the best thing you can do is to be proactive and try to educate others. There are is a lot of information out there and many charities, pressure groups and other organisations doing a lot to slow down this worrying practice so get involved if you can.

Image Credit: CC